BHGP's RossWB and I team up to design a new, and awesome, NCAA Wrestling National Duals. Part One is below. Be sure to check out BHGP for Part Two.
Earlier this week, Pants wrestling honcho RossWB and I tackled the frustrating National Duals concept. For the uninitiated, the NCAA Wrestling National Duals set up has been sparsely attended - by both universities and fans alike. The National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) last year thought it would be a good idea to make National Duals the official NCAA Championship, instead of the Individual Tournament (until two smart guys like Tom Brands and Cael Sanderson both said that would be dumb). Then, this past season, the NWCA held the semi-finals and finals at the University of Minnesota - and still no one showed up. RossWB and I decided that, instead of writing another 'hey, this sucks and you're stupid' column, we'd try to pitch our own ideas to fix it - assuming we could agree on the same concepts. Part one is below. Be sure to grab Part Deuce over at the Pants.
So Ross - after the awesome turn out from the Minnesota faithful last season, it appears as though Iowa and Okie State will be joining the Nittany Lions on the sidelines for National Duals. I've heard of boycotting for human rights violations; boycotting for invasions of Afghanistan; and, well, boycotting for just about anything that offends someone else. This seems like Tommy Brands is boycotting stupidity. And who can blame him? National Duals is a great concept, but the execution these last few years....ugh. On the same weekend where 1,500 fans watched Goldy beat Okie State for the Duals Championship at the Barn, nearly 4,000 fans traveled to Piscataway, NJ to watch Rutgers get shut out by Penn State.
I think you and I can come up with some ideas to help out the good guys at NWCA. National Duals can, and should, be a second premiere event for college wrestling. We can rebuild this. We have the technology. And the first idea should be this one: let's make National Duals an early season, kickoff event
The individual NCAA Championship is the best tournament in the universe. My first objective in fixing the Duals is to not ruin that. Leave it alone. And if I'm leaving our flagship event unharmed, then what sense is there in slapping a second event right next to it on the calendar?
Big Ten schools have it the worst, of course. The Big Ten Championships are a meat grinder. Nico Megaludis earned the 2-seed at last year's Big Tens, and here are the four matches he got for it: All-American David Thorn; 2x AA Jesse Delgado; former AA Nikko Triggas; and perennial R12 Sean Boyle. Megaludis literally wrestled more AA's at Big Tens than he did on his way to his runner-up finish at NCAAs. Putting another tough tournament 10 days before Big Tens just doesn't make sense from a training perspective. How's that good for the wrestlers?
On the other hand, imagine the excitement we could create with a season opening event in December? Andrew Howe returns to the mat in Sooner crimson, and we could see him wrestle Matt Brown or Mike Evans - instead of waiting until January and hoping that Oklahoma goes to the Southern Scuffle, or hoping Iowa returns to Midlands.
Everybody's (hopefully) healthy. Mizzou's coach won't be thinking about seeding just yet. And there are going to be upsets. Intermat's going to take last season's All-Americans, slot them into the top spots - and then we'll forget that a guy like Taylor Massa just missed the podium as a true frosh, spent the last six months working to improve, and we'll be shocked when he upsets Tyler Caldwell. Interweb message board meltdown.
Personally, I was never that bent out of shape about whether National Duals or the existing NCAA Tournament decided the team national champion. Either approach is a pretty arbitrary way to decide a team champion in a sport like wrestling. I was never that concerned about wrestlers being less motivated at the NCAA Tournament without a team title on the line, either -- the overwhelming majority of the wrestlers there anyway have zero hope of being a part of a team winning the national title (really, all the wrestlers except those on about 3-5 teams) and, anyway, an individual national title is still a pretty desirable goal to chase. And I've never been particularly persuaded by arguments that center around "because this is the way we've always done it" as key justifications. I was slightly more persuaded by arguments that it could hurt fan attendance at the NCAA Tournament, but not enough that I didn't still think that it might be an experiment worth trying. After all, if fans didn't cotton to the new format, there was nothing stopping the sport's decisionmakers from going back to the way things were. It could be like New Coke all over again!
That said, I'm increasingly convinced that it's not an experiment worth testing. One of the main reasons is that the current schedule just doesn't seem to work. Trying to do two big tournaments at the end of the season -- and that's really three major tournaments if you're a Big Ten wrestler, given what a meat grinder the Big Ten Tournament can be -- is just too much. The wrestlers are training to peak at the NCAA Tournament -- they don't really seem to give a damn about the event. Is a picture of them hoisting the NWCA National Duals Tournament trophy going to occupy a prominent spot on their shelf of trophies in their later years? Gonna go out on a limb here and say... no. The coaches don't care about it -- there were a few too many cases of coaches holding guys out (albeit more in the early rounds of the tournament). And most tellingly, the fans don't care about it. This was driven home to me with perfect clarity when I attended this year's National Duals in Minneapolis. Admittedly, there were a lot of reasons why attendance was down (poor weather, Minnesota's high school wrestling tournament going on that weekend, University of Minnesota playing a pair of home games nearby), but the crowds were still embarrassingly tiny given the quality of wrestling on display -- basically every good team except Penn State was there. I was able to see seven eventual National Champions and countless All-Americans... me and less than 1000 of my closest friends and acquaintances, that is, which is just a sad turnout for an event like this.
But the idea of the National Duals is still solid, whether it's for a true team national championship or not. Getting a lot of big-name teams together to tussle is good for the sport, good for the fans, and good for the wrestlers (you know, assuming their coaches don't hold them out to protect their records). So what's the solution? Well, I think your suggestion of putting it at the start of the season is dead-on. Make it into wrestling's equivalent of the biggest and best of the college basketball preseason tournaments -- the Preseason NIT, the Maui Invitational, the Battle 4 Atlantis, etc. Under this format, it could turn into a really fun way to get the season started with a bang. Just like its revenue sport brethern, football and basketball, there are a lot of snoozer match-ups in wrestling's non-conference schedule (lookin' at you, Iowa City Duals...); this would be a compelling way to fight against that.
OK, so now we know when it should be held: at the start of the season. Now where are we going to hold it? It needs to be somewhere with a strong local fanbase that can provide good attendance by themselves. I don't know how many traveling fans you're going to get at this event. The obvious choices would be to put it near Iowa or Penn State, the two most popular teams in the sport and the two with the most rabid fanbases. And I don't think you could go wrong with that approach, although if you decided to have Penn State serve as the host for the event, it might be a good idea to put it in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh -- bit easier to get there than State College. But my dark horse idea for a host city would be New York City and to merge this event with the Grapple at the Garden. NYC isn't a natural wrestling hotbed, but it is home to a LOT of people (duh). Grapple at the Garden seemed to be a qualified success last year, but adding a few more top-tier teams (particularly if Penn State could add some East Coast muscle) and the National Duals name seems like it could give the event a boost. Plus, it would be a nice outreach effort for wrestling, which is certainly needed. The sport doesn't need to grow its fanbase in Iowa or Pennsylvania right now, but it does need more fans in other places.
And what about the format? I think it probably needs to be a one-day event. Two days might work, but that's also double the commitment for fans, which may be asking too much. And if you want to limit the event to just the best of the best, then 16 teams is too many. Hell, there's an argument that 8 teams would be pushing that idea -- just look at how lopsided several of the quarterfinals were
this year. Eight teams means seven matches (or more if you include consolation meets for the teams that lose in the earlier rounds) and has the two finalists wrestling three times in one day. That's a long day, but not overwhelmingly so. I'd use pre-season rankings to seed the teams, although I'd also leave some flexibility there to tweak the matchups to produce more desirable pairings. For instance, if Iowa and Oklahoma State are 2/3 and Oklahoma and Ohio State are 6/7 and I know Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and Iowa and Ohio State are going to wrestle later in the year, then I might flip those pairings so Iowa could see Oklahoma (and face some wrestlers they otherwise wouldn't see except at Midlands --if Iowa and Oklahoma are both there -- or at the NCAA Tournament) and Okie State and Ohio State could battle over the right to be the most annoying OSU in all the land.
Be sure to check out Part Deuce, over on BHGP. And give Gerry's University Freestyle recap a read as well. Penn State crowned three champs.
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