Wrestling analysis: How the NCAA's decision on winter sports could affect wrestling

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

A day after the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring sports championships, the governing body’s Council Coordination Committee announced that eligibility relief would be appropriate for athletes in spring sports — meaning those athletes will re-gain a year of eligibility after their seasons ended due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The NCAA faces similar decisions with athletes in winter sports, which were either beginning or in the middle of their respective postseasons. Those discussions began shortly after the cancellation announcement last week. No timetable has been given for potential resolutions.

In the case of wrestling, which affects numerous schools here in Iowa, there are many variables worth considering as the NCAA continues to deliberate, including some that could impact many programs in both the long- and short-term.

Here is an attempt to break down those variables, after discussions with various coaches and athletes.

Iowa's Spencer Lee was the 1-seed at 125 pounds for this week's NCAA Wrestling Championships in Minneapolis. They were canceled last week by the NCAA amid growing concerns over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Heartbreak for opportunities lost

In short, wrestling programs could be looking at either heartbreak or headache.

Heartbreak, because there’s a chance these athletes may not get another year of eligibility.

Of the 330 wrestlers that qualified for the NCAA Division I Championships, originally set for this week in Minneapolis, 97 were seniors. None of them would get another chance.

For Iowa’s three Division I teams, that means all 26 wrestlers — 10 from Iowa, nine from Iowa State, 7 from Northern Iowa — would lose a year of eligibility. Of those 26, six are seniors: Iowa’s Pat Lugo (149), Iowa State’s Chase Straw (165), and Northern Iowa’s Jacob Schwarm (125), Max Thomsen (149), Bryce Steiert (165) and Taylor Lujan (184).

Lugo and Lujan both earned 1-seeds at their respective weights. Spencer Lee, Iowa's two-time NCAA champion at 125 pounds, would lose a shot to become a four-time national champ, something only four other Division I wrestlers have ever done.

All competitors would also lose an opportunity to compete at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, as all NCAA champs automatically qualify. 

"I respect the decision of the NCAA and potential severity of the virus," Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser said in a statement to the Register last week. "I do believe that this virus is very real and needs to be taken seriously.

"However, I am extremely said for our nine guys. This is a very personal and individual sport, right in the month of March. I sure hope the NCAA finds a way to give everyone an extra year if so desired. It would sure lessen the sting.

"We are living in a very historic situation, and I get that, but it's hard for a 20-year-old that is focused on winning a national championship to make sense of it right now.”

Northern Iowa's Taylor Lujan takes down Iowa State's Marcus Coleman during the Cyclones' 18-16 win over the Panthers in February. Both were NCAA qualifiers at 184 pounds.


Headaches … for multiple sports

The potential headache in all of this is, predictably, a bit more complicated.

One source familiar with the preliminary discussions told the Des Moines Register last week the NCAA has discussed potentially giving all NCAA qualifiers an extra year of eligibility to make up for the canceled championships. That would apply to all 330 that were announced by the NCAA Wrestling Committee last Tuesday.

That’s an easy line to draw for wrestling. Everybody else had their opportunity to qualify for the NCAA Championships through their respective conference tournaments or to build a resume worthy of an at-large bid through the regular season.

But considering there are 10 total winter sports the NCAA oversees — in addition to wrestling, there’s basketball, bowling, fencing, gymnastics, ice hockey, rifle, skiing, swimming and diving and indoor track and field — it may not be as easy.

Skiing was already one day into its national championship when the NCAA dropped its hammer. Basketball was about to play its remaining conference tournaments. Every other sport was scheduled to play its NCAA Championships sometime over the next six weeks.

Will the NCAA go sport-by-sport with its decision-making? Will there be a blanket rule that covers everybody?

The answer to those questions carry a huge impact.

Financial meaning of ‘eligibility relief’

There is also the financial ramifications involved.

When the NCAA’s Council Coordination Committee said that spring sports athletes would get another year of eligibility, it also stated, “Additional issues with NCAA rules must be addressed, and appropriate governance bodies will work through those in the coming days and weeks.”

It remains to be seen what, exactly, “eligibility relief” means from a scholarship allotment standpoint.

But this is where things get hairy — especially for wrestling, which only has 9.9 scholarships when a program is fully-funded. Does the NCAA foot the bill for everybody getting an extra year? Or is it on the schools?

Perhaps guys will get the opportunity for the extra year and then transfer elsewhere that can help more financially. The recruiting wars through the transfer portal could be wild.

For Division II and III programs, which operate with significantly fewer scholarship dollars, it becomes even trickier.

Iowa's Pat Lugo, a senior, earned the 1-seed at 149 pounds for this week's NCAA Wrestling Championships. The NCAA canceled the event over growing concerns about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Lineup logjams in the future

If all NCAA Championship qualifiers get a year back, many programs might run into lineup issues down the road, including all three here in Iowa.

The Hawkeyes, for example, signed seven wrestlers for their 2020 recruiting class. Many are likely expecting to redshirt during the 2020-21 season then battle for starting spots beginning in 2021-22. 

If all 10 of Iowa’s starters get another year, that’ll force many of the incoming recruits to sit an additional year while the returners finish out their eligibility — unless they prove they can beat those guys, which is entirely possible.

The same could be said for the Cyclones, who signed five for 2020, and the Panthers, who signed seven. Some guys may not want to wait that extra season and opt to go elsewhere. Then this becomes a recruiting issue.

There’s also the case of the wrestlers who redshirted this season and are expecting to battle for starting spots beginning in 2020-21. They won’t get a year back because they weren’t NCAA tournament qualifiers. That only adds to the potential logjams.

Lisbon senior Cael Happel, a four-time state champion, signed with Northern Iowa as part of the Panthers' 2020 recruiting class.

Time to wait and see

Every athlete and coach in every sport, as well as the NCAA, is likely discussing all of these variables and more. There are more questions than answers, and even the answers that exist may not please everybody.

It may be a while before the NCAA announces its next step with regards to athletes in winter sports. The good news is they now have the time, since the now-canceled spring sports championships were scheduled to go as far as mid-June.

Once the NCAA announces its next move, the schools can react and follow suit.

"Our coaching staff is disappointed for our guys, their families, and our fans," Iowa coach Tom Brands, the Big Ten Wrestling Coach of the Year, said in a statement last week.

"I understand the Big Ten Conference and NCAA made decisions based on information available and are acting in what they believe is in the best interest of the student-athletes.

"We will process this and move forward, as we always do. Our guys have a lot to be proud of and much more still to accomplish."

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

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