photo courtesy of Richard Immel
What a last 72 hours we, as the wrestling community, experienced. March 12th will go down as a day to forget in the minds of many wrestlers, coaches, and fans. Just a day before, most fans were resigned to the fact that they wouldn’t be able to get into the NCAA Championships in US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. That led to plans of fans taking over bars in the area or just hanging out on the couch and enjoying the festivities in the best seat in your house. Those were simpler times, though. A day later, after the NBA suspended its season and the NHL and MLB followed suit, the NCAA seemed like it had to be the next shoe that dropped. While most of the attention was focused on the DI tournament that was slated for next week, DII, DIII, and NAIA women had already traveled to their championship cities and were warming up for competitions that were set to start today.
Like many wrestling people, I’m a creature of habit. I have a calendar that has my articles planned out for the upcoming week, as well as, the rest of the writers for The Open Mat. I had planned to publish a “Ten First-Round Matches to Watch” article on Thursday to start the week’s works of DI previews and coverage. With Harvard pulling out of the tournament on Wednesday night and maybe others to follow, I thought it would be silly to put that article out knowing brackets would be redrawn. That led me to the next item on my agenda, “The Top Seniors who have yet to All-Americans”. I had my ten wrestlers to mention picked out and was starting to put pen to paper (ok, I type it) Thursday morning. As news continued to break, I had a knot in my stomach knowing that the cancellation of the tournament was inevitable, and I put off the writing of that article. Once it became official that there will be no 2020 NCAA DI tournament, I looked at the open tabs on my laptop and saw that unfinished (basically not even started) article that listed ten names of seniors that may never get the opportunity to fight for a spot on the NCAA podium. It’s almost haunting thinking about the top-seed at 184 lbs Taylor Lujan not being able to experience winning in the bloodround or the quarterfinals. The same can be said for Dylan Lydy, one of the most improved wrestlers in the nation. While it’s haunting to me, I can’t even begin to fathom what it does to those wrestlers.
A little later in the afternoon, I sent out a tweet saying my intentions to write the article. One of the best responses came from someone with the name “Better Communication” and it read, “You should still write it, more as a tribute to their accomplishments and what they were hoping to accomplish next week”. That sentiment is 100% accurate and on the money. Right now, though, the wounds are too fresh for me. Again, that’s just me, an overweight 30-something sitting in my office in Virginia, not one of these athletes that had their dreams crushed, through no fault of their own. It’s coming at some point, I don’t know when, yet.
After having about 18 hours to process the cancellation of the rest of the 2020 collegiate wrestling season, I came up with, and tried to answer, five questions about the whole situation.
1) What happens to student-athletes eligibility-wise?
Just minutes after the NCAA announced that it would be canceling the remaining championships for winter sports, there were rumors of wrestlers (and all athletes) getting granted another year of eligibility. At this point in time, it’s unclear just how serious those rumors are. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer since it’s an unprecedented situation that is the fault of no student-athletes. Of course, since we’re dealing with the NCAA, sometimes even those decisions that are “no-brainers” don’t work out as we hoped.
Before going any further, I need to reiterate how my heart breaks thinking of all of the seniors that pushing themselves to the limit in preparation for a last run at their dreams of winning a national championship or simply getting on the NCAA podium. Coaches always stress overcoming adversity and you have certainly been dealt more than your fair share, not being able to end your college career on your own terms. This will test everything that these coaches have put you through over the last four or five years.
So, let’s say that the NCAA does the right thing and grants all 330, technically 332 since Dazjon Casto (The Citadel) and Luke Luffman (Illinois) were added after Harvard pulled out of the tournament, athletes another year of eligibility. It leads up down a path that is filled with even more questions.
The first question is, how would it work financially? Wrestling teams are allowed to use a maximum of 9.9 scholarships. It should be noted that not all DI schools are allotted the full 9.9. Either way, a coaching staff will plan their future recruiting around the money that’s coming off the books this spring as athletes graduate or exhaust their eligibility. In most cases, that money has already been promised to incoming freshmen or used to reward existing members of their team. Let’s look at Penn State, who has three NCAA champions (Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall, Anthony Cassar) and an All-American (Shakur Rasheed) that were supposed to finish up this season. Presumably, all have some scholarship money, which would be used for a strong class of freshmen. Who pays for it? The schools “could” do it, whether they “would” or not is another question. In that same vein, there are some programs with limited roster spots. Again, coaches have planned on losing seniors and replacing them with freshmen/transfers, how will that work?
Now let’s say the answer is yes, athletes that qualified for the NCAA Championships get another year of eligibility and a solution is found financially. Does that lead to an influx of student-athletes in the transfer portal? There are plenty of teams with talented freshmen that sat out and redshirted in 2019-20 while a senior planned to finish up at the same weight class. Now, if the senior is back and relegates that freshman to the bench, does the young wrestler get uneasy and transfer? Or maybe the freshman is better and the older wrestler wants a shot at starting another year and looks elsewhere.
There’s also another group of wrestlers that have life going on outside of wrestling. These are probably not your NCAA title contenders (but maybe it is too) and don’t have visions of Olympic and World titles dancing in their head. Those student-athletes may already have jobs/internships lined up after graduation. For those joining the military, they already have obligations just around the corner. Even if these student-athletes are granted another year of eligibility, it may not make sense from them to put the rest of their lives on hold to take another run at glory.
Another group to think about are walk-on’s. There’s probably more than you would expect amongst the field of 330 qualifiers. They combine a couple of the earlier points we addressed. A walk-on counts for a roster spot and has to find a way to pay for tuition on their own. Do they want to do that for another year? Can they afford to do so? Does it make more sense to start focusing on their professional career?
Hopefully, the NCAA will do the right thing and grant these 332 wrestlers another year of eligibility; however, if so, that won’t be the end of the discussion. There will be all of the points we’ve outlined and more to consider when it comes to wrestling programs taking shape for the 2020-21 season.
2) How does this impact spring recruiting?
A vital part of a program’s success happens at this time of year when teams put the bow on their recruiting classes. With the recruiting-game evolving yearly, most of the big names in each senior class are off the market by the November signing period. That would lead you to think that all the studs are accounted for. Maybe, but not necessarily. This time of year also provides high school seniors with an avenue to showcase their talents for college coaches. There are plenty of seniors that snuck under the radar or outright improved by leaps and bounds this season and were unknown to college coaches before their respective state tournament. For kids from non-power states, getting a chance to go to NHSCA Senior Nationals, FloNationals, and other spring tournaments is the last opportunity to show they can compete against elite competition. At this time, those tournaments are still on as scheduled, but these things change on an hourly basis (as we’ve seen in the past 72 hours).
Also, on the topic of recruiting, how will visits be handled? With some school’s completely shut down, high school seniors (and juniors) may not get to visit the schools they’re choosing from. That could lead them to make half-informed decisions. On the other hand, coaches probably don’t have as much personal interaction as they are used to, which also isn’t ideal.
If the NCAA does, in fact, grant another year of eligibility, it would certainly limit coaches in their efforts to sign current seniors and leave some of the late commitments out in the cold.
3) How will this impact Senior-level athletes preparing for the Olympic Trials?
Even after the NCAA announced that they will cancel the remainder of the collegiate wrestling seasons, USA Wrestling put out a statement saying the Last Chance Qualifier (March 27-28), along with the Olympic Trials (April 4-5), are still to be conducted, as scheduled. USAW is also monitoring the situation going forward. As we’ve seen in the past week, the situation is very fluid, and cancellations have mounted rapidly.
If these events take place, as scheduled, they’re right around the corner, which means entrants at either/both events are making their final preparations. With some colleges completely shutting down, this could hamper some of our Senior-level hopefuls as they are making their last-minute adjustments. Since most RTC’s are on college campuses, this could be a problem. Can these athletes get the proper training environment that they are used to maximize their workouts? I’m sure most coaches and athletes will say “wrestling is wrestling,” and they just need a mat and a partner, and they’re good. But at the same time, at the Olympic Trials level, there is such little room for error, that the smallest details could end up making a difference. This is where having a strong, experienced coach comes in to keep their athletes in the proper frame of mind. Hopefully, these tournaments go on, as planned, and the athletes find a way to overcome these potential hurdles in their training and are all competing on the high level possible in State College.
4) Does this answer questions surrounding the DI venue?
There are some days when “Wrestling Twitter” is fun and others where it can be a trainwreck. The latter of those two situations reared its ugly head two weeks ago when the NCAA posted an artist’s rendering of the scene at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis with a full crowd and eight mats. Wrestling Twitter erupted with people who thought that having the tournament in a football stadium would be a disaster for its fanbase. I held the position of “acknowledging the potential concerns, yet reserving judgment until after the fact.” Unfortunately, there was no “after the fact” as the tournament was canceled altogether.
So, where does that leave us with the possibility of holding another event in an indoor football stadium? The next two NCAA tournaments will be held in St. Louis (2021 – the unofficial home-away-from-home of the tournament) and in Detroit (2022) in arena’s used primarily for hockey. Rumor has it that other potential host cities were looking at the success or failure of Minneapolis, before throwing their names into the ring as a future home of the tournament. Personally, I expected that the event would have been an enjoyable and positive experience, with a few kinks to be worked out. Unfortunately, we don’t have any actual knowledge of what those kinks are going forward.
A positive from the 2020 tournament is the number of tickets that were pre-sold. Upwards of 30,000. There are few, if any, indoor basketball/hockey arenas that can handle that type of demand, so that’s why a football stadium was targeted. The wrestling community has proven to future host cities that they can sell at least 30,000 tickets for its national championship event. In the middle of March, in a cold climate. What about in Atlanta or Arizona? Maybe more? I think it’s an avenue that should be explored again, if possible. The past two NCAA Tournaments, in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, have proven that the demand for tickets is higher than an 18,000-19,000 seat venue can handle. That has also led to ticket prices that were through the roof.
If this has taught us on social media anything, it’s, let’s not rush to judgment. Having concerns and doubts about the tournament in a football stadium is fine. I even laughed at some of the jokes (if they were funny) about the venue and it’s potential sightlines, but all-in-all it was much ado about nothing.
5) When do we return to normal?
This is the million-dollar question. Or billion. With virtually every sports league/organization shut down for the foreseeable future, no one really knows. Us wrestling fans are lucky because we do get to follow the Pan-American Olympic Qualifier over the next few days. That will be a needed diversion for people like myself that have had a hangover, of sorts, without any college wrestling to discuss during the time of the year where we normally talk about it most. Actually, it’s more than a diversion as the tournament is critical as our Senior-level athletes attempt to qualify weight classes for the Tokyo Olympics.
What about college wrestling? Personally, I expected that we would hear very little, news-wise, from the college-front. With many schools on evacuations and travel restrictions, it made sense. But that is not the case. Rumors are swirling that a second DI head coaching job (aside from Oregon State) is now open or will be shortly. With two vacancies before the midpoint in March, we could be in for a whirlwind of an offseason. Both Oregon State and the newly found opening are enticing enough to get the interest of the heavy hitters on the coaching front.