CEDAR FALLS – Doug Schwab considers it a good move for his University of Northern Iowa program.
UNI Athletics Director called it a win-win-win situation for the Panthers, their new affiliation and wrestling fans.
Either way, it is a step in the direction that Schwab and Panthers wrestling want to travel. Officials from the Mid-American Conference announced Wednesday that UNI, University of Missouri and Old Dominion University will join the as wrestling-only members.
The initial agreement is five years for each school with UNI and Missouri competing in the 2013 conference tournament and the next four complete seasons. Old Dominion will join the league for the 2013-14 season.
The MAC consisted of Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Northern Illinois and Ohio University. With nine members, the MAC will be the third largest NCAA Division I conference behind the Big Ten and Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association.
“It’s going to make it one of the better conferences in the country,” Schwab said. “We want to be in the most competitive conferences and give our guys the best opportunity, not just to get to the national tournament but, excel at the national tournament. This move will definitely help that.”
The MAC advanced 25 wrestlers to the 2012 NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Mo. The Western Wrestling Conference, UNI’s former conference, 18 national qualifiers. More NCAA qualifiers and name recognition of the MAC’s wrestling schools made it a good fit considering the possible individual opportunities and dual scheduling.
“First and foremost, our objective is to advance to the national championship meet and, with the addition of the three schools to the six already there, we could expect double to triple the number of qualifying spots out of the MAC than we had at the Western Wrestling Conference. It greatly enhances our ability to advance,” Dannen said. “Wrestling those schools on a regular basis at our place will be a benefit to our program as well.”
Conference officials highlight the conference can extend its reach and recruiting territory across the Midwest into Virginia.
“After significant study and discussion by our member institution’s coaches and administrators the Mid-American Conference has made a move that will take what is already a very strong wrestling conference and make it one of the elite wrestling conferences in the country,” Mid-American Conference Commissioner Dr. Jon A. Steinbrecher said in a news release. “I am pleased to welcome Missouri, Northern Iowa, and Old Dominion, their student-athletes, coaches and fans to the MAC in the sport of wrestling.”
UNI has entertained the idea of switching conferences previously in an effort to improve its stock. The option of joining the Big 12 when Missouri left was weighed, but dropped when it was apparent the Big 12 wouldn’t add a program just for wrestling. Discussions with the MAC started in the spring, which Dannen said was partly due to UNI reaching out to the Big 12, and evolved rapidly.
“When Doug was hired it was something we talked about in that how we can best position our program going forward to meet the competitive goals that he had,” Dannen said. “Everything started to align itself very quickly this summer.”
The new affiliation can be a marketing tool for the program. Boosters, fans and wrestlers are more familiar with the MAC than WWC, and the overall competition could be attractive to all groups. Schwab said it won’t influence how he presents the Panthers’ progress.
“We’re still selling our program as UNI and what we’re trying to build in the state of Iowa and now in the (Mid-American Conference),” Schwab said. “It doesn’t really change a whole lot for us.”
It gives the Panthers a chance to sharpen their claws and skills against more established programs in the MAC. UNI was 8-7 in duals last year, going 5-1 in the WWC. The Panthers finished 34th at the NCAA Championships with qualifiers Joe Colon (133), Levi Wolfensperger (141), David Bonin (157), Ryan Loder (184) and heavyweight Blayne Beale.
Central Michigan, which has won the last 11 straight conference championships, tied for 13th at the NCAA tournament. Kent State added another top-27 finish for the MAC, which boasts eight NCAA champions in its history.
“The more you can hone yourself against quality competition the more prepared you are,” Schwab said. “You see it in those bigger conferences all the time.”
Former UNI All-American heavyweight and current Ohio Coach Joel Greenlee said the addition is mutually beneficial.
“The addition of Missouri, Northern Iowa and Old Dominion will make the Mid-American Conference one of the toughest wrestling leagues in the country,” Greenlee said in a news release. “These three teams will also bring more national recognition to the MAC.”
The difference in travel is yet to be determined. It could be neutral to better, heading as far as Ohio, Michigan and Virginia compared to trips to Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. Schwab said he doesn’t know if the Panthers will dual every MAC school or a select number from the league.
“I don’t know how we’re going to set up our dual meets, yet,” Schwab said. “I’ll find out a lot more in the next week or so when I get a chance to talk with other teams and coaches.”
UNI has reportedly entered the “information gathering” stage for a move to Football Bowl Subdivision. Dannen said nothing was imminent in football, and emphasized the fact this move was strictly a decision to benefit the wrestling program.
“No, this is as isolated as it could possibly be,” Dannen said. “We haven’t had any talks with the MAC about anything but wrestling. I don’t anticipate anything happening other than wrestling.”
Before Schwab took over in 2010, rumors circulated that wrestling might be on the chopping block at UNI. The program has improved its team performance and facilities, gaining funding for practice room renovations this summer. The move demonstrates a strong assistance to the sport.
“We have full support from our administration and president to be able to make this decision and others,” Schwab said. “It solidifies that UNI wrestling is in strong standing and is moving forward building every day.
“We’re doing the right things. This is another way to show it.”