A Dozen Years of Dominance
March 27, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Over the span of March 20-22, 2008, the Big Ten and its wrestling squads threw a party, and were generous to invite the rest of the nation to attend. Yes, the party was officially named the 2008 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, and the words "Big Ten" were nowhere to be found in the title, on signs, or even on the trophies. Yet when the dust settled inside the Scottrade Center in St. Louis Mo., it was in fact, The Big Ten Party.
Consider these impressive facts:
The truth is that the Big Ten and the Big 12 (formerly the Big 8) have always been seen as the power conferences in college wrestling, but in recent years the Big Ten has begun to distance itself from the pack. Now, before we get carried away, we should note that throughout the history of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, the Big 8/12 has captured 49 team titles compared to the Big Ten's 25. Individually, 276 national weight-class crowns have been won by the Big 12, while the Big Ten has recorded 208.
In the last 12 years, however, the Big Ten has dominated the national scene in college wrestling. Four additional teams joined the Big 8 in 1997, and thus the Big 12 was formed. For a proper comparison to highlight the impressive run Big Ten wrestling as made, we date back 12 years to 1997 and look ahead.
Did you know that despite an impressive run by Oklahoma State from 2003-06, in which the Cowboys captured four straight national titles, the Big Ten recorded every other team championship since 1997? Iowa won four straight of its own from 1997-2000 and Minnesota captured back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002. The Golden Gophers ended Oklahoma State's run by winning the 2007 national title and Iowa earned back the top spot in 2008. It should also be known that a Big Ten team placed runner-up to Oklahoma State in each of its four championship runs.
Perhaps what makes Big Ten wrestling so appealing to recruits is the fact that each conference institution fields a team. In fact, prior to the NCAA Championships, nine of the league's 11 teams were ranked in the USA Today/InterMat/NWCA Coaches Poll. Iowa was a unanimous choice at No. 1, followed by defending national champion Minnesota and Michigan. Ohio State, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State ranked Nos. 8-11, while Indiana was 15th and Wisconsin was 18th. Michigan State was receiving votes. And while Iowa followed suit at the NCAA Championships, credit the eighth-ranked Buckeyes and No. 11 Penn State for finishing second and third in St. Louis.
Tom Ryan has played a big role in Ohio State's turnaround. The 1993 Iowa graduate was brought to Columbus two years ago to resurrect a Buckeye program that finished 11th in the conference in 2006. In one year, Ryan's team improved to ninth at Big Tens, but advanced six wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, which was the highest number of qualifiers since the 2002-03 season. Last year the Buckeyes finished the national tournament 10th.
"When you have a conference where institutions have fully-funded programs, people want to be part of that," Ryan said of the Big Ten atmosphere. "I feel the competition has gotten much tougher since I was at Iowa."
Ryan's pair of top-10 results in Columbus are a part of the 56 top-10 finishes the conference has recorded at the NCAA Championship since 1997. Compare that to the Big 12's 37, the difference is staggering. And the Big Ten has had nine of its 11 teams earn a top-10 finish at nationals over the past 12 years, including Iowa and Minnesota, which have posted that mark in each of those 12 seasons.
When looking at top-five finishes, the Big Ten holds a slim advantage over the Big 12, 27-26.
You want an amazing fact? Since 1997, there have been 60 opportunities for a top-five result at nationals. Combined, the Big Ten and Big 12 have earned 53 of those 60 positions.
Part of the reason the Big Ten has found that annual success on the national level is from the competitive and difficult conference dual season. Iowa's Mark Perry, who completed his senior year by successfully defending his national championship at 165 pounds, believes Big Ten wrestlers have an advantage over the rest of the country because they are forced to compete in such a tough conference.
"The Big Ten dual season is just a grind," Perry said. "Every dual meet you are facing someone that is a threat."
Perry should know. The two-time national champion, who also recorded a second and third-place effort at nationals, captured the Big Ten title only once, in 2007, while the other three seasons he was runner-up.
"It's a very difficult tournament to win," he said. "You have to just learn from your mistakes and adjust for that next weekend. Three out of the four times at NCAAs, I placed ahead of the guy that beat me at Big Tens."
To emphasize the strength of the Big Ten even more, Perry singled out Penn State's Mark McKnight at 125, who earned a wildcard exemption for the NCAA Championships this year with a 13-9 record.
"This year Mark McKnight got wildcarded, and he was borderline, and he ended up getting fourth at NCAAs."
Even still, the number of finalists the Big Ten had at the 2008 NCAA Championships surprised Perry.
"Just seeing the talent from each team, it was remarkable," he said. "I couldn't believe someone told me there were 14 guys from the Big Ten in the final. I don't know if that has ever happened before."
In 2008, the Big Ten outnumbered the Big 12 in individual championships, 7-1, and since 1997, holds an impressive 52-39 advantage. Again, by doing the math, the numbers tell us that the Big Ten averages more than four of the annual 10 individual crowns over the 12-year span.
Ryan points to the quality of a Big Ten wrestler when reasoning the dominant success the conference has had over the years.
"There is no question you realize the level of the athlete and commitment it takes to win at this level," he said. "That's what we look for."
For Perry, a native of Oklahoma who picked Iowa over Oklahoma State and Big Ten rivals Minnesota and Michigan, staying committed to winning helped him through his collegiate career. Plagued by injuries throughout his four-year stint in Iowa City, Perry wrestled through two bulging disks in his spine and reoccurring knee problems. In fact, after a seventh MRI on his knee came up negative, doctors performed surgery on his knee without knowing exactly what was wrong with him. Still, his knee would often lock up on him and did so again last weekend in St. Louis.
Now days removed from completing his college career, Perry looks back and says he was sold on Iowa went he went there on a recruiting visit during their wrestle-offs. He said it was special, unique, and he wanted a challenge.
"I wanted to be a part of that," he added.
And now looking at the numbers, who wouldn't want to be a part of Big Ten wrestling?