A few days into June, with the summer ahead of us, the Pac-12 Conference front office announced a set of policy changes that sent waves through the collegiate wrestling landscape. After over a decade of dwindling membership, the Pac-12 is now set to welcome new members to cement its place as a premier wrestling conference. The welcome change of tone from the conference front office sets the stage for the development of collegiate wrestling at the Division I level and beyond, across the American West; it marks a step towards securing the prosperity of the sport in-conference for the future. With the Pac-12 now a proactive proponent in wrestling, the conference may quickly find itself as a major player at negotiating tables in athletic departments across the country as well as on the competitive wrestling mat.
The conference announcement came off the heels of a successful 2021 NCAA tournament across the Pac-12, led by Arizona State's 4th-place team-trophy, the first for seven-year head coach Zeke Jones and a rare feat in recent conference memory. Only a handful of performances from the Sun Devils' (6th-place, 2011; 10th-place, 2018), defunct-for-now Boise State (9th-place, 2011), and Oregon State (10th-place, 2012; 8th-place, 2013) can compare from the last decade.
Cal Poly had a stellar weekend in March '21, propelled to a top-25 performance thanks in large part to a 4th-place All-American finish by Bernie Truax. It was the Mustangs' first placewinner and top-25 finish since 2012, the first of fifth-year head coach Jon Sioredas's tenure. CSU Bakersfield extended its remarkable program-streak of NCAA appearances to 48-years under now full-fledged head coach Luke Smith, and nearly earned the Roadrunners' first All-American since 2014, with Chance Rich reaching the NCAA Round of 12 at 133lbs. The Oregon State Beavers, led by first-year head coach Chris Pendleton, qualified a respectable six wrestlers to the national tournament, finishing with three wrestlers in the top-16. The young Little Rock Trojans, under head coach Neil Erisman, made its tournament debut with Paul Bianchi earning the first Trojans match-victory at NCAAs in program history.
Stanford, of course, became the darling program of the national wrestling community as Shane Griffith, NCAA Champion at 165lbs., and Jaden Abas, 7th-place All-American at 149lbs., rallied their team to a 17th-place finish in Jason Borrelli's 13th and final year at the helm. (Former Cornell head coach Rob Koll has since taken the leading role for the Cardinal.) The Cardinal wrestlers fought to keep their program alive and their 2021 tournament was, in the opinion of this wrestling fan, instrumental in the decision by Stanford brass to reinstate the wrestling program among eleven total programs initially axed.
As Stanford's performance spurred change in its athletic department, the conference's aggregate NCAA performance spurred reform among the conference administration. So the release reads:
The Pac-12 Conference announced today a series of measures to strengthen and grow the sport of wrestling in the Conference, including an initiative to add members to its wrestling ranks beyond the current membership of six programs for the first time in more than a decade..
The decision … represents a significant commitment to both bolster competitive opportunities and success for Pac-12 wrestling student-athletes, and strengthen collegiate wrestling on the West Coast.
Among the conference's coaches, the news of proactive reform from the conference was well-received, to say the least. "We were on the brink of looking at survival," Coach Pendleton of Oregon State admitted frankly. The narrowly avoided loss of Stanford, a charter member of the Pac-12, would have devastated the sport in the conference. Not only would charter members be further discouraged from fielding programs, the remaining Pac-12 wrestling institutions would face the loss of their auto-qualifications to the NCAA tournament. Such an event would have surely threatened all four remaining programs. Instead, with Cardinal wrestlers capturing the heart of the sporting public, the Pac-12 powers-that-be have seen fit to right the ship.
"I thought it was fantastic. It was great news," said Coach Jones of Arizona State. Jones praised the work of Pac-12 Senior Commissioner Teresa Gould for advocating for wrestling and other "bubble sports" in the conference. Gould, who previously held lengthy tenures at Cal and UC Davis, joined the Pac-12 administration in August of 2018 to "manage sports administration and championships for Pac-12 women's basketball and all Olympic sports," among other responsibilities. It appears wrestling is already seeing the impacts of her (welcome) efforts to support the Olympic sports.
Perhaps the most important portion of the conference's release pertained to the changes enacted. The release continues:
To support the growth of Pac-12 wrestling, the Conference recently adjusted some of its wrestling policies, including the following:
The changes enacted have had immediate resonance among current members of the Pac-12. The first policy change is the lynchpin of them all: removing the "restriction" that placed an arbitrary ceiling for Pac-12 wrestling membership at 6 total teams, legislating that the sport minimizes the use of affiliate-members. With the restriction, growth was literally impossible in the Pac-12. "Living on the perpetual bubble of six teams and not being able to grow past six has been difficult," Jones reflected. With the restriction null and void, Coach Pendleton welcomes the progressive shift in the conference. "Instead of forcing us into a box, the conference is open to new ideas and open to growing the sport and open to trying new things."
For long-time affiliate-member Cal Poly and others like them, "[t]he ability to host the [Pac-12] Championships will also bring value to campus and community." Sioredas added that the structuring of a balanced conference dual-schedule, "will also alleviate some of our extensive travel by allowing us to cluster our away conference schedule geographically -- allowing us to compete against multiple schools at a time while on the road."
Future affiliate-members, too, will benefit from the new, affiliate-friendly policies. In a conference where affiliate-members already have voting rights (a rarity in collegiate athletic conferences), they will also be eligible for hosting the conference tournament, a privilege previously reserved for the charter members (Arizona State, Oregon State, and Stanford). The economics of such perks are not lost on conference coaches. "We want to truly elevate [affiliate-members'] position in the conference, to provide them strength, provide them an opportunity to provide exposure to their school, their program, as well as the potential to generate revenue," posits Jones. "We want to make all our teams in the conference stronger; that's the goal." In a sport where many programs rely heavily on fundraising to generate revenue, the ability to generate upwards of $100,000 by hosting the conference tournament is no small opportunity.
Taken altogether, conference coaches are pleased with the outlook of the Pac-12 Conference. "These changes will strengthen our conference from a competitive standpoint, and more importantly, illustrate that wrestling is important to the Pac-12. It also creates [an] opportunity for any west coast institutions considering starting or transition[ing] to Division I wrestling, to have a conference that makes sense geographically and monetarily," concludes Sioredas.
The question remains, who will join the Pac-12 in the future? Personal wishes and dreams have Cal Berkeley, UC Davis, UCLA, Oregon, and USC at the top of the list. For the conference coaches, they are not limiting themselves to the West Coast; they enter into the future with open minds. "We want to be greedy, we're being very proactive, we want top-level competition, we want as many programs as we can take on, we want to become one of the preeminent conferences in the nation," Pendleton stated, short of listing potential teams of interest. For Jones, teams "that want to be in the Pac-12" from coast-to-coast are all welcome, including the geographically proximal Northern Colorado, Utah Valley, and Wyoming. Sioredas included additional former Western Wrestling Conference programs Air Force, North Dakota State, and South Dakota State as potential future affiliates.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the recent and ongoing Big XII split involving the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas moving out of the Big XII for the SEC, in a football-heavy decision by those respective campuses. For wrestling, there are significant implications to consider as Oklahoma's storied-wrestling program is set to leave the Big XII. If rumors of Oklahoma State's intention to leave for the B1G come to pass, we may face a wrestling landscape where Iowa State is the remaining BigXII charter member. The situation would become incredibly tenuous for the sport of wrestling in the BigXII. Conversely, the ongoing BigXII split may present unique opportunities for affiliate membership additions in the Pac-12. "Who wouldn't want Oklahoma State, or Iowa State, or West Virginia in the Pac-12? You'd be crazy to not want them," Jones remarked.
"Hopefully, we can revisit Cal Baptist," added Sioredas. Cal Baptist, a successful Division II program led by once-upon-a-time UC Davis head coach Lenny Zalesky and the national champion for the Aggies Derek Moore, is set to join the BigXII as it finally completes its transition to the Division I level in the 2022-2023 season. With hope, former BigXII affiliate Fresno State will reinstate its program (again) and rejoin the conversation. Could we one day see all California programs competing in the same conference? A wrestling fan can dream.
Amidst the turmoil among the national athletic conferences, the Pac-12 has found an opportune time to seek growth and development. Where trepidation previously existed for over a decade, 'stability' has taken its place. "The stability of the Pac12 is definitely a selling point," Pendleton asserts. The hope for the wrestling community, in the American West, to the Midwest, and beyond to New England, is that this newfound stability is enduring. "With the Pac12 stabilizing itself and now getting into a growth position, now you have the opportunity where if a [charter] program down the road wanted to add, they could," Jones explained. It is yet to be seen which programs will join the Pacific-12 Conference, but the possibilities are, now, limitless. May we see the conference grow back to its 'Pac-10' roots of the early 2000s? To 12? 16? We very well may. One thing is for sure: there hasn't been a better time to be a fan of Pac-12 Wrestling.