First Jason Peters was removed at Pittsburgh. Now, Kevin Jackson is stepping down at the end of the season at Iowa State. While the circumstances surrounding the coaching changes could hardly be more different and the two schools have very different histories in the sport, they have at least one thing in common. They both need more than a new head wrestling coach to be successful.
Iowa State is just seven years removed from being one of the top programs in the country. In Kevin Jackson’s first year in charge, the Cyclones finished in the top five at NCAAs for the fourth consecutive time after doing so in each of the previous three seasons with Cael Sanderson in charge. They had three national runner-up finishes under Bobby Douglas before that and, of course, they have eight national titles all-time, including six under Harold Nichols and their most recent, under Jim Gibbons, in 1987. Despite Jackson not having finished better than 11th since that first year, this is still one of the top jobs in the country.
The question of who should be the next head coach for Iowa State is an important one. However, the more important question is if the current administration, including athletic director Jamie Pollard, can create an environment where the wrestling program can thrive again. Pollard came on board on October 1st, 2005. He was in charge when Bobby Douglas was replaced, after the 2005-06 season, by Cael Sanderson. After three strong seasons under Sanderson, it was Pollard’s department that lost the head coach to Penn State. The Cyclone wrestling program has yet to recover while the Nittany Lions have come to dominate college wrestling. The parallels to Dan Gable are hard to miss as another legendary Cyclone wrestler went to a different school and started winning national title after national title.
The success of Sanderson in his short time leading the charge in Ames suggests that the right coach can get Iowa State back in the national conversation. However, each of the coaching moves made so far during Pollard’s tenure have eventually backfired. Perhaps the move to Sanderson was understandable, and it certainly worked for three years, but when Penn State came calling, Pollard failed to retain a homegrown legend who had restored the program to national prominence. He then failed to hire a replacement who could keep the team where Sanderson had them.
There are so many factors involved in measuring how well an athletic department supports their program. Most of them, such as travel and recruiting budgets, can only be guessed at, but when you lose one of your own it calls into question just how much you care about your team. If you’re not willing to do what it takes to keep Cael Sanderson around, what else aren’t you doing to help your team succeed? I must admit, it is possible that some of this is unfair criticism of Pollard. We don’t know what he tried to do to keep Sanderson and it is possible Kevin Jackson had everything he needed to succeed and simply didn’t work out. However, these are questions that need to be asked as the administration is, again, looking for a new head wrestling coach.
The questions in Pittsburgh are even more pressing. Situated in a fantastic area for recruiting and now competing in the rapidly improving ACC, the Panthers haven’t cracked the top-10 at the NCAA tournament since 1970. Pittsburgh wrestling hasn’t been nationally relevant since the early 60s. They don’t have the history and tradition that Iowa State does, but they do sit a lot closer to a tremendous amount of high school talent. Pitt’s administration doesn’t seem to have an issue with where their wrestling team has been for years as they let Rande Stottlemyer hang around for 34 seasons despite never finishing better than 13th in the country.
To be fair to Stottlemyer, he took over a team that was abysmal and improved the situation. He simply was never able to take the next step. The administration didn’t seem interested in taking that next step, either, as they hired Stottlemyer’s long-time assistant, Jason Peters, to take over in April of 2013. As you might expect, the Peters regime was more of the same. Pitt wasn’t bad, but it was easy to wonder what could be. Peters probably would have hung around at Pittsburgh as long as he wanted to be there, but a troubling incident at the Midlands led to his dismissal.
The opening for a new head coach at Pitt has sparked another round of speculation about what the program could be with the right coaching staff and strong administrative support. However, the history of the school suggests they aren’t interested in doing what it takes to improve. There is one ray of hope for Pitt fans that dream of a Penn State-like rise to power this time around. The current athletic director is heading to Oregon State. A search committee has been formed to find his replacement. If the new hire is made in time, and the new athletic director is supportive of it, there could be a sea change starting with a big coaching move. Even if the new athletic director does not have that influence yet, or isn’t even on board when the decision is made on a wrestling coach, Pitt fans can hope that whoever is hired will want to see all of their programs rise.
Whether, like Iowa State, a school has a long-time athletic director or, like Pitt, they’re going to have a new one soon, the relationship between wrestling teams and their administrations are vital. Even among “fully-funded” programs, there can be a wide range of support and resources available. Given that wrestling is a non-revenue sport, there are many administrations who aren’t willing to do what is necessary for their teams to succeed. Iowa State has, historically, done a much better job than Pitt in this regard, but both athletic departments find themselves at a crossroads. I don’t expect Pitt to pass the Cyclones anytime soon, but who gets the job both places will say a lot about the expectations of those in charge.