Wrestling versus hoops is madness
Ryan Suchomel ? March 19, 2009
ST. LOUIS -- Millions of Americans will be constantly checking their brackets as March Madness blitzes the senses non-stop over the next four days.
And the NCAA Wrestling Championships are trying to build an audience against that?
"We're beating our head against the wall going against March Madness," Nebraska coach Mark Manning said.
"I think it's insane we go up against those guys each year," Cornell coach Rob Koll said.
The best college wrestlers in the nation will take the mats at 11 a.m. today, and 20 minutes later, Butler will tip off against LSU to start the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
But does it have to be that way? Wrestling coaches say no.
"I think the thought process, generally, is to maybe try something different," Iowa coach Tom Brands said. "When you are stagnant, you have to go outside the box a little bit, take some risk."
The idea of moving the NCAA Wrestling Championship back to April, after the madness of March, isn't new. Long-time Minnesota coach J Robinson said coaches have been talking about it for 25 years.
"When something is failing, when something isn't right, when there's a crisis, it requires dominant action," Robinson said. "You can't pussyfoot around. And that's what we've been doing as our sport has been dying over the last 25 years."
Wrestling has been on the chopping block for the last three decades. In 1980 there were 152 Division I programs. Now there are 87.
And with schools from coast to coast facing budget cuts in a recession, those numbers could head south against soon.
"You hear about all the cutbacks, even in the big BCS conferences," Missouri coach Brian Smith said. "A.D.s have gotten together and are talking about shortening seasons, coaching positions. ... It's not just a concern with wrestling. I'm worried about all non-revenue sports."
So for a sport that is seeking to build an audience, why in the world would it go head-to-head with one of the biggest juggernauts around?
"Three reasons," Robinson said. "One, no vision. Two, no leadership. Three, no plan. Very simple. All you have to do is put me in charge, we'll do it in one year."
Wrestling currently runs from mid-November to the championships in mid-March. If Robinson was in charge, the sport would start in mid-January, after students got back from semester break, and end sometime in April.
The change would cut a month off the season and force annual events like The Midlands, held in late December, and NCWA National Duals, held mid-January, to find new dates.
But it also would give wrestling a chance to showcase the three days of the NCAA Championships when not much else is fighting for a sports fan's attention.
"I think we're missing the boat," Manning said. "The wrestling fan is going to come in April, just like he's going to come in March. That fan is going to buy that ticket and is going to be there."
Why hasn't it been done yet? Robinson said that too many coaches want to build an absolute consensus for the idea. Others don't want to mess with tradition.
Smith said the sport may not need a change. Friday and Saturday's sessions will be on live TV on ESPN, ESPN2, or EPSNU. Attendance for this year's championships is projected to be one of the best of all-time.
"It's kind of scary to say we're going to change it to the spring," Smith said. "The event is growing. If we keep moving it, we can lose that."
The next three championships have already been set in mid-March: Omaha, Neb., in 2010; Philadelphia in 2011; and back in St. Louis in 2012. Any changes probably could not occur until the 2012-13 season, at the earliest.
But on the eve of their sports' biggest event, coaches recognize that something needs to change. There is a loyal following, but how can you get the casual fan to give the sport a chance when they are glued to the TV, watching a 12 seed try to upset a 5 seed?
"I heard a great quote the other day, 'Tolerance is the last virtue of a dying society,'" Robinson said. "I think it's par for wrestling. We have to tolerate; we have to get a consensus. No we don't. We have to do what's right for the sport.
"Once you decide where you want to be, it dictates what you have to do. We have to decide where we want to be."
Reach Ryan Suchomel at 339-7368 or firstname.lastname@example.org