Few people realize that in the years before Dan Gable and the Iowa Hawkeyes took over college wrestling, Michigan State put together a run of Big 10 dominance and were a force on the national wrestling scene. From 1966 through 1972, the Spartans won seven straight conference titles, finished in the top six at NCAAs every year, and brought home the 1967 national championship trophy. That run, under head coach Grady Peninger, ended with a fifth-place finish at the Big 10s in 1973. In 1974, Iowa won the first of 25 consecutive conference titles. Michigan State hasn’t won a conference crown since.
The program never recovered after that difficult season in 1973. Though Peninger would coach through 1986, Michigan State would only crack the national top-10 one more time during his tenure, finishing ninth in 1984. When Phil Parker succeeded Peninger, the bottom fell out. Parker lasted just five years, holding a dual winning percentage of .342 and never finishing above 40th in the country. This is the situation that Tom Minkel walked into in 1992 when he was hired to replace Parker.
Minkel has taken a lot of heat in recent years and perhaps he hung on too long. However, to his credit, he took over a program in dire straights and had them back in the top-15 in two years. In his fourth year, they finished second to Iowa at the conference tournament and third at NCAAs. When he led the Spartans to a third-place finish in the Big 10 and a seventh place result at nationals the following year, it looked like Minkel had the program back to being a national force.
Instead, Minkel’s teams never finished better than 13th nationally after that and since 2008 they only managed to finish in the top-20 once. When he announced he would retire after the 2015-16 season, many hoped for some new blood in the program, but instead Minkel’s long-time assistant, Roger Chandler was tapped to take the reigns. However, Chandler has already made some moves that suggest his tenure won’t simply be an extension of the Minkel era.
The Spartans added Wynn Michalak, who was a three-time All-American for Central Michigan and had spent the last four years at Illinois, as an assistant coach. They immediately improved their lineup by welcoming last year’s 133 pound MAC champion Austin Eicher, who transferred in from Northern Illinois. They picked up a commitment from 220 pound Super 32 finalist Cole Nye (Bishop McDevitt, PA). While skepticism is understandable, there are signs of progress being made in East Lansing.
The best wrestler in the lineup this year will once again be Javier Gasca (Jr, 141) who led the Spartans in just about everything a year ago and was the only returning NCAA qualifier until Eicher showed up. The rest of the Michigan State starters are likely to take their lumps, but this is a young roster that could show a lot of improvement from the start of the year to the end. Entrenched starters Mitch Rogaliner (Jr, 125) and Nick Trimble (Sr, 149) will have to fend off young challengers and that could become a common theme over the next couple of years. There are 17 true freshmen on the roster and 31 of the 36 Spartan wrestlers are freshmen or sophomores.
While the sheer number of young competitors should lead to some battles in the room, there is talent to go along with volume. Jake Tucker was the sixth-ranked high school 152 to end last season. Drew Hughes was sixth-ranked at 170. Austin Hiles was an Ohio state champ at 152. Nick May won a Michigan state title at 189. These are just some of the accolades that indicate the tide could be turning for Michigan State. The first year with Roger Chandler in charge may not be great, but if the young guys improve and they can continue to land high-level recruits, it won’t be long until we see progress from Michigan State.
The 2016-17 Michigan State Spartan wrestling schedule features duals against Nebraska, Princeton, and Drexel on December 3rd. They also face Minnesota (Dec 9th), Iowa (Jan 8th), Central Michigan (Jan 20th), Illinois (Jan 27th), and Michigan (Feb 5th) among others. They begin their season at the Eastern Michigan Open on November 5th. They host the Michigan State Open on November 20th. Their regular season tournament schedule concludes at the Reno Tournament of Champions on December 18th. The Big 10 tournament is in Bloomington, Indiana, March 4th and 5th. The NCAA tournament heads back to St. Louis, MO, March 16th through 18th.