Part of the reason that there will be two “national champions” this year is the stalwart leadership of Cael Sanderson, who won both last year and is looking to repeat in the Dual Championship Series and NCAA Championships in the coming weeks.
In 2012, when there was a strong push around the nation to have the team title determined by a tournament of duals rather than an accumulation individuals’ performance at the NCAA Championships, Sanderson publicly voiced his opposition multiple times.
Sanderson’s most notable and comprehensive objection was a combative post on his blog opposing the debate. A two-time reigning champion head coach under the traditional structure at the time, Sanderson urged his fellow Division I coaches to “STOP THE VOTE” by citing 48 reasons arguing against the change in the championship structure of the sport.
In his arguments, Sanderson focused on both the pragmatism and fairness of the individual tournament in determining a true national champion and accounted for what is best for the fans who each year sell out the tournament’s venue, whether it be Madison Square Garden, Chesapeake Energy Arena, or Scottrade Center.
One of the main points he mad was how much of the process used faulty decision making. As Sanderson noted, a show of hands at a conference somehow translated to a majority rule, one meeting was thought to solve all the technicalities of the dual structure, and perhaps most controversially how, “the sneaky way [the proposition]has come about and the effort to keep the coaches out of the way.”
What was most interesting about Sanderson’s arguments was his regard, even as the head coach of a major program at a well-endowed public institution, for small programs lacking sufficient scholarships and funding to compete.
The NWCA’s push for postseason duals never ended up replacing the NCAA Championships although a bowl-style series of duals has made its way into the sport instead of the former dual tournament format.
Up until last season, Penn State never decided to participate in the duals under the Sanderson. When the Nittany Lions finally did participate last year, a Rec Hall sellout and rout of Oklahoma State gave the event some much needed legitimacy.
In 2014, Sanderson told Travis Johnson of the Centre Daily Times that he was planning on bringing his team to the duals but hadn’t ruled out pulling the Nittany Lions if the agreed upon terms weren’t implemented. Penn State never ended up accepting its invitation that year, although it did win its fourth straight national championship a month later.
Coincidentally, Penn State and Oklahoma State met in Rec Hall as the No. 2 and No. 7 teams respectively on the same day in 2014 as what was trying to be pawned off as a national title dual in a tournament where only nine of the 14 teams were ranked.
The NWCA’s tendency to sway from the agreed-upon reasons seems to still be an issue.
The 2017 pairings were also supposed to be released on Sunday night but a late tweet from the NWCA’s official account announced that the match-ups wouldn’t be made public until 9 a.m. Monday morning. When the pairings did go public, they were the ones that Sanderson had tweeted were not what had been agreed on.
Just two hours after the pairings were announced, Sanderson tweeted to the NWCA that the match-ups were “incorrect…based on a simple policy we all agreed on.” Included in his tweet was a picture of what the match-ups were supposed to be. Although Penn State will wrestle Oklahoma State as planned, five of the eight duals are different.
It appears the NWCA dual match ups are incorrect..based on a simple policy we all agreed to it should look like this.. pic.twitter.com/qz6bO3rI61
— Cael Sanderson (@caelsanderson) February 13, 2017
The biggest shift is No. 3 Iowa, which was supposed to take on No. 5 Virginia Tech, will now face No. 23 Edinboro. As Sanderson’s tweet shows, the pairings were originally supposed to rank the top eight participating non-Big Ten teams and then the top eight participating Big Ten teams and then pit the corresponding teams against each other.
Again, while Penn State wasn’t affected by the event’s questionable management, Sanderson was in the public spectrum voicing his concerns.
Monday wasn’t the only time that Sanderson took to Twitter to voice his concerns about the duals.
In January of 2014, Sanderson and Ohio State head coach Thomas Ryan, whose Buckeye team hosted and placed third in the dual tournament that year, publicly argued back and forth on Twitter for an hour about the implications of a dual tournament on the landscape of the Big Ten.
While the NWCA National Dual Series is the latest installment of a competition that has tried to reinvent itself numerous times in order to gain prestige, there still remain some issues in the overall logistics of the event, aside from actual wrestling.
One problem that is still worth mentioning although it hasn’t yet been publicly criticized by Sanderson, a coach sympathetic and appreciative of the sport’s fans, is Flowrestling.com’s exclusive broadcast rights. Fans will have to buy a subscription in order to watch the dual live. If not, they will have to wait two weeks to watch it when it airs on tape delay on Fox College Sports.
Unless you’re willing to go full-on day after the Super Bowl Ted Mosby with blinders and noise cancelling headphones for the next two weeks, you’ll have to follow along on Twitter, listen to GoPSU Sports Radio, or cough up $30 for a monthly Flo subscription.
The NWCA Dual Championship Series remains a flawed system because on top of all these specific instances, the event doesn’t even determine a true national champion.
Sanderson’s staunch opposition to it, however, has helped secure the rich tradition of college wrestling for at least the time being.
While Sanderson may be the most accomplished wrestler of all-time, with his undefeated college record, four national titles, an Olympic gold-medal, and already on the shortlist of best coaches of all time, his main contribution may end up being his role as a vocal leader in a sport that is trying to grow while still staying true to its deep roots.