Penn State won its first NCAA wrestling title since 1953 (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
The NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals for Division I kick off this weekend. The event has been revamped and is being referred to as "Mat Mayhem." Twenty-four Division I programs will now participate in four regionals on Saturday and Sunday, with the winner of each regional advancing to the championship finals on Feb. 19. Noticeably absent from the event is defending NCAA champion Penn State.
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson and the Nittany Lions are being unfairly criticized for their decision not to participate in the National Duals.
Minnesota coach J Robinson called Cael's decision not to participate "short-sighted" following Minnesota's 19-17 dual meet loss at Iowa on Jan. 29. This past Sunday, Robinson said, "If we want wrestling to grow, we all need to be there."
Mark Manning is in his 12th season as Nebraska's coach (Photo/Mark Beshey, The Guillotine)Another Big Ten wrestling coach, Nebraska's Mark Manning, whose Huskers will compete on Sunday in a regional with five other teams in Stillwater, Okla., recently voiced his displeasure for Penn State's decision not to participate in the National Duals.
"If you're defending national champions, you should be in the National Duals," said Manning. "You represent our sport. You're sending a message that it's important for wrestling. No one likes the grind of the Big Ten. I don't want to take my young team down to Stillwater. I would love to have a week off. But some people don't think that way and they're only thinking single-mindedly."
Robinson and Manning are not the only people who have spoken out about Penn State's absence from the National Duals.
Wrestling fans across the country have slammed Cael and Penn State for their decision not to participate in the National Duals, just like fans slammed Tom Brands and Iowa's wrestling program a year ago for their decision not to participate in the National Duals.
One anonymous person on a wrestling message board called Cael's decision "selfish." Another wrote, "PSU failed to support the entire sport of wrestling by not attending."
It's one thing to hold the opinion that this revamped National Duals is best for the growth of college wrestling. But to criticize Penn State, or any program, for doing what they believe is best for the growth of college wrestling, or their program, is wrong.
The NWCA's vision for growing college wrestling
Mike Moyer, who serves as the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA), believes that regular season dual meets need to take on a greater importance in order to grow the spectator base in college wrestling, and that this revamped National Duals format is a step in the right direction. Moyer and the NWCA see it as a way to add five signature college wrestling events to the schedule.
NWCA executive director Mike Moyer with Takedown's Scott Casber at the 2011 NWCA All-Star Classic in Tempe, Ariz. (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)"We need to grow the spectator base on each campus," said Moyer. "This whole National Duals is based on the premise that when you look at every mainstream spectator sport in America, they all have one thing in common, and that is the outcome of every regular season competition has a lot of importance because it determines advancement into a postseason competition, whereas in wrestling currently our whole infrastructure is designed to support an individual tournament at the end of the year. So it places very little importance on the outcome of regular season dual meets."
Moyer has studied past data and believes something needs to be done to grow college wrestling's spectator base.
"I have looked at our average spectator base over a 10-year period," said Moyer. "In 2001 we had three teams that had an average spectator base of 4,000 or more and we had 10 other teams that had a spectator base of 1,000 or more. You fast forward 10 years to last year. Nothing has changed. We still have three teams that have an average spectator base of 4,000 or more. We have 10 other teams that have an average spectator base of 1,000 or more. So my question is, what makes us think we can continue doing exactly the same things for the next 10 years and get a different result?"
Moyer may be right that certain changes to college wrestling could help grow its spectator base. But there is certainly no guarantee that this revamped National Duals format is the best way to grow the sport. It may or may not be a step in the right direction. This year's dry run may give some indications. Attendance numbers will serve as one barometer for the success of the event. According to Moyer, feedback from coaches will be very important.
Penn State's vision for growing college wrestling
It's absurd for anyone to claim that Penn State is not helping to grow college wrestling.
Cael and his staff arrived at Penn State in 2009, and in two seasons the average attendance for Penn State home dual meets doubled. Last season Penn State averaged nearly 5,500 fans per home dual meet, which was by far the program's best average attendance in two decades or more. This year Penn State is averaging almost 6,500 fans per home dual meet with one dual meet remaining. (Penn State's final home dual meet against Pitt on Feb. 19 is already sold out.)
Cael Sanderson (Photo/Bill Ennis)Penn State is more than doing its part to grow college wrestling by maintaining an exciting dual meet schedule with a minimum of seven home events that attract sell-out crowds, competing against smaller Pennsylvania programs in order to foster in-state rivalries, wrestling at-risk programs, competing in non-traditional wrestling areas, and putting a winning product on the mat that is entertaining to watch.
"I doubt that any program is doing any more for our sport than Penn State is doing right now, and that's not me," said Cael. "It's just our program and everything that is going on."
Penn State, ranked No. 1 by InterMat, will travel across the country to wrestle Utah Valley University on Saturday.
Cael and older brother Cody Sanderson, Penn State's associate head coach, were born and raised in Utah and are part of one of the state's most celebrated sports families. The Sanderson brothers, Cody, Cole, Cael, and Cyler combined to win 14 state wrestling championships in Utah. Their father, Steve, wrestled at Brigham Young University (BYU) before becoming a legendary high school wrestling coach in Utah.
Cody Sanderson, a two-time NCAA finalist at Iowa State, started the wrestling program at Utah Valley from scratch in 2003, and served as the program's head coach for three seasons before joining Cael's staff at Iowa State.
Utah Valley is now its ninth season of existence and third season of being eligible to compete in the postseason. Last season Utah Valley's wrestling program had its first NCAA Division I All-American when Ben Kjar placed fourth at 125 pounds.
"If you think about it, any school on the West Coast has a very difficult time getting matches at home," said Cael. "There just aren't very many programs and it's very expensive. We felt that going out to Utah and helping them create a big event was the best thing we could do for the sport."
Greg Williams coached Ben Kjar to an All-American finish (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)Utah Valley coach Greg Williams, who is trying to put together as a tough a schedule as possible, says the event has been generating a lot of interest in Utah.
"We're expecting somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 fans for this match, and that's a conservative figure," said Williams. "We could top that. There's a lot of interest in the event. I think it's great that they're coming back to Utah because Utah loves the Sanderson boys."
College wrestling may be experiencing growth at non-Division I levels, but at the Division I level college wrestling programs continue to be cut and opportunities continue to be lost. Thirty-five years ago there were approximately 180 Division I college wrestling programs. Today that number is 78. (It will be 77 next year with Millersville dropping down to Division II.) Eight Division I college wrestling programs have been dropped since 2009.
Cael believes there needs to be a shift in thinking among wrestling people to find ways to grow the sport instead of trying to save it.
Said Cael, "If somebody puts out a press release or they say, hey, save this program ... What's going to happen? No one wants to put money into a program when there's a good chance it's going to fail, except a few people that are very committed, and they're already supporting that program. What does that do? Recruits don't go to that school. You're like dooming a program. How smart is that? Even though you think you're trying to help, you're actually hurting it."
Cael feels that wrestling needs to build on its strengths.
"It's about being positive, just like I have to do as a coach," said Cael. "You've got to build on your strengths, not emphasize your weaknesses. That's just an old-school mentality, to point out your weaknesses. Well, it doesn't work in coaching. It doesn't work in business. It doesn't work in life. You build on your strengths. That's where your success comes from."
Numerous changes have been made to college wrestling in recent years. Those changes have come in the form of rule changes, NCAA tournament qualification, and a revamped National Duals. Cael refers to these types of changes to college wrestling as "quick fixes."
"The future of wrestling is not a quick fix," said Cael. "It's a long-term plan. What's our long-term plan? It's not, well, let's keep dinking around with the National Duals. It's well, let's build our foundation. That's a 20-year process. It's not, well, it didn't work last year, let's force something in while everybody is focused on coaching and this is the answer, and if you don't participate, well, shame on you."
Penn State and others programs' decision not to participate in the National Duals
For the record, Penn State was not only the program to turn down the National Duals invitation. The NWCA sent out an email last February inviting the top 24 teams in last season's final NWCA/USA Today Division I Team Coaches Poll. Of those 24 teams, 20 accepted invitations. (No. 25 Central Michigan and three unranked teams filled the remaining four spots.)
Northwestern and Lehigh both turned down invitations.
"When the National Duals was being organized, several uncertainties remained such as locations and travel allotments," said Northwestern coach Drew Pariano. "The time of the year was something that we considered and having the team peak at Big Tens and NCAAs is imperative. I think that it's going to be a great success and we look forward to being involved if we are invited in the upcoming years."
Last season Pat Santoro coached his first NCAA champion at Lehigh, Zack Rey, who won the title at heavyweight (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)Lehigh coach Pat Santoro said the timing of when it was being organized made it difficult.
"When we found out about the National Duals, I probably had 13 or 14 of our 16 dates already done," said Santoro. "My schedule was almost all done and then that came out, and I was like, 'Well, how am I going to change it? I already have teams scheduled in February and things like that.' For us, I just didn't like the timing of it."
Santoro, like Pariano, also had concerns that, by participating in the National Duals in February, it would be more difficult for wrestlers to peak in March.
"I didn't like the timing of the last two weeks of the season," said Santoro. "If you go to National Duals, you're going to try to win it. There's no question. To try to peak the second and third weekend in February, and then try to peak again the first and third weekend in March, five weeks is a long time to try to keep the peak."
Santoro likes the concept of the National Duals and wants to support the NWCA. He also sees the other side of it, which is why he is taking a wait-and-see approach.
"I think it's a great concept, a great idea," said Santoro. "I just want to see how it plays out for a couple years. I think next year is really going to be the first real run of it. I know this year is like a dry run. I want to know what happens next year. I want to see how it kind of runs through the system once you pick your top 24 teams at the end of January."
David Taylor hugs Cael Sanderson after his 7-1 victory over American's Steve Fittery in the 2011 NCAA semifinals (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)It's Penn State, though, that has been receiving the most attention and criticism for its decision not to attend because the Nittany Lions are the defending NCAA champions and Cael, a four-time undefeated NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist, is an icon in the sport.
The simple, short answer for why Penn State chose not participate in the National Duals is that Cael and his staff don't believe it's in the best interest of college wrestling. Cael and his staff are doing what they feel is right.
"A lot of details need be ironed out before we jump into it, said Cael. "There's a lot of details. It's kind of hard to go into because I just think there are so many different areas and questions that were in our mind as a staff. We want to build wrestling as much as we can. Just because one person says this is how you do it, that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right answer."
Cael understands the need to raise money for the sport, but disagrees with the idea of taking away February home duals meets, which not only help generate revenue for programs, but also help generate fan interest and excitement leading up to the conference and NCAA tournaments.
"Right now the event is just a fundraiser, which is good," said Cael. "We want the NWCA to make money. But it's not like creating a new revenue stream. It's dipping in and basically taking the gate that we would be producing at a home dual and giving it to them.
"I think a coach needs to do what he feels is in the best interest of his program. I don't think anyone would say it's in the best interest of our team. How could it be? It's not. You're asking a lot out of your kids and you're asking a lot out of your administration to forgo a home dual and a gate in February. It doesn't make any sense."
Cael also does not believe the National Duals directly help at-risk programs.
"How will the National Duals help the programs that are at-risk?" remarked Cael. "How? How does it help them? It doesn't. That's what it was first sold to us as, and we're like, 'OK, wait a second, let's figure out how this is going to help them. No, it doesn't."
Cael and his staff support Mike Moyer and the NWCA and want the event to be successful, but just have a difference of opinion on how to grow the sport.
"The good thing is that we're all fighting for the same cause," said Cael. "We have some difference of opinion. But that's good for the sport, I believe."
What's not good for the sport is criticizing Penn State, or any program, for doing what they believe is best for the sport and their program.