While Alabama’s football team picked up its second-straight national championship on Monday and extended the SEC’s stranglehold on NCAA football, the Big Ten has been dominating wrestling for decades.
Iowa began the supremacy in 1975 when the Hawkeyes claimed 11 titles in 12 years including nine championships in a row from 1978-1986 under coach Dan Gable. Since, Iowa, Minnesota and Penn State have won the NCAA Championship multiple times with fellow Big Ten foes Michigan and Ohio State claiming runner-up spots.
The 2012-2013 campaign has been no different, as five of the top six teams in the country compete in the Big Ten including No. 1 Penn State. With the exception of Indiana and Michigan State, which happen to be the Nittany Lions’ first two conference duals this season, every team in the Big Ten is ranked in the top 25.
Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan said he does not see this trend ending. Ryan cites the fact that the Big Ten schools are in strong states for wrestling and the reputation of the conference as reasons why it is dominant.
Brian Smith, head coach at Missouri, said the answer behind the Big Ten’s wrestling power is simply tradition.
“You look at Iowa and now Penn State coming in and the tradition they bring in and Minnesota. There’s a lot of national team titles there,” said Smith, whose Tigers just moved from the Big 12 to the MAC. “There’s a lot of good programs there and now Ohio State has really stepped up in the last decade with [head coach] Tom Ryan there, so I just think it’s just tradition now.”
Smith competed in the Big Ten when he was a three-time All-Big Ten Wrestler for Michigan State from 1986-1990.
Ryan, who coached Ohio State to the runner-up position in the 2008 and 2009 NCAA Championship, said he thinks the Buckeyes do very well in Big Ten competition and are primed to make a move to the top.
“We’re still building the foundation that’s needed to win national titles and I think we’re awfully close right now,” Ryan said. “On a weekly basis, we determine strengths and weaknesses and where we need to improve.”
Smith said the only difference between the Big Ten and Missouri’s former conference, the Big 12, is the size of it. Smith said it can be looked at as an advantage and as a disadvantage.
Oregon State coach Jim Zalesky, who led his alma mater Iowa to three-straight national championships from 1998-2000, said he thinks the Big Ten has recently evolved over the last 10-15 years.
“When I was in school, the Big 12 was probably a stronger conference at the time,” Zalesky said. “Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, those teams were probably always ranked in the top five or six and now the Big Ten has kind of taken over a little bit.”
Zalesky agreed with Ryan and said that the Big Ten teams have strong high school wrestling states, but also said coaching is a large part behind the Big Ten’s dominance.
Penn State redshirt freshman James Frascella said the competitiveness of the Big Ten helps the Nittany Lions work harder and pushes them to get better in the room every day in order to obtain the goal of being the best team in the nation.
“It just helps us to realize what we’re going up against later in the year and it just helps us visualize who we’re going to be facing later in the year since we’re such a tough conference,” Frascella said. “That’s the people that are going to be wrestling at the highest level.”
After the Lions’ 42-3 victory over Lock Haven in December, senior Quentin Wright described the rest of the team’s remaining schedule, which features seven duals against Big Ten opponents, as the final push to the ultimate goal.
“The Big Ten schedule...is just brutal,” Wright said after the win. “Week after week, you’re wrestling good people, you’re traveling, doing school at the same time, so that’s pretty tough going into the last part of the season to where we want to win the national championship.”
Last season, Penn State wrestled major foes Ohio State and Iowa at home, but will travel to Columbus and Iowa City, this year.
Penn State head coach Cael Sanderson said the Lions have a lot of tough wrestlers, who respond to challenges like facing Big Ten opponents away from Rec Hall. Sanderson added that the bigger the challenge, the better the Lions wrestle.
“That’s what I’m looking forward to. Wrestling Ohio State at Ohio State, wrestling Iowa at Carver, that’s the fun stuff,” Sanderson said. “I’m excited to see how these guys respond to that and if they go in there and get after it.”