Abbott Blog: Why not aim for 100 Div. I men’s programs?

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Jan. 04, 2019, 11:46 a.m. (ET)
California Baptist, now a Div. I program, set a school attendance record of 3,252 when it hosted Ohio State earlier this season. Photo by Robert Jordan, courtesy of CBULancers.com

It has been a strong year for NCAA Div. I wrestling, in terms of growth. After many years of decline or stagnation, a few recent announcements have helped turn the trend in a positive direction, something the wrestling community has been striving to see for a long, long time.

The transitioning program at California Baptist has begun to compete at the Div. I level, although it can not compete in the NCAA Div. I Championships yet. New programs at Presbyterian College (SD) and Little Rock (AK) will begin competing next season. A pair of Div. II colleges with wrestling announced that their athletic departments were moving up to Div. I, Long Island University (NY) and Augustana (SD).

FloWrestling quickly did the math, and reported that there will be up to 80 NCAA Div. I programs within the next few years, something that is wonderful news.

Here is where I am coming from, a position I have had for a number of years. I truly believe that the U.S. wrestling community needs to set a specific goal of developing 100 NCAA Div. I programs for men. In my past discussions, I called this Project D-100, but it could be named something else more creative.

Let’s separate this discussion from creating Div. I women’s teams, which should have a whole different campaign and promotion. I am completely behind putting together a leadership group to focus solely on women’s Div. I wrestling, which will provide tremendous growth and opportunity in our sport.

The wrestling community, led by the NWCA, the U.S. Wrestling Foundation and many other groups, has done a great job creating numerous new varsity programs on the NCAA Div. II and Div. III, NAIA, NJCAA and women’s levels. A major part of this formula has been wrestling’s ability to show that by increasing enrollment through wrestling teams, colleges will grow their number of students and their revenue will increase. It has worked and is working, and our sport is truly growing at the college level because of this leadership. Providing some seed money has also been helpful in this strategy.

NCAA Div. I is an entirely different animal. Many of these major universities really don’t need more students. In addition, it is fair to say that Div. I athletics programs are operating under a broken financial model. Title IX considerations are clearly a factor at the Div. I level. It is way harder to get a Div. I program started, especially in a men’s “non-revenue” sport.

Here is my perspective. I wrestled in high school in the height of the baby boom, and in 1978, the year I graduated, there were 338,328 high school wrestlers, a high water mark for participation. When I was an NCAA Div. I wrestler in the late 70’s and early 80’s, there were over 150 NCAA Div. I programs, at or near the peak. We may not be able to match those kind of numbers for numerous reasons, but I contend that we can increase what we have right now.

I absolutely believe that with a focused, organized, cooperative effort, the goal of 100 NCAA Div. I programs for men is possible in my lifetime. However, without working together in a strategic way, I am concerned we will not reach that level. Trust me, breaking 100 programs is a tremendous achievement. The magic number 100 shows the world that wrestling is strong and that our sport is important. Getting to that number helps our sport in so many ways.

Can we do that? Adding 20 teams to the 80 we will soon have is what we are talking about. My answer is YES.

So how can we do this? The first step is making a commitment to that goal. This will be done one program at a time, all over the nation. It will take tremendous resources, not just financial but also human. We can do this.

Here are some major areas of focus that should be included in any strategic plan to reach this goal:

* Keep all of our existing programs strong – Like it or not, we won’t grow if we continue to lose programs. We can’t see more teams dropped like Eastern Michigan and Boston University. Every single Div. I team is important. For every lost program, we need to find two new ones in order to grow. Like it or not, regardless of how many we have, there will be some programs which have losing records or fewer resources. As a community, we need to rally behind every NCAA Div. I team, showing up at events, encouraging alumni support, hosting creative competitions like outdoor matches, etc. With mentorship from their coaches, wrestling student-athletes need to maintain great grades and graduation rates, while being leaders on campus. Wrestling needs to be supportive of the other teams on campus, becoming an important part of that college community. We need to lock these programs in, every one.

* Help support programs in transition – It is great when NCAA Div. II athletic departments with wrestling like LIU and Augustana move up to Div. I. Since Div. II wrestling and other divisions are growing, having a few teams bump up to D-I is not going to hurt the wrestling at those levels. Here is the problem. During transition, these teams can’t go to the NCAA Div. I Championships for a while. This is a tough thing, making it harder to recruit and get support. We have lost some wrestling programs during an athletic department’s move up to Div. I. Wrestling teams at Grand Canyon and UN-Omaha come immediately to mind (although the Omaha story has much more to it). A focused effort must be put into helping these teams during transition to maintain their place in their athletic program and to be promoted within wrestling, even when they can’t make it to the NCAA Championships. Like our existing Div. I programs, we need to lock down these transitioning programs.

* Strategically identify Div. I programs which never had wrestling – Like it or not, I believe it is easier to get a school which didn’t have wrestling to be excited about our sport than an institution that dropped the sport. These programs exist. Our new Div. I programs at Presbyterian and Little Rock are examples. Consider the areas in the nation where there are no Div. I wrestling programs. Those regions are prime targets. Finding colleges which might be open to a new men’s program in a sport they never sponsored, by offering the right incentives which appeal to what is important to that institution, needs to pursued actively.

* Find ways to bring in Div. I wrestling for both men and women at the same time – When Presbyterian College added men’s and women’s wrestling at the same time, it showed this can happen at the Div. I level. There are many examples of this approach working at the lower divisions. This strategy eliminates the Title IX numbers game. Starting them together is a push in the numbers, so it does not create a barrier due to male-female participation issues in the overall athletic program.

* Fill in some gaps in conferences by getting core programs to bring back wrestling – We have some great wrestling conferences which exist with some core members not competing, and in some cases with affiliated members. Getting some of their core conference programs back into the sport could have some impact. How about getting one of the Texas teams in the Big 12 to add wrestling? What about getting a core Pac-12 team, maybe in Washington, to wrestle again? Consider the return of a core team from the MAC, maybe one in wrestling-rich Ohio? How against getting a Clemson to bring back an ACC wrestling team? You clearly won’t get them all, but if we got just one core team to start wrestling in the major conferences, it would strengthen those conferences and help us reach our 100 goal.

* Never give up on pushing to bring back a team that has been dropped – This may be the hardest one, but teams have and can come back. It takes extensive alumni support and funding to get it done. I would never discourage people who are working with their alma mater and trying to find a way to reinstate wrestling.

I am certain one of the responses to any of these ideas is that it all comes down to money. For this, I propose creating a fundraising program to collect money to be used entirely for one purpose – adding Div. I wrestling programs. There have been so many programs in the past which have been dropped, and all of those wrestling alumni no longer have a program to donate to at their school. Why not bring us all together behind Project D-100?

I say “we” because I am one of those Div. I wrestling alumni from a school that no longer has wrestling (Boston University). So is my older brother (Colgate). So are many of my friends in wrestling who went on to Div. I teams and saw their school drop wrestling. What if every former Div. I wrestler at a college which dropped the sport donated a minimum of $100 to this cause? We could build of a pretty hefty bank account just from people like us. Obviously, we would also ask for support from others in wrestling who want to see more Div. I teams. We could also solicit support from wrestling companies who would benefit from a larger wrestling community.

In my mind, first of all we need to agree to set the 100 program goal. Then we need to find a leadership commitment, hopefully from a coalition of organizations. Maybe I am just chasing a pipe-dream, but maybe not. Nobody achieved anything great without doing a little bit of creative dreaming.