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WILSON: Many NCAA Division I college wrestling programs may face a grim future

BRAD WILSON
(Easton) Express-Times (TNS)
Old Dominion logo

OId Dominion dropping wrestling may herald grim future for the sport

So how much of an alarm bell is Old Dominion dropping wrestling for the collegiate mat community?

Pretty loud, we’d say.

And it might get a lot more alarming depending on what happens with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bogus cover story: ODU’s move was pitched by its PR flacks as being related to the pandemic, but taking one look at its reasoning and rationale shows that to be a bogus cover story.

The Monarchs, located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, were determined to drop wrestling no matter what, and the pandemic became a handy excuse.

It wasn’t like ODU was struggling. They’d qualified four wrestlers for the NCAA Division I tournament, had had an All-American in 2019, and were bringing in top-shelf recruiting classes, perhaps, besides Missouri, the best the Mid-American Conference, which the Monarchs competed in in wrestling.

Their coach, Steve Martin, is familiar to many scholastic wrestling fans as the coach at Great Bridge (Virginia), a program often seen at major tournaments such as the Beast of the East, until he took the ODU job in 2004.

Old Dominion sits in an area where wrestling is a significant sport and produces plenty of collegiate talent. The annual Virginia Duals are located nearby.

But none of that matters to the “consultant” who recommended wrestling get the boot. The usual numbers were cited, with the drop in D-1 programs from 146 in 1981 to 89 in 2007 to 75 now, and the whole Title IX business, all too familiar to wrestling fans.

There were two elements, though, that could be new factors in cutting more programs.

Conference issue: One was citing that no other Conference USA members — ODU is in C-USA for all other sports — sponsor wrestling.

That angle could cause wrestling a real problem if it gets expanded to, say, “only X teams in our conference have wrestling”. That’s because, outside of the Big Ten, where all 14 members wrestle, and the Ivy League (6 of 8) there’s not a major college conference in the nation where a majority of full members wrestle 6 of 15 in the ACC; 1 of 14 (Mizzou) in the SEC; 4 of 10 in the Big 12; 3 of 12 in the Pac-12, 4 of 12 in the MAC.

Grim numbers, and easy for a consultant to grab onto with a we’re-out-of-step-by-having-wrestling argument.

Football, basketball are keys: The other is this line in the consultant’s report: “Without question, the historic way of ‘doing business’ must be modified if ODU is going to be nationally competitive in NCAA Division I.”

Of course, what that translates to is football and men’s basketball, and it is certainly true that ODU has not been a regular fixture in the Top 25 in either sport of late. Its football team was in the FCS until 2013 after restarting a program in 2009 that had been dormant since 1941. In contrast, wrestling started at ODU in 1957.

But by that standard, no other athletic program should survive at most schools (some universities make money on ice hockey, baseball and the like, but not many), and one suspects the only way many do is by the NCAA standard that requires minimum numbers of teams.

Right now, according to the NCAA, “Division I member institutions have to sponsor at least seven sports for men and seven for women (or six for men and eight for women) with two team sports for each gender. Each playing season has to be represented by each gender as well.”

Wrestling could be odd sport left out: It’s easy to see how wrestling becomes the odd man (so to speak) out here.

The real issue at stake is many Division I athletic programs wanting to pump as much money into football and basketball as possible while maintaining minimal standards elsewhere. As Wyoming Seminary wrestling coach Scott Green puts it, we are seeing the “continued minor-league-ization of football and men’s basketball,” and no amount of money is enough.

Such pressures are most keenly felt not, perhaps, at established powers such as Penn State and Ohio State, or at smaller universities relatively content with where they fit in the big picture such as Lehigh, say.

But for everybody else, wrestling can become a target — take the mat money and re-do the football weight room! Or add even more $$$ to overpaid coaches and staff. Or, especially, spend more bucks on buildings in the facility arms race that has infected Division I of late.

What is purpose of college athletics? The question becomes just what are college athletics for? Are they, as Green notes, for producing semipro squads in a limited number of sports or are they for the general benefit of the entire student body and the physical education of students?

We suspect we know the depressing answer to such questions.

And now we have the nightmare of the COVID-19 pandemic striking, with its potentially devastating impact on college athletic budgets.

Old Dominion may have used the pandemic as a convenient cover for its kicking wrestling to the curb, but there is no doubt that the virus’ long-term effect on collegiate sports could be devastating.

Wrestling a low priority: Just mention the possibility of there being no 2020 football season to a D-1 athletic director and keep the smelling salts handy to revive them after they faint at the thought.

And, again, which sports will feel the pain?

Here’s longtime Division I athletic director Bill Bradshaw on likely budgetary priorities as quoted in a terrific Philadelphia Inquirer story: ‘Division I football, Division I basketball, and women’s sports will be the highest priorities, “in that order.”

Guess what that leaves out.

ODU may have been ahead of the curve: If the pandemic cripples collegiate sports budgets, in other words, not much will be left. The NCAA may have alter its minimums for D-1 to survive, and even so there are cheaper ways to meet them than wrestling.

Old Dominion may, therefore, have just been a little ahead of the curve. Collegiate wrestling coaches, athletes and fans are likely in for a very bumpy ride ahead.