InterMat Wrestling – Foley’s Friday Mailbag: March 15, 2019

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This week the NCAA wrestling committee released the at-large bids, seeds, and brackets for the 2019 Division I Wrestling Championships in Pittsburgh.

Put mildly, the response has been less than positive.

From Shakur Rasheed earning a No. 2 seed after he medically forfeited in the Big Ten finals … to Big Ten eighth-place finisher Mike Carr earning a No. 6 seed, and the improper balancing of the 133-pound bracket, the week was messy for the NCAA. The debacle has reignited the debate around who should oversee the selection of seeds for the NCAAs, but also sheds light on the larger institutional deficiencies facing the NCAA administration of the sport in general.

First, this is the process for selecting seeds as it is presented to the coaches, fans, media, and institutions. As I said last year and the year before, there is some amount of subjectivity involved in this formula. For example, there is a human deciding which categories to create and how much weight should be placed on each Coaches know this in advance, which means that they (and fans) can calculate for this subjective input.

The more troublesome aspect of the committee’s structure is that they are allowed to move wrestlers up and down based on … well, that apart isn’t quite clear. When and where the coaches on the committee; Tom Ryan, Rob Hjerling, Brian Smith — or the administrators; Andy Noel (Cornell), Phil Wile (Wyoming), and Karen Langston (CSUB) find need to adjust the seeds of top wrestlers isn’t explicitly stated. I’ve learned (as have fans of international wrestling) that the moment there is even a golf ball size of grayness in a process there is truck-sized amount of doubt inserted into the process.

After seeing what was generated from the formula (was this made available?), the committee then chose areas to adjust. I’m sure that there were some outputs that didn’t stand to reason and fans would agree on the outcome, but as we saw there were many (MANY!) that defied explanation. So, when there isn’t an objective A+B=C explanation there are questions, and room left to build theories.

Fans of wrestling are already susceptible to a good conspiracy theory, which means that a minor one about seeding wouldn’t be difficult to create. As such, I won’t play out why these particular admins and coaches would want the outcomes we see in the seeds, because it’s not provable and highly doubtful.

Still, what biases six people hold and what motivations any one of them may have for creating a matchup or outcome is not known. That’s why there was a move to a very objective measuring system for seeding. To eliminate that objectivity behind closed doors is to eliminate all those initial efforts.

At the core of the NCAA’s issues with wrestling and other sports are issues of fairness to athletes and a transparency in decision making. When looking at athlete pay, freedom of transfer, all the way down to seeding of the wrestling tournament, the main theme is that the NCAA keeps its fans, coaches, and stakeholders searching for reason.

There is no cat-stroking villain at the helm of the NCAA, but it seems that there is little consideration for the diversity of experience across sports (more on this later) and an attitude that tells those interested that they want our money and our eyeballs, just not our opinions.

To your questions …

Q: NCAA seeds seem awful this year. What needs to be done? Was seeding every wrestler the right decision?

— Mike C.

Foley: Wrestlers 1-33 are outputted by a computer and then movement between 1-16 can be done by the six-member committee (3 coaches, 3 admins) to adjust for head-to-head and other factors. The remaining 16 are in the order the formula dictates.

The problem in “seeding” 16-33 is that it gives the perception that there is an appreciable difference in the talent of those wrestlers and that their seed was weighted and considered as much as the top 16 — which they aren’t.

There needs to be significantly more pressure put on the NCAA to not use the antiquated processes of other sports lazily and transpose onto the wrestling model. The IOC-IF model is far from perfect, but it appreciates that no central body can properly oversee and administer the minutia of member federations.

The NCAA model for sports like wrestling is not healthy, because it’s not responsive to the needs of its member bodies. The sport of wrestling, as well as many similar sports, deserve a more knowledgeable, full-time independent body capable of making decisions that provide the most accurate outcomes for seeding, competition structure, seasonality, and more. Coordination with the NCAA would be a centerpiece of that organizational structure, but would always come secondary to the primary needs of the sport.

A single rotating six-member committee could never possess enough time, context, or experience to effectively run a sport via a handful of meetings. There are more full-time staff at each of the Division I programs than there are full-time employees running NCAA wrestling. The time is coming for large changes, and while more administration is a costly undertaking it could provide better oversight and help our sport continue its record growth.

Q: Is the medical forfeiting at conference tournaments a problem that needs to be addressed when it comes to NCAA seeding? It seems like many wrestlers benefited from medical forfeiting. Any suggestions on what can be done? Should they count as losses?

— Mike C.

Foley: No, it shouldn’t be a win or a loss. The idea of counting the medical forfeit as a loss is only an issue because there was a negative effect from the action in terms of seeding at the NCAA tournament. If and when the system is improved the medical forfeit issue won’t be a factor, because those types of action will be accommodated for in the formula and/or in the seeding room.

I hope.

Q: I’d like to hear your take on the medical forfeits that seemed to cheapen the Big Ten Championships. I know people will probably focus on Shakur Rasheed, but five other guys medically forfeited their way to an NCAA appearance, including a top-ranked wrestler and second-place finisher from last season. Personally, I think it’s bad for the sport and unfair to fans that paid to watch the tournament. I think there is an easy fix.

1. Don’t announce the NCAA tournament allocation numbers until after the conference championships. Not knowing if your conference is getting 1 or 8 slots will make all matches matter.

2. If you medically forfeit any match you are no longer eligible for an automatic bid. Your only way to the tournament is through an at-large bid. Your fate is then placed in the hands of the selection committee. The conference also loses that allocation so that it doesn’t reward conferences who have guys forfeit. The weight class simply gets one extra at-large bid.

— Matt W.

Foley: Again, I think it would be a mistake to overhaul working systems (like pre-conference allocation) in order to eliminate the gamesmanship of the conference medical forfeits. And putting massive penalties in place for all medical forfeits could further hurt wrestlers who are seriously injured at their conference tournament. Would be unfortunate to see them held accountable for the actions of a few bad actors.

Q: Nice job on the ESPN broadcast of the ACC Championships. I enjoyed watching. Which wrestler impressed you the most?

— Mike C.

Foley: Thank you! I wouldn’t normally include a compliment, but I felt proud of the team’s work. Having now been on the production side for so many international championships, I appreciate the work that goes into the events and the effort put in by the broadcast team. Just one guy’s opinion, but Shawn Kenny is the best play-by-play guy in the sport!

Most impressive wrestler from the ACC was Jack Mueller. The OW went to Micky Phillippi, who deserved the praise, but nobody dominated like Mueller. Call it homerism if you like, but he was wrestling at an entirely different level than his opponents and earned more than a few ooh’s and ahh’s from the crowd.

Mueller aside, my heart is now with Pittsburgh heavyweight Demetrius Thomas. He is the most entertaining wrestler at the college level who doesn’t wrestle for Penn State and he will become an All-American in Pittsburgh. Constant attacks, great cardio, and just a ton of fun to watch compete. An incredible display of what big man wrestling can and should be!

Demetrius Thomas (Photo/Pitt Athletics)

Q: Who is this year’s big bracket buster and why?

— Ryan P.

Foley: Demetrius Thomas. He’s the No. 8 seed at heavyweight and will be in the national finals.

Q: Our in-state wrestling go-to website Michigan Grappler has our “home state” NCAA qualifier count at 19 which puts us in a respectable fifth place against other traditional wrestling states. If you look at the distribution of NCAA qualifiers’ home states, Pennsylvania dominates all the other states by more than double (54). I have a few ideas why that is the case, but would love to read your detailed analysis on the reasons why Pennsylvania is the hotbed of folkstyle wrestling and how it produces such tough wrestlers year after year.

— Brad A.

Foley: Why are the Brazilians so good in jiu-jitsu, Russians in freestyle wrestling, and Norway in winter sports? Product knowledge. They’ve been doing it the best for a long time and that means the correct knowledge is being transmitted to larger local audiences more effectively than in the other competitive markets. The effective communication of technique and strategy as well as high-level testing of that combination will always result in improved outcomes for specific regions. Population density of the East Coast also helps Pennsylvania (and New Jersey) athletes find more competition for less money.

A more minor point, but the American rust belt has a number of lower to middle income families, which we know are the most likely to wrestle. Add in a dash of heritage and local pride and voila the recipe is complete for Pennsylvania (and really Western PA) to have the best wrestlers in the nation.

Kerry McCoy spent 11 seasons as Maryland’s head wrestling coach (Photo/Maryland Athletics)

Q: Kerry McCoy seems like a great person, but obviously his results at Maryland weren’t where they needed to be. Is it too early to start talking potential candidates to replace McCoy? What are some names you would like to see interview for the job?

— Mike C.

Foley: Kerry is the man! About 15 years ago I was in a one-stoplight town in Central Pennsylvania en route to a wedding and the gas station we stopped at was selling Kerry McCoy bobbleheads. From what I understand my friend still has it in her car.

McCoy is a great guy and has given his life to our sport. Whatever his next role I know that he’ll be successful. Although the coaching side seems to be coming to an end there is a lot for him to do both inside the sport or using lessons from our sport make an impact in the business world, and his community.

Were I on the hiring committee or a powerful alumnus, I’d focus on established Division I head coaches. There are a lot of talented assistants, but this is a Big Ten job that requires someone with CEO capabilities along with plenty of mat savvy. I think Chris Ayres, Scott Moore, Jason Borrelli, Matt Storniolo and Coleman Scott should all receive consideration.

Were the school to reach for an assistant coach there are plenty that would perform well: Donny Pritzlaff, Jordan Leen, Mark Perry, and J Jaggers, among many more.

Q: I read this beautifully written article. And, I couldn’t help but draw correlations to wrestling and what helps make the sport so important. The best coaches today are fathering their athletes so nicely. And, that’s why we see one story after another of great caring, sportsmanship, comradery, love, and true masculinity. So, uncharacteristically, I thought I’d reach out and share.

By the way, I was raised to “act like you’ve been there before” … hand the ball to the ref, shake the other coaches’ hand, and respect the opponent. I do not usually appreciate victory displays. But Chandler Rogers’ celebration after his victory over Iowa was brilliant, charismatic, and heartfelt. I think deep down, he knew his fate, and wanted to go out his way. He made me a fan.

— James H.

Foley: I really enjoyed that article. Though Medium says it wasn’t the most highlighted portion, I found that “People are chronically lonely even though they’re more connected than ever” is a sentiment I find more and more writers and thinkers discussing. Like when I first moved to NYC in 2005 I remembered someone telling me how incredible it was to live in a city of 8 million people and still feel totally, completely, and helplessly alone. For many people the internet is starting to create that same effect — healthy bubbling life all around, and only misery and loneliness in their own sphere.

The article also touches (a lot) on the idea of these warriors and balancing that against emotional intelligence and vulnerability. In my experience, wrestlers are more often like this than most any other sport. There is a deep sensitivity among most high-level wrestlers often because like soldiers they can see the rational limit of their strength, most have been disabused of the notion that they are the toughest on the planet, leaving them to realize there are a number of similar notions that are likely also untrue. I’ve seen it in Turkey, Russia, Mongolia, Iran … everywhere. The wrestler who works hard not because they are infallible, or immune to pain, but because they realize the only way they can be a good father, brother, wrestler is to explore those deficiencies and improve upon them — whether physical, intellectual, or emotional.

Anyway, great read.

Chandler Rogers after picking up a fall in his final match at Oklahoma State (Photo/Oklahoma State Athletics)

Loved the Chandler Rogers celebration, and if that is true I think that moment become even more genuine and awesome.

Q: If the numbers are correct, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of girls that wrestle in high school is roughly 6.74 percent of all the total number of high school participants. With roughly 31 percent girl participants coming from one state (California). Is the expansion at the college level for women’s wrestling outpacing the high school participants? And what can we do as the U.S. wrestling community to help grow girls wrestling at the youth and high school level to create healthy sustainable college opportunities for girls who would like to wrestle in college?

— Rob M.

Foley: That’s a thoughtful question. The growth of women’s wrestling is probably growing at a faster pace if you consider it only against previous women-only wrestling opportunities for women at both levels. The women’s programs being added could also be seen as just playing “market catch-up” in giving an acceptable percent of women wrestlers a chance to compete in college.

The growth at the high school level is also in its infancy, since many programs need validation from their state federations who are the ones sanctioning women’s-only state tournaments. When state and local tournaments are better established more girls will experience the sport at their school and that in turn will drive further engagement with the sport.

Also, the success of #WrestleLikeAGirl indicates that there are going to be more and more state federations getting on board with the concept of a state tournament. The process is no longer being handled alone in each state, there is a database of knowledge and organizational skill at their back.

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