CEDAR RAPIDS — Northern Iowa Athletics Director Troy Dannen believes his wrestling program is Big 12 ready, and he wants the chance to prove it.
The Panthers currently compete in the Western Wrestling Conference, which consists of schools ranging from Iowa to the Rocky Mountains. It’s a conference filled with expensive travel and it lacks the wrestling pedigree of Big 12 competitors.
“Two years ago I sent a letter to the Big 12 asking to be considered as an affiliate member,” Dannen said. “That was denied. At that time the Big 12 didn’t accept affiliate members. They didn’t have them in any sport so it made sense to me.”
But the dynamic now has changed. Former UNI Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby was tabbed Big 12 Commissioner last week. The Big 12 will be down to three wrestling programs — Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma — after this spring. So Dannen has started the process rolling.
“I’ve already asked Bowlsby,” Dannen said. “In fact my comment was, ‘Is it too early to ask?’ I’m sure his plate is going to be full.
“I will continue to pursue the Big 12. It’s where we envision ourselves nationally, the type of schools we think we should be competing against nationally.
“Iowa State and Oklahoma State are not motivated by providing opportunities for UNI wrestlers. But it’ll make it a lot easier for us to recruit and frankly that’s how we want to measure ourselves. Nothing against the Western Wrestling Conference — Wyoming has had some very good success nationally — but we want to measure ourselves against Iowa State not Utah Valley State.”
The priority placed on conference wrestling tournaments for national qualifying is another reason why Dannen would like to link with the Big 12. If the qualification changes, “conference affiliation may not mean much like it does now,” he said. “But given how we qualify today, it does mean a lot to us.”
Dannen said he’s talked with wrestling coach Doug Schwab about pursuing the Mid-American Conference as way to cut costs. In fiscal year 2011, UNI spent nearly $70,000 on wrestling travel and flew to four locations.
It’s also a sport where Dannen envisions more revenue. In 2011, the wrestling program generated just $45,000 in ticket sales.
“Wrestling is a sport where we can be competitive nationally,” Dannen said. “ It’s a sport that is important in the state of Iowa. So wrestling, I’ve said this all along, is a key piece of the backbone of UNI athletics.”