Zeke Jones shook up the wrestling world this week when he left his post as head freestyle coach for USA Wrestling to take over the head coaching job at Arizona State. The move made sense for Jones, but for USA Wrestling it left an uncertain future.
Jones deserves a lot of praise for the job he did with the USA Wrestling men's freestyle program. A 1991 World champion and silver medalist at the Barcelona Olympics, Jones used his passion and insight into international freestyle to help revamp and retool a struggling USA program. His 2012 Olympic team was one of the country's most successful, earning two gold medals and a bronze. Jones oversaw the development of Jordan Burroughs and was brilliant in giving Mark Manning the space to coach his wrestler the way he saw appropriate. He leaves Colorado Springs with America as the No. 3 freestyle squad in the world.
ASU coach Zeke Jones and wife Renee have four children (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)I ran into Jones a few months ago at the Yariguin tournament in Krasnoyarsk and he was open about the challenges of running the national team. As you might expect, bi-weekly international travel is taxing physically and emotionally. The work takes you away from your family and the home life that we often take for granted. With four children, Jones wanted to spend more time at home, but he also wanted to win.
College coaching won't mean a ton of free time for Jones. But after pushing hard for several years, Jones was fortunate to be presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to coach at his alma mater. Even the most die-hard USA Wrestling fans would find it tough to blame Jones for making the move.
But those same fans might also see the danger of making a switch mid-Olympic cycle.
Jones was a master organizer and did well to get his wrestlers into a system where they knew what to expect and what was expected of them. With a coaching change the attitude and direction of the team are sure to change. Some wrestlers will enjoy and progress, while others will resist and leave. The balance between the former and the latter will depend on the transition team and how well the rules are carried over. Since Jones did such a great job, it's likely that much of his system will remain.
So who's next?
That's tough to predict since the job COULD appeal to any coach in the country.
I would like to see Cael Sanderson take a shot at coaching the international team. He's proven that he can win several consecutive NCAA titles as a wrestler and coach, and can even lead an individual Olympic wrestler to gold. Could he also lead a team to the freestyle title?
John Smith, Tom Brands, Mark Manning, Sammie Henson, Lou Rosselli, and Sean Bormet are all great names from the college ranks. Then there are those already on staff like Bruce Burnett (who is heading the transition), Brandon Slay, and Bill Zadick.
Whoever USA Wrestling chooses they'll have an uphill climb in 2014. The world is getting more competitive with teams like India, Mongolia, Georgia and Azerbaijan reloading for the upcoming World Championships in Tashkent. Then there is an Iranian team that is arguably the best freestyle team to take the mat since the USSR teams of the 1970's. The Russians are deep enough to field four top-ten teams.
The new freestyle coach will have to play a head-spinning game of catch-up on scouting likely opponents and figuring out which of our wrestlers are best suited for competition. He'll have to play politics, travel 200k miles a year and work his butt off just to keep the team at the level it's enjoyed during Jones' tenure. I'm cautiously optimistic that everything will be ironed out by early summer, but if it's not, that's just our luck.
To your questions ...
Q: I would love to see a postseason all-star/charity event that brings in one or two top-ranked wrestlers at each weight class from Division I, Division II, Division III, and NAIA to compete against each other. I think it would be exciting to see them go at it.
-- Jared W.
Foley: Agreed, though I'm sure that after five months of knocking heads that some of these guys just want to relax and enjoy college life. As many fans remember, the NCAA tournament once invited the best from Division II and Division III. Probably made for an interesting event, but the NCAA hates fun and segregated the tournaments.
Q: Rank all the Big Ten programs (1-14) in terms of most desirable head coaching position.
-- Mike T.
Foley: There was only one way to make the list with any slant towards equality, and that was to create the scenario in which every position was open and you were asked to bid on becoming the coach. To do this you also have to assume their current statue within the league, the possibility of adding funding and support, and all other options I'm sure a coach weighs when choosing a job.
In essence, this is as much about how I think everyone else would rate the jobs, as it is my own read.
1. Penn State
5. Ohio State
10. Michigan State
Q: How does the University of Texas not have a wrestling team? The Big 12 could really use another team and that athletic department has money to burn, plus I've read where high school wrestling is getting better in Texas.
-- Tim J.
Foley: High school wrestling in Texas is improving. The teams are performing better at the national level and the Division I talent produced seems to indicate there is more on the way.
The biggest battle for wrestling in a state like Texas (and the entire Deep South) is to overcome the popularity of football and the pervasiveness of the NFL-type protect-the-shield culture. Football will always be legal in the state of Texas. Long after Connecticut moves over to flag football leagues, Texas will still allow their 9-year-old sons to ram head-first into each other. This affects wrestling because the more the sport is attacked, the more a place like Texas is likely to double-down on their love for their sport and push away anything that seems like a threat.
Also, with the recent developments of student-athletes getting closer to earning a paycheck from their work, schools like Texas are going to be much more careful about how and where they spend their monies.
I think that when we talk about adding Division I college programs we have to look first at the schools with proud traditions whose teams were lost to Title IX in the 90's, or to budget cuts in the Aughties. For me it's easier to imagine the reinstatement of a program because the alumni base -- which is significant in raising funds and awareness -- is already in place and motivated to achieve. Places like Clemson, Syracuse, Fresno State, Notre Dame and even Yale are the lead candidates for navigating the difficult task of reviving a lost program.
Q: I read on InterMat (interview with Drew Pariano) that Jason Tsirtsis and Aaron Pico are going to wrestle at Beat the Streets on May 7. How do you see that match playing out?
-- Mike C.
Foley: Whoa. Love it.
This is (I think) going to be freestyle so I give the edge to Pico. If he does win that also means that fans will be yapping for months about how the California Kid would have been the world's greatest ever collegiate wrestler. Except I'm choosing him because he's really, really good and been training exclusively in freestyle for more than a year.
Pico's win over Russia's Emeev was impressive, especially after the latter's runner-up performance at Yariguin in January. His progression will be vital to showing the next generation of American high schoolers that they don't have to wrestle in college to win the Olympics.
Should be a fantastic match.
Q: In freestyle, with all the recent changes to the rules and scoring again and again ... and finally again, and with the U.S. Open just around the corner, is there a link you could share that shows the current freestyle wrestling rules as they apply today?
-- Randy B.
Foley: The freestyle rules are more-or-less unchanged since the end of last year. Here is the quick and dirty.
As most people came to see with the World Cup in Los Angeles, the new rules have created plenty of action. No more ball draws and clinches and very few matches decided by criteria.
To set the record straight on the perceived awfulness of criteria, there is criteria in college wrestling. It's just that international wrestling doesn't add a point to the winning side at the end of the match, like what happens at the end of a double OT rideout. I know we all hate the idea of no overtime, but what is gained far outweighs whatever you think is lost. If wrestling wants to get tournaments on television it needs to control the times of the matches.
Though a lack of overtime might feel unfair, there is no way to implement the addition of a period without de-motivating the wrestlers from action. When the score is tied late the action is incredible, but when there is overtime, wrestlers often cruise -- choosing instead to have a quick rest and sudden victory scenario.
Q: Do you reckon David Taylor of Penn State is the best four-time finalist/two-time champion in NCAA history. He's a Cyborg. Who were some other four-time finalists/two-time champions or three-time finalists/two-time champions?
-- Big Iron
Foley: Reckon so. The domination of opponents and only tripping up against the two opponents for a total of three losses makes Taylor and Ben Askren the top two choices. For what it's worth, I think of Taylor as a Gumby not a Cyborg. He's loose and long, where as a Cyborg is someone who can cause internal damage with a single look. Like ...
Roberto "Cyborg" Abreau. This man is a Cyborg.
Roberto "Cyborg" Abreau
Q: I just got finished watching Boris Novachov's match against Toghrul Asgarov and I was wondering if to solve this new type of top ride/stall and to increase our success on the Olympic level (I acknowledge that we are steadily improving) do you see the NCAA ever instituting the standup rule like in freestyle if the top man is not working for the turn? I know it might sound like an extreme change but maybe one to consider!
-- Jim D.
Foley: Big win by Boris. When you watch the match you can FEEL Asgarov getting more and more tired. Boris' stuff was working and his four-point double leg was one of the best techniques of the weekend.
Asgarov was wrestling in his first tournament since winning the 2012 Olympics, where the rules were still a little funny. He was up to a new weight and rusty, but when all was done is was Boris's training that proved the difference.
The NCAA does need to consider the standup rule. Here is the history lesson on why America has mat wrestling. Ready? Set. Go!
The current form of American traditional wrestling came from Irish collar-and-elbow style that showed up first in the northeast but eventually trickled across the country. Early matches would happen during March meetings when farmers and associated businessman would meet in rural New England locations to talk logistics and pricing, but would be entertained by the meeting of each town's best wrestlers. There were no points. Pin to win and on the ground wrestlers could use a variety of catch wrestling holds to incapacitate opponents.
Eventually the talent gap shrank and the sport split off into two avenues: Professional and amateur wrestling, with a third much smaller catch wrestling which combined elements of both, but allowed for submissions.
Amateur wrestling still wanted to see the fall, but over the years began to shed some of the more painful ways to turn over an opponent. Just like guillotines are a recent exclusion due to the pain inflicted, there are several dozen maneuvers used in the barns and backyards of the early 20th century which are now illegal.
Without those holds and with points mattering more wrestlers began to feel satisfied with points victories. Pins have always been sexy, desirable and incentivizes, but as time has ticked past the 6-2 match is more common than the 62-second fall.
That seems to have reached a pinnacle in 2014 with riding time playing the slim margin in an increasing number of matches. By gaming the system using maneuvers that allowed top wrestlers to move perpendicular without really trying for a fall, there were 100s of hours of college wrestling that looked like a man vs. man rodeo. Riding time dulled the action, but was ever-important in deciding the victor of razor thin matches.
(Side note: riding time is also technically a criterion since no points are being scored.)
The NCAA needs to address the riding time issue and the dearth of scoring in general. Though I dislike the idea, I'm willing to trust that they will find a solution to create scoring. Wrestling is a difficult sport to manage because the very essence of the sport asks for gamesmanship. Rule alterations are necessary to keep up the action on the mat.
The only question left will be "how" they decide to incentivize action. I'm with you in thinking that a few more standups might not be a bad idea.
Q: Do you think Nick Sulzer will become Virginia's first national champion next season? The top three placewinners at 165 pounds are graduating, clearing the way nicely for Sulzer. However, I have heard that Dieringer is moving up to 165 pounds. Sulzer vs. Dieringer in the NCAA finals perhaps?
Also, supposedly J'den Cox is moving up to heavyweight next year. How do you think he will fare against guys like Adam Coon, Nick Gwiazdowski, Bobby Telford, and Mike McMullen?
-- Dave T.
Nick Sulzer (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)Foley: Sulzer has the talent to make the NCAA finals and with an offseason of improvements comparable to gains he made last summer, he should be in the hunt. He didn't finish the season well, and wrestled tentatively at NCAAs. As an alum it's my hope that he takes a killer's attitude into next year's tournament and doesn't stop until he wins the national title.
I hadn't heard much about his move up to heavyweight. Will he be big enough? I think that Gwiazdowski would have world's more trouble with Cox than he would with a heavyweight like Telford. What I like overall is that the division is getting more athletic. NCAA wrestling is better when our heavyweights are moving around and scoring points.
COMMENT(S) OF THE WEEK
By Brian W.
Regarding stalling at the college level, if it's going to be called more often (which I absolutely agree, as a high school and college official myself, needs to be done), one major thing needs to be done.
A great deal of power needs to be taken away from coaches in terms of who officiates their matches.
At all levels, coaches have way too much pull with assigners with regard to blackballing officials from their duals, or keeping them off their mats in tournaments. Should a coach have an assigner/commissioner as a recourse to vent frustrations and call attention to potential errors or issue? Of course, but to be able to say that a referee will not work your matches? It's cherry-picking your own guys on some level, and it also means that the referees who work the matches are very cognizant of not pissing off the wrong guy.
Has to stop, or else it's not going to get better.
By Clint W.
You had a few defensive pin topics/arguments in your mailbag as of late ... I have a rule that I feel would solve that inequity.
If you have control (i.e. are in the top position), a pin is one-second. All other positions, it is two seconds. This would eliminate the injustice when a superior wrestler gets touch falled on a roll-through or when scrambling, etc.
If you take somebody down to their back, you are awarded a two-point takedown before backs are counted, so this would not change that as you would have control, so this would just apply to scrambles and pins from the bottom position, which you should need to demonstrate an extra level of control for.