The Big 12? PAC-10? ACC? Sure, these conferences are powerhouses in basketball and football. But when it comes to wrestling, the Big Ten has always been the elite – and it’s only getting better.
With teams like Iowa and Minnesota, which have already been established as two of the top programs in the country, and the emergence of Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois over the past 10 years, the Big Ten looks poised to be at the forefront of college wrestling for a long time.
“There’s no doubt that the Big Ten is the most dominant conference in college wrestling,” Michigan coach Joe McFarland said. “The thing is, it’s only getting better. Every year, the top recruits want to come wrestle in the Big Ten because they know how competitive the conference is. That makes (the Big Ten) even tougher.”
The Big Ten has won every NCAA Championship team title in the past 10 years. Minnesota has won the last two, but Iowa had taken five straight before that.
Recently, there has been a lot of disparity in the Big Ten.
The biggest surprise this season may be Michigan State, which has emerged as a Big Ten title contender. The Spartans made a big statement last weekend, beating Iowa and Michigan to move into second place in the conference.
The Golden Gophers, who have been dominant in the past two seasons, have looked vulnerable of late. Minnesota fell to Iowa in its first dual meet and has since lost to Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Iowa again. The Gophers will get another shot at the Hawkeyes this weekend in Iowa City.
Iowa has always been the big name in college wrestling. The Hawkeyes have legendary wrestling coach Dan Gable to thank for that. Every wrestler knows Gable’s story: Gable was undefeated throughout college, and lost in the final match of his career. After finishing at Iowa State with a 182-1 record, Gable went on to win a gold medal in the Olympics. In the process, he crushed the wrestler who blemished his college record. Gable was a great wrestler, but is an even better coach. In his 21-year tenure with Iowa, the Hawkeyes have won 21 Big Ten titles and 15 national titles.
“Coach Gable is a big reason why the Big Ten is the way it is,” McFarland said. “When he was down at Iowa and winning all those titles, everyone was trying to be like them.”
The Big Ten’s strength in wrestling has protected its programs from Title IX – so far. Title IX was implemented to improve gender equality in collegiate athletics. Wrestling is among the lower-revenue sports, and has been targeted by many of the nation’s athletic departments affected by Title IX.
Some of the nation’s best wrestlers are without a team to wrestle on because of Title IX. The most well known of these talented wrestlers is Stephen Neal – a World and NCAA champion at Cal-State Bakersfield who now plays guard for the New England Patriots. When Cal-State Bakersfield shut down its program, Neal still had eligibility and was the favorite to come back and win another national title. Instead, Neal, who hadn’t played football since high school, joined the Patriots and was starting by season’s end.
“Title IX has definitely hurt wrestling,” McFarland said. “It’s just a matter of time until the Big Ten is affected, but right now, it’s going strong.”