Big questions in conference alignment
Leagues, qualifying tourneys unsettled as football drives change
The debate continues off the mat as to the fate of many of collegiate wrestling’s conference affiliations. With decisions being made at administrative levels that do not include wrestling coaches, it still remains, for the most part, a wait-and-see proposition.
With litigation pending with the Big East Conference, West Virginia’s wrestling program, which competes in the Eastern Wrestling League, is tentatively preparing for a move to the Big 12 Conference to wrestle starting with the 2012-13 season.
Pittsburgh, also a Big East basketball member, is tentatively set to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports starting next year.
The EWL, a wrestling-only alliance created in 1976, would drop to only five teams -- Edinboro, Clarion, Cleveland State, Lock Haven and Bloomsburg. Penn State was an original member of the league but moved to the Big Ten.
By this time next year the conversation could be completely different.
“We are trying to be proactive,” said Edinboro Athletics Director Bruce Baumgartner, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. “Decisions in major college athletics are not being made by wrestling coaches. But [EWL] coaches are working to see if there is a sixth or seventh program out there who might want to join the EWL, or there is the possibility of some adding wrestling in the near future.
“We have five strong core programs right now with a rich tradition and we’d like to keep that tradition alive.”
Regional rivalries are important in wrestling. Fans not only want to see Iowa-Iowa State and Oklahoma State-Oklahoma, but in Pennsylvania there is Edinboro-Lock Haven and Clarion-Bloomsburg. Rivalry is the same regardless of where it takes place.
West Virginia head coach Craig Turnbull is in his 34th year running the Mountaineer program. It could be the last in the EWL.
“There is a lot of discussion with a lot of things being put on the table with the remaining EWL schools,” Turnbull said. “One of the things I think is eminent in wrestling is putting together a regional system where the Big Ten and EIWA remain intact and some of the others merging.
“It’s really unfortunate how everything has been driven by football and money, and not logic at all.”
In the meantime the veteran coach is preparing for the possible move to Big 12 pastures.
“My perspective is that it is a great situation for West Virginia wrestling,” Turnbull said. “It’s great for our recruiting and gives us a better chance of keeping kids closer to home. It’s one more aspect to sell the program, showing them that we are going to be competing against some of the best schools. Even though there is only three you are talking about, they are three of the best programs in the country. We are going to wrestle Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State every year and every other year those programs are going to be in our gym.
“But at the same time it is very important to keep those regional rivalries going. We want to face the best competition, but again, it is still very important for us to wrestle Pittsburgh and schools we have traditionally always wrestled.”
“For the health of our sport it’s important to keep those rivalries going,” Baumgartner said. “When rivalries go away, you lose your fan base.”
With Missouri joining the Southeastern Conference, a group of schools without a single wrestling program, finding an NCAA qualifying league for the Tigers is still in the process. Their exit from the Big 12 leaves only Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State as competing wrestling schools after Nebraska left following the 2010-11 season.
|More on conference realignment|
|West Virginia joins Big 12|
|Syracuse, Pitt make move to ACC|
|Missouri leaving Big 12 for SEC|
“I don’t know if I’d feel the same way if I were in baseball or some of the other sports where they are going to spend most of their season on a plane and missing a lot of class,” Turnbull said.
There are, as always, any number of possibilities. A handful of coaches have a few ideas.
The Big Ten, the elite conference in wrestling, and the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Conference, another tradition-rich wrestling alliance, have more than 10 members and would remain intact in regards to NCAA qualifying tournaments.
The EWL could merge with the Colonial Athletic Association or Southern Conference with the Atlantic Coast Conference joining the other; the Big 12 and Mid-American could join forces; and the Western Wrestling Conference and Pac-12 merge. It would leave five wrestling regions/alliances/leagues, however you want to term it, with each holding an NCAA qualifier before the NCAA Championships.
“It comes down to what the NCAA Championships are about,” said Baumgartner, who won 13 World-level medals in freestyle including a gold medal in 1984. “Are we looking for the best 32, or 32 guys at each weight class, or is it about representation?
“What wrestling needs to do is think about what is in the best interest of the sport.”