The View from Rutgers: Conference Re-Alignment, UFC, Recruiting and Other Matters of Amateur Athletics

b1g_icon“The campus is alive—people can tell you much more about the 2014 football schedule than they can about the 2013 schedule” says Scott Goodale, coach of the Rutgers wrestling team. Starting fall, 2014, the Scarlet Knights will begin competition in the Big Ten which will then expand to 14 members with the addition of Rutgers and ACC charter member Maryland. For the record, in 2014, Rutgers football will receive visits from Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin and will go on the road to play Ohio State, Nebraska and Maryland (by contrast, in 2013, the last season before Big Ten play, the Scarlett Knights play the likes of Arkansas, Houston, Louisville, Cincinnati,  Connecticut, Central Florida and South Florida).  The renewal of their long-time rivalry with Penn State has to be particularly exciting given that the two programs have not played since 1995—shortly after Penn State ceased being an independent power by joining the Big Ten.

While some treat this affiliation as a big yawn, one only has to dig a little deeper to appreciate why this could well be a move where the sum is much more significant than its parts.  I had a chance to sit down with Coach Goodale, who happened to be in my adopted home, Carlsbad, CA on a recruiting visit.  I was struck by how a wrestling program at a school like Rutgers now sits right in the middle of some of the big amateur sports and Olympic issues of our day.

Rutgers has certainly enjoyed football success, and much of it in the last decade, but few would pretend it has cracked into the level of consistently being an elite program, despite being a major football playing power in the talent rich Atlantic seaboard region.  While one always has to be careful about comparing football, which is species unto itself, to other athletics programs, in this instance Rutgers wrestling may be a useful comparator as it also sits in a talent rich region.

“The problem we have is that if a wrestler is interested in us, he is probably also interested and capable of getting into Princeton, Harvard, etc., so we often lose that wrestler. If he is capable of wrestling at a higher level, he often chooses the Big Ten, so we are somewhat caught in the middle.”  One suspects football is much the same—the Big East is typically not the recruiting draw that other conferences are for top tier talent, and while Rutgers may not have to compete with the Ivies for the next level of high school football talent, they still have to share that talent with a number of competing programs such as Boston College, West Virginia, Connecticut, Temple to name just a few.

Thus, at least for football, wrestling and many other sports, one suspects, the move to the Big Ten has to be seen as a recruiting bonanza, a point directly underscored by Coach Goodale.  There are some exceptions—while Rutgers may in fact be able to amp up the basketball excitement for moving to the Big Ten, the Big East was of course among the elite of basketball conferences (underscore “was” as the Catholic seven bolt from the rest of the old Big East—even retaining the name). Some sports might actually have a tougher go—men’s soccer for example where four current Big Ten teams do not sponsor a team (Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue).  Despite the overall prestige of the Big Ten, it might be tougher to recruit soccer players into a conference where less than all members are enthusiastic—one can only imagine how men’s lacrosse recruits in lacrosse-mad Maryland view the move to the much less lacrosse serious Big Ten (though the addition of powerhouse Johns Hopkins as a Big Ten lacrosse member does provide a powerful counter for that particular concern).

Obviously of course, the new money that will funnel through to Rutgers because of the move to the Big Ten will be felt across the board as the annual take, while uncertain at this point, will be millions more than it enjoyed before the move.  While football recruiting will not be affected at least in terms of scholarships, facilities will doubtlessly improve and recruiting in other sports will improve.  Wrestling was already fully funded in that the full NCAA allotment of 9.9 annual scholarships is provided at Rutgers—however, the dollar amount is based on in-state tuition, meaning it is quite a bit tougher to recruit out of state kids who typically have to pay a portion of tuition at out of state rates.  The increased budget as a result of joining the Big Ten is likely to allow filling those scholarships with out of state rates—a significant new bonus for the non-revenue sports.

Indeed, for 2014, the first recruiting year in which the jump to the Big Ten has had an effect as a recruiting tool, Rutgers has seen an impressive bump in the rankings of its commitments, highlighted so far by the overall number 60 ranked high school wrestler, Anthony Giraldo, ironically from nearby North Bergen NJ.  “Last year I would have been basically limited to driving around New Jersey looking for athletes. This year I am talking to you in Southern California as I recruit the best kids in the country—kids that know that by the time they arrive on campus they will have the chance to compete for a Big Ten title,”  says Coach Goodale.  With no disrespect whatsoever to the proud and successful Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association, where Rutgers participates through the 2013-14 season, it is quite a step up to be able to tell recruits they will compete for their entire careers in the Big Ten—a conference that produced six of ten 2013 NCAA champions.

Football recruiting seems to be off to a similarly stalwart start.  College football recruiting rankings, inherently suspect, are even more specious when it comes to mid-year snapshots.  Nonetheless, after finishing 45th in the Yahoo/Rivals 2013 rankings, Rutgers football is up to 16th in the latest 2014 rankings (as of now, Maryland has not enjoyed a similar bump).

One also suspects this change in the state of Rutgers recruiting reflects an expanded travel budget in anticipation of Big Ten riches as much as it does the prospect of offering recruits the opportunity to wrestle in the dominant wrestling conference in the country once they arrive.

I was surprised to learn from Coach Goodale that the there is not a lot of buzz within the college wrestling community about the Ed O’Bannon case and its impact on collegiate sports.  It might be that wrestling is fighting too many other battles right now to worry about the speculative effect of what that case might bring.  Wrestling, which has been devastated perhaps as much as any sport because of Title IX, now worries about how the impact of a potential loss of wrestling in the Olympics might further erode its brand appeal with young athletes.  Since February when the Olympic executive board recommended dropping wrestling after the 2016 Olympics, many feel the battle being waged for permanent Olympic reinstatement September is being won.

It is ironic that one of the adjustments made by US and International wrestling to save wrestling in the Olympics has been to further embrace women’s wrestling.  One wonders, as Title IX continues to chip away at wrestling (for example, proponents were saddened to learn of Boston University’s recent decision to drop wrestling), could women’s wrestling not only help on the Olympic level but on the collegiate level as well? Wrestling is not a capital intensive sport—if a college can adopt a women’s program, the same facilities could of course support a men’s team.  And if the O’Bannon case does shrink the dollars available for non-revenue sports, could a sport like wrestling address Title IX and still restrain costs in a post-O’Bannon era? While women’s wrestling is still not on the shortlist yet of programs to be added by major universities, the list of smaller colleges adopting wrestling programs is impressive and growing.  Coach Goodale could not speculate on the future of women’s wrestling except to indicate there is a palpable buzz that did not exist in prior years and added: “if you watch women wrestlers at the highest level, it is really impressive how far they have come in just a few short years.  If this catches on, I could see women’s wrestling becoming a major force.”

Among the changes that wrestling adopted to save its Olympic cache was a revamp of bizarre and almost random scoring rules.  The most hated was a “ball drop” to decide a tie where one wrestler was awarded a starting position that led to a win nearly 90% of the time.  For the most part, fans and wrestlers have applauded the move to the new rules which penalize passivity and end a lopsided match more quickly.  Coach Goodale thought some of the new freestyle rules could have a beneficial effect at the collegiate level, especially the passivity rule which, if there has been no score for a set period, the referee declares one wrestler as the passive wrestler.  If no one scores in the next 30 seconds, the non-passive wrestler is awarded a point.  “I also like the one point awarded on a push out—make them wrestle in the middle.” Continuing, Coach Goodale adds, “and recently, someone suggested awarding three points for just the first takedown—that might make things more exciting too if a premium was put on early aggression.”

Despite potential challenges on the horizon for wrestling, in some respects the future of wrestling has never been brighter.  As the key building block for the immensely popular MMA/UFC, wrestling has an opportunity to reach a young, excited and huge audience–a genuine opportunity for mass appeal. Former Buckeye wrestling star Tommy Rowlands has been one of the most active persons in linking the popular consciousness of MMA to its wrestling roots.  Some of the most dominant fight names are and have been collegiate wrestlers, including Brock Lesnar, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Chael Sonnen, Phil, “Mr. Wonderful” Davis and Buckeye strongman and pioneer Kevin Randleman.  Wrestlers watched former Hofstra star Chris Weidman rock the world by ending the seven year reign of former middleweight champion Anderson Silva.  The night was particularly sweet for the Rutgers wrestling community, Coach Goodale and his close friend,  volunteer Rutgers coach Frankie Edgar, former featherweight champ (currently ranked No. 3).  Edgar, one of the most popular UFC fighters of his era, shared the card with New Yorker Weidman and won an exciting and decisive bout against physically imposing up and coming Charles Oliveira.  Wrestlers now have exciting options beyond coaching—and the potential to earn enormous income.  “You see a great guy like Frankie Edgar, how much he means to the UFC and how much wrestling has meant to him.  He works out with our team as one of the guys–it is exciting to the kids, but you can tell Frankie gets a lot out of it too in terms of his own fight preparation.  I would never want to get hit in the face, but these guys come out of college, and they are so tough, and they have mastered the art of close contact and precise maneuvers.  For most of them, picking up boxing and cementing the other pieces is actually pretty easy given what they have already mastered, and before long, they are the ones dishing out the punishment. This fight game has gone way past boxing, and it is exciting that our young men are so much a part of it” observes Coach Goodale.  Then, siting back with eyes on the horizon, he added, “and hey, young women too. It’s an exciting new time, and I’m glad I’m a part of it.”

Indeed it is.  Welcome Scarlet Knights.

Comments

  1. Let us not forget that of the best UFC fighters ever Mark “The Hammer” Coleman was a Buckeye Wrestler… I am fairly sure there were others as well. The B1G wrestling programs are a feeder system to future UFC champs for sure…

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