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Grapple on the Gridiron creates media sensation

Saturday's Grapple on the Gridiron outdoor wrestling event between No. 2 Oklahoma State and No. 3 University of Iowa proved to be much greater than a record-breaking dual meet. The mat meeting featuring the two legacy programs that have won the most NCAA Division I team titles -- a combined 57 in the 85-year history of the championships, and together have taken eight championships since 2000 -- was a media sensation that generated considerable buzz within the wrestling community and beyond which should have substantial, positive repercussions for college wrestling overall.

Outdoor wrestling isn't totally unprecedented. A century ago, professional wrestler Frank Gotch of Humboldt, Iowa, successfully defended his title vs. former champ George Hackenschmidt in a match in front of 35,000 fans at the home of the Chicago White Sox on Labor Day 1911. In more recent years, a number of colleges in warm-weather locations such as Arizona or California have hosted outdoor dual meets. When the University of Iowa officially announced Grapple on the Gridiron back in August -- a week after the launch of a clever teaser campaign featuring an image with the numbers 11.14.15 superimposed on a football field -- much of the focus was on issues beyond anyone's control, such as weather. What if it's cold? What if it rains? Snows?

The weather more than cooperated at Grapple on the Gridiron, with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid to upper 50s (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
The wrestling gods smiled down on Iowa's Kinnick Stadium for the first-ever dual between two Division I mat powers to be held inside a football stadium. The weather more than cooperated, with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid to upper 50s. The action more than lived up to expectations, with each program winning five matches. The final score: Iowa 18, Oklahoma State 16. And, yes, the existing college dual meet attendance record was shattered, smashed, whatever word you want to use, with 42,287 fans in the stands, far surpassing the previous record of 15,996 held by Penn State when they hosted University of Pittsburgh at Bryce Jordan Arena in Dec. 2013.

The success of the event went beyond attendance records or a final score. Grapple on the Gridiron generated plenty of positive press prior to and after the event.

For starters, just about every media outlet in the state of Iowa -- as well as major newspapers and TV stations in Oklahoma -- served up stories in anticipation of Grapple on the Gridiron. The story even drew national coverage, with advance stories at the NCAA, ESPN and Washington Post websites, among others. In his preview of the Iowa-Oklahoma State outdoor dual, Shane Sparks of the Big Ten Network (which broadcast the event live) wrote, "Wrestling needs to somehow do a better job of making more than just a handful of days a year really special and this day is big. This event will make an impact moving forward."

Well before the last match was wrestled, positive feedback was pouring in on social media. Seemingly countless photos and upbeat assessments appeared on Facebook, Twitter and other online outlets. "Few things live up to the hype. Sometimes it's impossible to do so. Grapple on the Gridiron was all it promised & then some. Nothing like it," wrote K.J. Pilcher, wrestling writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, on Twitter. In responding to a fan's question on Twitter asking if more schools would seek innovative ways to promote the sport, Ben Askren, two-time NCAA champ for University of Missouri who is now a major force in mixed martial arts, posted, "I sure hope so, what Iowa did today is great for the sport."

Once the event was over, wrestling and non-wrestling media alike served up favorable accounts of the groundbreaking, record-breaking dual meet ... generating even more priceless publicity, not just for the University of Iowa and Oklahoma State, but for amateur wrestling in general.

At least that's what the head coaches of the two legendary mat programs told the Daily O'Colly, the student newspaper at Oklahoma State, after the event.

"The hype for the fans is what's important to me, and that's what it's about," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "I know it's great for wrestling. There's people in Russia, Turkey and Iran that are going to see this as well, or maybe even saw it. They will know about it."

Oklahoma State coaches John Smith, Zack Esposito and Eric Guerrero coaching at Grapple on the Gridiron on Saturday (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
"I don't see anything but a plus from it as we go forward from here," Oklahoma State coach John Smith said, adding, "I think I'm going to really focus on creating big events at the beginning (of the season). It was much greater being a part of it than what I thought it was going to be."

As O'Colly sportswriter Luke Garza wrote, "College football has more than enough attention surrounding it weekly. College basketball gets as much publicity as any sport during March Madness. On this record-breaking day, college wrestling found its breakout moment."

Years in the making

An event of the size and audacity of Grapple on the Gridiron didn't come together in a matter of weeks; it was literally years in the making. In fact, the one and only Dan Gable said he had considered such an event when he was head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes.

"It was in the late '80s, early '90s and what I tried to do was set up a match at halftime of a football game,'' Gable told the Davenport (Iowa) Grid Club last month.

When Iowa set an NCAA dual-meet record 15,955 fans at an Iowa-Iowa State dual meet back in Dec. 2008, Hawkeye head wrestling coach Tom Brands told his staff, "If this gets broken again, we're going to Kinnick," Chad Leistikow of the Des Moines Register reported Friday in his chronicle of how the event came together.

When Big Ten rival Penn State grabbed the attendance crown two years ago, the Hawkeyes were already at work to wrest that honor back. One member of Brands' staff who took on the challenge was Luke Eustice, Iowa wrestling's director of operations, who started initial planning for an outdoor wrestling event at Kinnick Stadium two-and-a-half years ago.

Tim Johnson and Jim Gibbons were on the call for the Big Ten Network's broadcast (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
Eustice understood that all the logistical issues had to be worked out in advance before the idea was ever pitched to higher-ups within the Iowa athletic department. Just as important: to maximize attendance at the wrestling event, Eustice and his boss Brands realized it would have to tie in with the Hawkeye football schedule.

The idea of an outdoor dual meet got buy-in from two key figures at University of Iowa: head football coach Kirk Ferentz ... and athletic director Gary Barta.

"It's just a win-win situation," Ferentz said. "And for them to do it in Kinnick Stadium, make history there, why not? I think that's just a fantastic thing for the university."

Barta weighed in by saying, "The only thing we had to do was try to figure out was what could stop us from doing it. We had to make sure the campus community was on board, making sure we could figure out how to park everybody and just figuring out the logistics."

In addition, Iowa also got buy-in from Oklahoma State. The Hawkeyes realized it would need a worthy opponent to generate positive buzz and get fans to accept the idea of an outdoor dual meet. Oklahoma State immediately came to mind; coach Brands contacted Cowboys coach Smith, who agreed to participate in the unique event without hesitation.

"I called (Oklahoma State Coach) John Smith and he was on board immediately," Brands told Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette back in August. "It wasn't 'What are you talking about, wait a minute, let me get this straight.' It was 'We're in.' He's about doing this for wrestling."

Just about every issue was addressed well in advance, including what to do if the weather turned ugly. (There were contingency plans to move the event indoors to Carver-Hawkeye arena, with the first 15,000 ticket purchasers being granted admission, and the remaining receiving rainchecks for a future Iowa dual.) One potential question mark: how would the mat perform in cold weather? As the Register's Leistikow reported, a sample of the regular mat used at Carver was cold-weather tested; it turned rock-hard. Luckily, another mat supplier was able to deliver a lightweight mat unaffected by temperature for about half-price.

A potential benefit down the road

The success of Grapple on the Gridiron and the publicity it generated could pay additional dividends ... especially for the host school.

In an article posted Friday at the Des Moines Register titled "Outdoor dual could become big recruiting boon for Hawkeyes", wrestling writer Andy Hamilton wrote, "More than a dozen of the nation's top high school wrestlers are expected to be in attendance when Iowa tangles with Oklahoma State in front of the biggest crowd in college wrestling history. The guest list includes four of the top 12 prospects on Flowrestling's 2017 Big Board, Junior World champion Spencer Lee and his club mate Gavin Teasdale, one of the top wrestlers in the 2018 class."

Perhaps some of these prized prep wrestlers may have the opportunity to take to the mat at a future Grapple on the Gridiron-type event.

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