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Jeff Kolpack, Published January 17 2011

College wrestling: Bison grapple with future

The conference shuffle that has become trendy in the last couple of years for Division I schools is still in vogue. Wrestling is the latest sport to feel a few nerves.

North Dakota State and six other members of the Western Wrestling Conference are in their fifth year as a league. But when the University of Nebraska announced its intention to leave the Big 12 Conference for the Big 10, it set in motion a domino effect that could reach the WWC.

The Cornhuskers’ move will leave the Big 12 with just four wrestling members next year. And it wasn’t long before Northern Iowa athletic director Troy Dannen sent the Big 12 a letter of inquiry into affiliate membership in that league.

If accepted, that would leave the WWC with six members – the minimum needed for automatic qualification to the national tournament.

“If Northern Iowa gets a chance to move over, I’m sure they would,” said NDSU head coach Bucky Maughan. “I would think Wyoming might be in there. Then we would have to merge with maybe the Pac-10 or somebody. Something’s going to happen.”

Wyoming has put more resources into its wrestling program of late, including increasing the budget, said Matt Whisenant, deputy director of athletics for the Cowboys. But Whisenant said there has been no discussion in his department of possible affiliation with the Big 12.

“Never say never but we’re happy where we’re at,” he said. “But obviously, we have to look at what’s best for our program.”

Or maybe nothing will happen at all.

The minimum of six schools needed for automatic qualifier status doesn’t appear to be an all-or-nothing stipulation with the NCAA, which for several years has granted the five wrestling members of the Big 12 Conference an exemption. The Big 12 may stay at four, said Dave Martin, senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma State and a member of the NCAA wrestling committee.

Martin said there is no precedence in the Big 12 for allowing affiliate membership in any sport, unlike the Pac-10 Conference, which has four affiliate members for wrestling with Cal State-Bakersfield, California Davis, California Poly and Cal State-Fullerton.

“I would anticipate they would probably stay with four teams and have a tournament with four teams,” Martin said of his league.

Perhaps a major reason the Big 12 is in line for another exemption with just four teams is the popularity of the Division I national tournament, which Derek van derMerwe, the chair of the NCAA wrestling committee, said is one of five NCAA championships to be profitable.

“We continue to look at making strategic moves and maintain the profitability,” said van der Merwe, a senior associate athletic director at Central Michigan. “The fan base is exceptional.”

Possible translation: the fan base would rather watch anybody from Oklahoma or Oklahoma State than a smaller-school unknown.

“To be blunt, we don’t think you can define the success of wrestling with the outliers in the ranks,” van der Merwe said. “Shift is going to happen and we have to be willing to adjust and continue to position the sport for success.”

All of the possibilities leave NDSU with a keen eye on the landscape. Maughan said he would like to see the four Big 12 schools merge with the Western Wrestling Conference.

“We’d be the premier wrestling league in the country,” he said.

And if the WWC drops below six, he said he would like to see the WWC and Pac-10 get together.

“There’s always a lot of movement and changes and we’re trying to adjust in a manner that won’t adversely harm program and provide some latitude for programs to qualify to the NCAA,” van der Merwe said. “A lot of shifting is happening as a result of football and basketball realignments across the country. Wrestling is one of those sports that is impacted.”

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He can be reached at (701) 241-5546.

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