How Wrestling Wins – Chapter 11

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Chapter 11

This week Mark Emmert, the President of the NCAA spoke to the Associated Press in regards to the University of Alabama-Birmingham dropping football. “I’m worried while autonomy for the Big Five conferences will lead to more money being spent on athletes it could decrease the overall number of opportunities in college sports for students.”

UAB cited the rising costs of college athletics, including pressure to pay the new full cost of attendance for athletes as a reason for their decision. And given that they are bowl eligible again this year which suggests another influx of significant revenue, what do you think the future is for football programs that seldom go bowling? And if it can happen in football . . .

Mr. Emmert went on to suggest that he believes Olympic sports are much more vulnerable to cuts now as schools look at athletic budgets. He suggested when universities are trying to support non-revenue programs and feeling pinched financially, that Olympic sports like volleyball, soccer, gymnastics and wrestling (sports he named specifically) have a right to be concerned. ”I do worry a lot we may well see in the coming years a reduction of commitments from our campuses in those programs.”

In non-political speak, given a moderate economy and the arms race that the two major sports are currently waging, wrestling is going to become a club sport.

So now we’ve heard that from the President of the NCAA right after Bob Bowlsby, the Commissioner of the Big 12 and the most powerful friend wrestling has said essentially the same thing a little over a month ago. Who else do we need to hear from before this sinks in; wrestling has to make immediate changes which are designed to balance each of our programs budgets. Yet despite significant hints of concern, it appears the sport and its leadership didn’t learn much from last summer’s Olympic debacle.

Now I realize it will take us more years to achieve a balanced budget than we have left. But if we’re smart, we’d start anyway because when administrations have to make tough decisions, I believe the first programs they’ll chop are the ones who aren’t moving toward solvency.

But we shouldn’t expect that to happen because it’s far easier for leadership to ignore the warning signs than it is for them to defend a call for change like I have been doing with these blogs.

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Speaking of changes, our coaches need to work more diligently at becoming team players. Currently many seem to forget that their sport is part of a larger family unit that their athletic director oversees.

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that team performance, athlete behavior, grades, scholarships, intrinsic contributions and of course budgets are always subject to review and the person who does the reviewing is the AD. So when a program has to be discontinued, contrary to popular belief, it’s typically not Title IX’s fault, it’s not about the economy although it is indirectly and it’s not about the sports negligible media coverage or anemic spectator base although it could be. My point here is it’s always about relationships.

Programs fall when coaches fail to establish both a harmonious and empathetic relationship with their administrators.

I believe we all understand that wrestling is riding in steerage on most athletic department ships; which is never good news. But wrestling should remember that every other non-revenue sport is bunking with us. So when Title IX does become an issue, when the economy does affect an athletic department’s bottom line, when poor media coverage and too few spectators does make a difference, the programs that are first to disappear are the ones who are poorest at the relationship game.

It’s all about where a sport ranks; not on the national stage where wrestling coaches focus but internally. Because on every campus, in every athletic department there is a friendship list that rates each sport from highest to lowest, most liked to least. It’s this list that administrator’s turn to when it becomes apparent that they need to thin the herd. Unfortunately for coaches who are less perceptive, regardless of the sport they oversee, they’re the ones who end up rotating on the spit. Now athletic directors won’t admit there’s a list, sort of like Louis Lerner with her emails but you can count on it; there is a list.

Now I guess the question becomes, is the existence of that list a good or bad thing? If you’re aware there is one, and are good at competing like wrestling coaches are, then it’s a great thing. But given that over five hundred wrestling programs have been dropped in the last 40 years, I’m going to give our coaches the benefit of the doubt here and say they weren’t aware of the list. The only other possibility is they’re in positions that are in excess of their capabilities.

Coaches, the competition isn’t beating Iowa or Penn State or Hofstra, it’s defeating the gymnastic coach who has the office across the hall from you. It’s your swimming, tennis and track coach friends who you play racquetball with over lunch. It’s the gymnastic, baseball and cross country coaches that have always supported your program.

Now I don’t like what I’m writing here but think of what’s happening as a sixteen team tournament between all the non-revenue sports at your school. All you have to do is survive the first round of competition, you don’t even have to worry about the quarter finals, just win the first round. So when the economy falters and athletic departments are forced to shed programs, the athletic director looks to the sports who didn’t win the first round. They’re the ones who hear, “We’re sorry but the school is discontinuing your sport.”

Remember what we’re talking about here; relationships. It’s not about winning dual meets, tournaments or the number of All-Americans a program has produced. It’s about relationships.

To my point, if you recall each of the last 6 or 7 major Division I programs that dropped wrestling had an historic or near historic season the year they disappeared. So to assume winning is the way administrators evaluate programs is to keep ones head in the sand. It’s just not so.

Teams that remain an intercollegiate sport are the ones who outshine the other Olympic sports at their school.

And by outshining I mean successful sports need to have a higher graduation rate and overall GPA than at least half of the other non-revenue sports. Outshining means successful sports have to account for significantly less administrative headaches than at least half of the other non-revenue sports. Outshining means that the community leaders in the city or town where the institution resides has to have more positive things to say about wrestling than at least half of the other non-revenue sports. Outshining means the successful sports are such a part of the administrations inner circle that their coaches are at least asked to play poker on Wednesday nights or golf on the weekends with those whose opinions matter.

What schools really find unbecoming are coaches who are simply takers and/or administrative antagonists which I’m sorry to say wrestling has their share of in the sport. To be clear, administrators will drop a sport that has an annual budget of $560,000.00 over another that spends $730,000.00 if the former isn’t a team player. It’s not always, and usually seldom about the amount of money a sport spends but it’s always about relationships.

So while the coach is doing his part to endear himself to leadership he needs to make sure that every one of his institutions power brokers are also aware of his efforts and the sports off the mat accomplishments. It’s one thing to do good deeds, but that by itself is not enough. You have to find modest ways of letting others know of your successes and willingness to be a team player. Things like the entire wrestling department staff attending as many university sponsored outings and alumni gatherings as schedules permits is one way; and of course dressed appropriately. Creating and sending bimonthly newsletters to key decision makers is another. Obviously there is a lot more our coaches can do but it’s all about cultivating relationships outside of the athletic department, something that discontinued sports have often overlooked.

One of a dozen or so promotional successes that Bob Ferraro had when he was the Head Coach at Bucknell University was to develop an institutional Hall of Fame just for wrestling. Besides including those who had their hand raised more than any other he made a significant effort to include past graduates who the National Wrestling Hall of Fame would call Distinguished Americans; individuals who wrestled for him that are either captains of industry or have been significantly successful in other professions.

Bob honored these gentlemen by hanging 18” X 24” framed photographs of each Distinguished Member not in the wrestling room or his office but in the main hallway of the athletic department. This did two things. It reminded the school’s administrators every morning who they were going to have to deal with if they ever thought about dropping the sport and two; they were the ones who did step up and save the program when the AD thought his clout outweighed theirs. Remember the object for coaches is to place a buffer between their programs and extinction.

Think for a moment, how many colleges do you know of that 1) Has a Hall of Fame specifically for wrestling and 2) Has made its existence known in glaring ways to the university in general?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about administrators it is they tend to know more about the negative side of non-revenue sports than they do about the positives. So it doesn’t help wrestling when coaches forget to market the aspects of their program that are noteworthy. Doing everything right doesn’t mean a hell of beans if no one knows it you did it in the first place.

Here are a few suggestions that coaches might consider if they’re interested in helping administrators with difficult decisions before they’re made. Being proactive and ducking always trumps trying to win a fight after you’re already on your back from a sucker punch.

  1. Start or become part of the local Beat the Streets program or send one of your athletes who can’t practice for whatever reason to the local HS to help their program. When you make a difference in the lives of young people society always notices.
  2. Educate people to the significance of wrestling and wrestlers with regards to America’s Special Forces community. Remind them they’re the tip of the spear in regards to America’s freedom.
  3. Work to make sure that everything your athletic director hears about wrestling is positive. Your 149 pounder helping grandma across the street is a start.
  4. Remind university officials that wrestling has a graduation rate greater than the general student population (hopefully it does) and that it has had X number of Academic All-American’s.
  5. Market the fact that X% of your graduates are currently pursuing advanced degrees and that you’ve had X number of Dean’s list wrestlers or Rhodes Scholars come through your program.
  6. Develop a wrestling specific alumni organization that annually donates either time or financial assistance to the university. Then find a way to make this groups existence known.
  7. Publicize the fact that X numbers of wrestlers are Student Senators on campus, “who always vote to support athletic department interests.” That gets AD’s attention.
  8. Remind the school community that wrestling annually sponsors civic events like the campuses Blood Mobile Drive each Fall.
  9. It wouldn’t hurt to mention that your athletes have donated over 2000 hours at the local homeless shelter or to the USO club at the airport.
  10. Take your AD out to lunch once each semester not to ask for additional funding but to make him aware of what wrestling is doing to support his department goals. Lunch is about him, not you.
  11. Become involved in America’s Wounded Warrior Project or volunteer the wrestlers to maintain a mile of local highway as part of the nation’s Adopt a Highway Program. Programs could give garbage bags with Boise State Wrestling imprinted on the side of them to each athlete to use for trash pickup as they go running. People notice those things.

This list is endless and it’s only limited by a coach’s imagination. The point is any of these things will elevate wrestling in the eyes of decision makers.

The Morning Thought: when coaches spend athletic department money, it might help prioritizing if they think of it as coming from the Athletic Director’s personal checking account.

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What others are saying about How Wrestling Wins:

“Bravo Wade! After the third paragraph I had to get up to get a cup of coffee because I began to cry. Once I gathered myself, I finished reading your piece and found it to be a bright light in a dark room. It hurt my eyes but my GOD, once I adjusted, I could see how right you are.”

Wayne Boyd, Palm Springs, California

“Wade Schalles raises the tough, real questions about the perils facing the sport of wrestling and the ongoing failures of the sport’s leadership, both in America and the world. Whether or not you agree with all his conclusions, the issues he discusses must be addressed if wrestling is to survive.”

Eddie Goldman, Ney York City

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11. Complicate the sport strategically: wrestling needs to significantly work toward increasing the ways we engage our spectators in matches. Right now the rules are such that there is minimal involvement. Sure, they cheer for a Jordan Burroughsesque blast double but strategically there’s nothing there to debate. We need to find ways for each of our fans to have their own opinions about what could, would or should happen in a way that they can defend their views with the person sitting next to them. Right now the gloriousness of being able to argue a position, regardless of the person’s stance, doesn’t exist in wrestling.

Every time we develop new rules or alter old ones it should be done in a way that increases the sports strategic options. We need to have those who watch wrestling second guessing the coach and be able to question a technique or strategy an athlete undertakes. Our rules must be simple to understand and our strategies infinitely complex if we expect to entertain spectators. Why do you think Jeopardy is so popular on television; because the rules are easy to understand, the questions are tough to answer and the amount of money wagered on Daily Doubles is typically debatable.

Now I realize coaches and athletes won’t like being second guessed; just like coaches in other sports don’t like it very much. But that is part of any successful game and it’s what coaches get paid to handle and athletes receive notoriety to manage. I’ve heard it said that all press is good press and I believe all talk is good talk if it comes from spectators who are demanding more of us.

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Forfeits: OMG guys. Name one team sport that doesn’t have to show up to competition with a full line-up? How can we expect to endear wrestling to existing spectators let alone new ones when our coaches decide how many matches they’re going to allow us to see?

If that same model was used in business it would bankrupt every company who tried it. You can’t cheat consumers and expect them to say thank you. And we wonder why television never wants to cover wrestling and our numbers keep dropping?

 Forfeits are tearing the sport apart and for some unknown reason, our leadership thinks it’s perfectly okay given their silence.

Then again, why would they want to say something and open the door to the uncomfortable nature of change? God forbid they’d have to do their jobs.

This past week the University of Missouri had two matches, Friday evening against Ohio University and Ohio State on Saturday. They forfeited 3 different weight classes out of the 20 matches. One of them Friday evening was a match-up against the only two nationally ranked wrestlers who were at the same weight. That’s like canceling the main event at an UFC fight after the spectators have arrived and paid their money. Then being told; “Thank you and won’t you come back next week?”

Tonight there were three forfeits in the Northwestern-Minnesota dual meet. Other than short changing spectators I will say it was an excellent meet with notable attendance. But how can there be forfeits? These schools are Big 10, not two small D-III schools from Mississippi. And this trend is happening all over the country, both collegiately and scholastically.

In the coaches’ defense, the rules aren’t their fault? They’re doing what they feel they need to do in order to win matches and qualify kids for the national tournament; but it is the NCAA Rules Committee’s fault. How can they watch forfeit after forfeit take place and think it’s somehow good for the sport? Do they actually believe their inaction endears the sport to either our spectators or America’s media outlets?

Should we be concerned about an athletic department’s business manager saying to his boss, “Why are we spending half a million dollars on wrestling when they have virtually no spectators, they can’t put a full team on the mat and as a school we’re struggling with Title IX numbers?”

Of the three, the one that will have us standing on the gallows quicker than anything is not being able to field a full team. It tells administrators that there’s little interest in the sport, from within the sport itself. Whether that’s correct or not doesn’t matter, it’s the perception that counts.

How about the NCAA making the determination if the sport can’t field full teams they obviously need to reduce the number of weight classes to equal perceived participation interest? And when that happens like it did in Olympic competition when the IOC forced them to move from 10 weight classes to 6, all be it for different reasons, the coaches brought it on themselves.

No one can tell me that coaches don’t have or can’t find someone to wrestle in whatever weight class they’re forfeiting. It’s total bunk. They choose not to put someone on the mat. If they have to fly someone in at the last minute or push someone up a weight class so be it! This is flat out wrong and one of the reasons why I created the Double Up rule in an earlier blog. It forces coaches to use the athlete who is right below the weight he’s forfeiting to double up and plug the hole. That works with every weight class except at 125 but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it. If something fixes 90% of any problem, it is better than the 40% we’re currently scoring.

Or maybe we should consider making forfeits 15 team points instead of 6 as I suggested in an earlier blog. Why not, if you want to add more teeth to the rule, that will do it.

If you like draconian, how about the team that forfeits any weight class must also forfeit the dual meet. The individual matches are still wrestled but the outcome of the dual meet has already been decided.

My rationale is if the coach can find someone to wrestle which I believe to be true, then he’s the one who’s forfeiting so it shouldn’t be an individual loss, it should be his loss. In other words, a team loss. If forfeiting is going to cause the coach to lose the dual, you can bet the sky will fall before he forfeits again. Problem solved.

Or how about having the equivalent of a weight class death penalty; the school that’s forfeiting is also forfeiting the right to have an athlete represent them at that weight at the NCAA tournament. That’s a double ouch, something that would put a screeching halt to forfeits.

But regardless of the solution wrestling must stop the practice of forfeiting weight classes, at any cost, because they are that damaging to the sport.

Chapter 12 next Sunday.

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2 thoughts on “How Wrestling Wins – Chapter 11

  1. Wade, I was a great fan of yours in HS. I recently retired as a wrestling coach in upstate NY. And this is the first time I have seen your column. I never understood in HS wrestling how we have girls compete against guys. The simple solution is this. Create three woman’s weight divisions ( lightweight , middleweight , heavyweight ) for girls only. Wrestle them with the boys and include the score. They can continue to practice with the boys. As the sports numbers increase add more weight classes. This can can be done at no or little extra cost.

    In no other sport do women compete against guys (soccer, basketball, volleyball, etc). This change can be made immediately and we can watch the numbers grow as it builds steam.

    • Tom . . . love your idea and I will include it in a future blog. It also makes dropping the sport all the more difficult (Title IX) with a combined team.

      And thank you for the kind words.

      Wade

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