A better way to run a great sport

Oklahoma’s Mitch Moore crotches down amid a break in action during his bout on Jan. 8 against Arizona State’s Cory Crooks at McCasland Field House.

NORMAN — Weather and the coronavirus willing, 19th-ranked Oklahoma meets sixth-ranked Oklahoma State in Stillwater on Sunday.

Two ranked teams, nearing the end of their regular seasons, it might be worth watching.

The Cowboys must be looking to host a regional. The Sooners must be looking to raise their seed.

Intriguing, right?

That’s the Big 12.

What about the Big 10, which counts a whopping 10 top-25 programs.

Friday, No. 1 Iowa visits No. 25 Wisconsin, No. 4 Michigan travels to No. 23 Michigan State, No. 2 Penn State’s at No. 12 Ohio State. No. 8 Nebraska visits No. 11 Illinois on Sunday.

Talk about a weekend.

Teams must be rounding into shape, getting ready for the tournament, trying to raise their stock.

Right?

Wrong.

All wrong.

Also, tragic.

Because wrestling — you knew this was about wrestling right? — is a wonderful sport. Between a buzzer-beating-3, a walk-off home run and two great grapplers trading third-period reversals when something’s on the line, the mat may well offer the most excitement.

Yet, the stupidity by which collegiate championships are chased is ruinous and dumb and the only folks who believe in them are such true believers they’re blind to the perpetual opportunity their sport has long ignored.

All those matchups mentioned above? Ranked team vs. ranked team? They’re not games or matches, but duals.

They’re duals and they’re the lifeblood of the sport, also meaningless and fraudulent, literally serving no purpose beyond selling tickets and concessions.

It’s the mat’s big lie.

Win all your duals and you receive no bonus entering your conference tournament. Win all your duals and you get no breaks chasing a national championship. Win all your duals and you might be the favorite to win your conference or NCAA championship, or you might not be because winning mat championships has nothing to do with winning mat duals.

A team that counts five wrestlers, total, could not win a single dual. Forfeiting half the weights, the best it could hope for would be a bunch of 30-30 ties, winning every bout not forfeited by pin.

It could, though, win a national championship. If each wrestler claimed a national title at their weight, racking up bonus points with pins and technical falls along the way, good chance it would earn enough team points to win a national championship.

Were every wrestling event a tourney and there were no duals, though it might kill on-campus wrestling, it would at least make sense. Instead, there are a few tournaments and scores of duals that masquerade as a regular season, but are really just exhibitions.

When it comes to tennis, gymnastics, even golf, the NCAA’s figured it out. Yet, what happens on the mat is akin to playing a baseball or softball season before determining a national champion with a home run derby.

It spends a season competing in one format, then crowns its champion with an utterly different and overly individual format.

Luckily, there’s a fix.

In 2019, the last full pre-pandemic season, the top five finishers at the national tournament were Penn State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Iowa and Michigan.

That season, the Nittany Lions wrestled five times on campus, the Buckeyes six, the Cowboys seven, the Hawkeyes seven and the Wolverines seven.

That’s not enough.

Kill the tourney trips, replace them with duals. Go home and home in your conference if that’s what it takes to find opponents. Wrestling’s regular season should look more like basketball’s regular season.

You’ve got a fabulous spectator sport, act like it.

At the end of this thing, duals are going to finally mean something, so make them more interesting, too.

No more beginning at one weight and moving through the rest. Home coach picks the first weight, visiting coach the next, and so on until you’re done.

Now a coach can stop an opponent’s run by putting his best grappler on the mat. Now it’s not just about this bout, but all of them together. Now you’ve introduced macro-strategy into the sport for the first time.

While you’re at it, break for 15 minutes after the fifth bout. Halftime. Give fans a chance to stretch their legs, buy a pretzel and teams a chance to talk it over, because duals now mattering, there’s more to think about.

In-conference dual records will determine conference tourney seeding, which makes sense because that tournament is now a dual tournament, just as the national tourney will be. Between Thursday and Sunday, no matter how big the conference, there’s time to determine a dual champ and time to come back for two days of bracket wrestling, because we’re not going to quit crowning individual conference champions.

Finally, the biggest fix, bound to make the sport more TV friendly, practically begging to be brought to ESPN, Fox, even NBC, which has gone big on horse racing and hockey, so why not college wrestling?

There are almost 80 Division I mat programs, making a 32-team national (dual) tournament about perfect and even better if it’s broken into a quartet of campus-hosted eight-team regionals, a champion crowned in each, between Thursday and Sunday for maximum television opportunities and you know what you have when that’s done?

A Final Four.

On the mat.

Glory.

Can you imagine the TV for that?

It’s perfect.

Pick your site city.

New York? Chicago? LA?

Detroit? Des Moines? Omaha?

Semifinals on Saturday.

Championship on Monday.

One one mat rather than eight.

Three or four days later, come back to the same arena and wrestle individual brackets for individual championships and All-American status, just as it’s been done forever.

Now you’re filling the arena for five days rather than three and along the way you’ve given the masses so many more reasons to care about your sport.

That and every time Oklahoma and Oklahoma State meet, Iowa and Iowa State meet, Michigan and Michigan State meet, bragging rights will still be up for grabs, but they won’t be the only thing, because they won’t just be exhibitions any more.

They’ll matter.

They’ll make sense.

The whole sport will make sense.

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