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A summer of laboring under concerns about NCAA autonomy, coach hiring criteria

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A couple years ago, a wrestling historian contacted me about something I had written about the 1949 NCAA wrestling championships, saying, “If you don’t know about something, you shouldn’t write about it.”

As summer draws to a close, it seems like the right time to reveal that, this summer, I’ve had that feeling more than once regarding college wrestling. My notions seem to contradict conventional wisdom within the sport regarding NCAA autonomy… and what skill sets are important for a college wrestling coach to possess. At the risk of raising the ire of that historian all over again, let me share my perspective on these issues.

NCAA autonomy lesson

This summer, the NCAA Board of Directors approved new rule-making autonomy for the 65 schools in the so-called “Power Five” conferences – the Big Ten, Big 12, the Southeast Conference, the Pac-12, and the Atlantic Coast Conference. This new governing structure opens the door for these conferences to offer more to their student-athletes, including increasing the value of scholarships, allowing four-year scholarship guarantees for some student-athletes, improving health benefits, and allowing players to consult with agents, among other things.

The issue of autonomy has garnered a lot of coverage in general-media sports pages and websites, as well as on talk radio and in online sports forums. A number of sports writers and editorialists, along with the commissioner of one of these newly-labeled powerhouse conferences, have warned that, while autonomy may be great news for men’s college football and basketball players, it may not be so good for other collegiate athletes. As they see it, men in the top two sports most likely will come out doing better… and, thanks to Title IX provisions, women’s programs will have to receive the same benefits. The potential losers: male athletes in Olympic or “minor” sports such as wrestling. As these writers have pointed out, funds to provide benefits for top male and female athletes will have to come from somewhere… and they are of the opinion that it will be at the expense of wrestling and similar sports.

While these opinion-makers seem to be expressing concern on wrestling’s behalf, for the most part, the wrestling world seems unconcerned about any potential negative fallout from the NCAA autonomy plan. I haven’t seen much in the way of news coverage or editorializing in wrestling publications or websites… and hardly any discussion in online wrestling forums.

Now, it’s possible today’s NCAA autonomy decisions will have no negative impact on the future of college wrestling… or perhaps may actually help college wrestlers with additional expenses beyond what a scholarship can provide. A decade from now, we may dig out these old sports columns and editorials and laugh about these nervous Nellies. Then again, autonomy may well be the next stunning, seemingly out-of-the-blue blow to college wrestling, on the order of the International Olympic Committee’s 2013 decision to eliminate wrestling as an Olympic core sport… a move that, it’s fair to say, most of the wrestling world never saw coming.

What colleges seem to be looking for in a coach

When a college names a new wrestling coach – whether a head coach, a paid assistant, or a volunteer or graduate coach – the school usually issues a formal announcement in the form of a press release and/or an article posted at the wrestling program’s website. Typically, these statements provide an explanation as to why the school chose that particular individual over a number of other candidates for that position, listing the new coach’s accomplishments as a wrestler and coach.

As College Wrestling Examiner, I’ve seen hundreds of these announcements over the years… and can’t help but notice a growing trend: a seemingly greater emphasis on freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling and coaching experience in new coaches, if applicable.

There are situations where it’s only right to play up a coach’s freestyle or Greco background. For example, if the new coach has dazzling international credentials -- Olympic or World championship gold medals, for instance – it would be stupid not to mention it in a hiring announcement. Likewise, it makes sense to emphasize a new hire’s international expertise if he/she will be working with the program’s freestyle/Greco wrestling club, or coaching collegians openly pursuing an Olympic dream. One can also cut some slack in a situation where a just-hired coach has been focused in recent years on an international wrestling and coaching career with accomplishments that has eclipsed anything he/she may have done in college years ago.

What I do question is when there’s an international emphasis in situations outside of these examples – for example, at a small school with no allied freestyle/Greco wrestling club, or where it’s highly unlikely that any wrestlers would have legitimate Olympic aspirations.

Now, it’s possible that there are other aspects at work here. Perhaps having a freestyle or Greco stud on staff is akin to Chevy dealers having the Corvette in their lineup – it brings prospective customers (recruits) into the showroom (wrestling room) to aspire to greater things. It also raises the overall profile of the program to have someone on staff with international credentials by garnering additional publicity.

What should colleges should seek in a coaching candidate

International experience aside, there are other credentials for a coaching candidate to possess that make more practical sense. For example, I’ve noticed a number of schools emphasizing their new coach’s experience as a wrestler and coach within their new employer’s conference. These coaches are able to provide their wrestlers with valuable, actionable insights into competitors. Similarly, some schools have mentioned that their new coach’s local or regional connections will help boost recruiting.

There’s another aspect that I never see mentioned in these hiring announcements: marketing experience. In this era where it’s more important than ever for a college wrestling program to fill seats, generate revenue and find cost-effective ways to garner publicity, it would seem that an ideal coaching candidate would have a marketing or advertising background, or at least knowledge of promotions, working with traditional media, and hands-on experience with social media. In other words, the ideal coaching candidate may have a dash of “Mad Men” TV advertising exec Don Draper to go with his wrestling and coaching accomplishments.

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