D1 Wrestling Coaches Bracing For Turbulence On Heels Of NCAA Settlement

D1 Wrestling Coaches Bracing For Turbulence On Heels Of NCAA Settlement

The House v. NCAA settlement could reshape college athletics. It's already causing stress for those who make a living in non-revenue Olympic sports.

Jun 7, 2024 by Andy Hamilton
D1 Wrestling Coaches Bracing For Turbulence On Heels Of NCAA Settlement

Everything last October indicated Iowa State was accelerating ahead on a state-of-the-art wrestling facility project. 

The Cyclones had picked out a building on the southwest side of Ames and produced digital renderings of the $20 million project, showcasing six full mats, a lounge area and other modern amenities. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard posted on social media that it would open in the fall of 2025 and claimed it would “be the best wrestling facility in the country.”

Less than eight months later, the project has been postponed with no timetable for when or if it will be resumed. 

“With this lawsuit getting ready to be settled,” Pollard told reporters last month at an Iowa State booster gathering, referring to the landmark House vs. NCAA case, “you just can’t go forward with projects like that.” 

This is today’s college athletics world. It’s a place fraught with economic uncertainty — a place where tectonic plates are shifting faster than ever. It’s not a comfortable environment for those who make a living in non-revenue Olympic sports. 

“If I had to sum it up in a sentence,” Iowa State wrestling coach Kevin Dresser said, “I’d say the next 18 months are going to be crazy, crazy, rocky and bumpy.” 

Dresser is far from the only college wrestling coach who’s bracing for turbulence. 

“I worry about our sport in general,” Maryland coach Alex Clemsen said. “And I worry about Olympic sports in general.”

“There’s going to be teams, and it’s not just wrestling, this is going to be every sport — track, baseball, swimming, diving, lacrosse — they’re all going to take a hit,” North Carolina coach Rob Koll said. “There’s no doubt in my mind, unfortunately.”

An ‘Economic Earthquake’ 

The past decade has ushered in a period of transformation unlike any other in the history of collegiate athletics, headlined by conference realignment, the advent of the transfer portal and the proliferation of name, image and likeness compensation after the NCAA unlocked NIL opportunities for athletes in the summer of 2021. 

The latest hot-button issue centers around the House v. NCAA lawsuit and the potential ramifications for college athletics. 

In 2020, Arizona State swimmer Grant House sued the NCAA for banning college athletes from capitalizing on their name, image and likeness. In addition to seeking back pay for Division I athletes who were barred from earning NIL compensation prior to the summer of 2021, House v. NCAA also set out to pursue a share of the future broadcast revenue for athletes. 

Last month, the NCAA and Power 5 conferences agreed to a settlement worth more than $2.75 billion, resolving three pending antitrust lawsuits — House v. NCAA, Hubbard v. NCAA and Carter v. NCAA — which challenged NCAA compensation and NIL limits. The settlement still needs approval from Judge Claudia Wilken, but it paves a path to a more professionalized era of college athletics. 

Along with providing back pay to athletes who lost out on potential NIL earnings dating back to 2016, the settlement also creates the framework for schools to share revenues with athletes. 

The settlement allows each school to share 22 percent of the average Power 5 school’s revenues, which is projected to be more than $20 million annually per school. 

“At the end of the day, this is an economic earthquake within the system,” Smith College economics professor emeritus Andrew Zimbalist told the Associated Press. “And the system is in a very uncertain and risky and volatile state right now.”

What Does This Mean For Wrestling?

Revenue sharing has been a conversation topic for college wrestling coaches throughout the past year with the House v. NCAA resolution looming, and the settlement ignited another round of discussion. 

What does it mean for wrestling and other Olympic sports? 

Some coaches are reserving judgment until the settlement is finalized and more details emerge.

“Do I think about it? Yeah, but I don’t know what to think about it because I don’t know the details,” Missouri coach Brian Smith said. “Until I know the details, it’s hard to make a comment on it.” 

“I am not sure I have an opinion yet,” Northern Colorado coach Troy Nickerson wrote in a text message. “Things are still moving quickly and I’m not one to have a doomsday mentality. The reality is, most D1 schools outside of the P5 do not make money, so there is no revenue to share. Not entirely sure that it will change anything except widen the gap. We will see.” 

Others have concerns for what could happen if and when athletic departments begin implementing cost-cutting measures to feed their financial bell cows. 

“I think it’s definitely going to be impactful, but to what degree I don’t know,” Dresser said. “I don’t think it’s a great sign for wrestling as a whole. When you start pushing more money to the revenue sports versus non-revenue sports, it’s never good for the non-revenue sports.”

Said Kent State coach Jim Andrassy: “I don’t think any of us know (what this means) yet. I think that’s something (we’ll learn) down the line. … At the end of the day, I don’t know that the model we have is going to be sustainable for Olympic sports ultimately.”

There’s a lengthy list of questions still to be answered, most notably:

— How will schools distribute revenue and will the House settlement lead to more lawsuits? 

Will the biggest revenue-generators (football and men’s basketball) receive the biggest cut of the revenue share? Or will it be split evenly between men’s and women’s athletes? 

On one side of the coin, an uneven revenue share split opens the door for a Title IX lawsuit. On the other, an equal split could lead to more antitrust lawsuits from football players who believe they’re not being compensated fairly for the revenue they’re generating. 

— How will athletic directors find the money to keep pace with rival schools? Will cutting or defunding Olympic sports be the go-to cost-saving move?

Cost-cutting moves are already underway. In addition to Iowa State’s wrestling facility postponement, Texas A&M laid off more than a dozen athletic department staffers in April, including several high-ranking administrators. Athletic director Trev Alberts said the cuts were a “reorganization related to existing and emerging threats to our business model.”

— Will roster limits replace scholarship caps?

The House v. NCAA settlement included the elimination of scholarship limits. For decades, wrestling programs have been capped at a maximum of 9.9 scholarships. The NCAA is expected to move to a roster cap format. 

“What are the roster caps going to be?” Smith said. “Am I killing myself recruiting and getting all these kids and we’re told we can only have so many guys. My first concern is that. The other stuff, you just adapt to it.”

Koll thinks the wrestling roster cap will be “ridiculously low.” 

This could be problematic for smaller, enrollment-driven schools that bank on larger athletic rosters to help drive revenue. 

“My roster next year is 46 kids and I have a room that can hold 30,” said Rider coach John Hangey, who sees areas where his program could benefit from potential changes but also sees where his school, with an undergraduate enrollment of 3,168, could face challenges. “I have 26 lockers. Yet at the same time, I’m told to keep higher rosters because it helps the school and it helps the athletic department as it trickles down.

“It could create a pretty big divide, potentially, between the haves and have nots. Let’s put it this way — a bigger divide than already exists.” 

— Will Congress intervene to set national parameters? If so, will they protect Olympic sports?

“I think at some point you have to probably hope that the powers that be understand having opportunities for young people to be physically active and competitive and be part of a team and a development process is good for our world,” Clemsen said. “I’m a big believer in the lessons we’re teaching our kids every day on how to be better humans and better men and how to be better fathers and be more equipped to go out into a really tough world and compete more effectively from the lessons they learn every day from us.

“It’s really important for the fabric of our society because without the collegiate sports model, I think you put the high school sports model, the club sports model and the youth sports model in jeopardy.” 

In a recent interview with CBS Sports, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred — a former NFL linebacker who played collegiately at Baylor — said there needs to be federal legislation to set national standards and prevent “dramatically different laws” from state to state and conference to conference. 

Allred said he wants to see Congress find ways to protect Title IX and Olympic sports. 

“It may be that there is a separation that occurs in terms of the way these are looked at and regulated between the revenue and non-revenue sports,” Allred said. “But it has to be — in my opinion — that these are scholarship opportunities, that these sports continue to exist, they continue to offer life-changing access to education for young people. That has to continue. We have to balance this out. Some of the sports that are creating this enormous amount of revenue and are also going to be paying these players more, those are obviously going to have to be treated differently than a sport that’s a non-revenue sport. If you try and spread that out across all of the different sports, you probably will end up with none of them being financially sustainable.” 

Fiscal Responsibility

College wrestling had 133 Division I teams in 1986 when Dresser won an NCAA title for Iowa. He thinks back now to his path through the 142-pound bracket — an opening-round pin against a wrestler from William & Mary. A second-round fall against an opponent from Boise State. Those two programs have since been discontinued, along with dozens of others that existed back then, including Tennessee, Clemson, Syracuse and BYU, each of which had an All-American that year. 

Koll placed third that year for North Carolina in a 158-pound bracket that featured nine wrestlers from schools that have since dropped wrestling. 

It’s understandable why Dresser and Koll share concerns about college wrestling’s stability in a volatile climate. They grew up during the sport’s roughest period of attrition. 

“We’re going to have people who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on NIL and (regional training centers) and they’re going to get dropped because they don’t worry about the bottom line and they live in La La land,” Koll said. “I came from a different world. I came from the ‘70s and ‘80s when every day there was another program getting axed. I do think wrestling is uniquely prepared for tightening the belt and raising money, but we’ve got to make sure, if you’re in an athletic department, that you’re not low-lying fruit and you’re not making yourself ridiculously expensive and spending a lot of money (while) not raising money. And it’s not just raising money, you need to have fans. 

“Seldom do you see a program that has 2,000 people in the stands that’s going to get axed because athletic directors don’t want to have the backlash of thousands of fans. It’s the ones that there’s 20 people in the crowd and they know they’ll go away quietly into the night. 

“Certainly we need to create revenue streams through attendance and fundraising, but we also need to not sacrifice ourselves trying to beat everybody else today knowing that we won’t have a program tomorrow. That means having some fiscal responsibility when it comes to RTCs and NIL … when they should be building endowments and making sure their programs are safe. That’s the problem with NIL. It sets us back. And I’m guilty of it myself. I’m not trying to pretend, but I do know I’m also focused on an endowment building and making sure we’re fundraising and making sure we’re building a fan base and doing all the things for sustainability.”

Dresser said he can’t envision college wrestling ever losing its blueblood programs, but he also wonders how the rest of the landscape will look in the years ahead. 

“Let’s say we fast forward five years from now and there’s only 30 teams left and you had an NCAA Championship in Kansas City, and let’s say the same teams that are top 30 now are the 30 teams five years from now,” he said. “It would still sell out and it would still be a big deal and it would still be a big show. What would suck is that you just wouldn’t have as many Division I opportunities for kids. But Division II and Division III would really flourish. 

“Wrestling would still be strong and vibrant, but what does it look like? Everybody thought when we went from (133 teams) to 80 it would be terrible. Well guess what? It ain’t terrible. It’s a great product. So if it goes from 80 to 30, I still think it would make its way and make a great product.” 

‘We Roll Up Our Sleeves And Fight’ 

Wrestling has proven time and again to be resilient and resourceful. 

“We don’t settle for getting our butts handed to us,” Hangey said. “We roll our sleeves up and fight.” 

When wrestling was placed on the Olympic chopping block in February of 2013, the sport united around the globe to fight for its spot in the Games. Seven months later, it was back on the Olympic program and stronger than before. 

The sport lost more than 550 college programs from 1972 to 1999. A wrestling renaissance followed with 394 new teams joining the college ranks across all divisions since 2000. 

On the international stage, the United States endured its worst Olympic performance in 44 years at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where the Americans brought home just one men’s freestyle medal. Weeks after the Olympics, the country’s top wrestling’s minds gathered in Colorado to devise a plan to return the United States to international glory. Team USA is still harvesting a bumper crop of World and Olympic medals from the seeds planted 16 years ago, thanks in part to an overhaul of the American system. 

Regional Training Centers were spawned after that summit in Colorado. They became an essential engine to high-level college wrestling programs and one that had to be fueled by fundraising efforts. 

“All these other coaches in all these other sports are like, ‘We’ve got to raise some money,’” Dresser said. “Guess what? We’ve been raising money in the RTC world for a long time. We could give them a class on it. If any sport can figure out how to get it done, it’ll be wrestling.”

Sure, college wrestling might — and probably will — look different a decade from now, but the sport’s ability to adapt and overcome gives National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Mike Moyer confidence wrestling can weather what’s ahead. 

“There’s still a lot of uncertainty, but I do believe our wrestling coaches are better prepared for this than almost any other Olympic sports college coaches out there, and a lot of that’s due to our journey,” Moyer said. “Our sport’s been through a lot and there’s that old adage that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. In our case, it’s really made us stronger.

“We’ve proven time and time again that we’ve overcome extraordinary challenges and we’ll overcome this. Wrestlers are built to do tough things and our wrestling coaches are battle-tested because of the extraordinary challenges they’ve already overcome.” 

What They’re Saying 

North Carolina coach Rob Koll

“I’m at a program where I feel very safe. Think about my peers who don’t have the ability to raise those types of funds and don’t have the backing and don’t have an administration that’s supportive of broad-based athletic departments. North Carolina publicly came out and said this is the model we like. But ... I’m not so arrogant to think things can’t change. … We’re one of the most well-supported programs, but I also remember when Syracuse was a great program. I remember when LSU was in the top five. I remember when Tennessee had a national champ. I remember when Auburn had great teams and Florida. These young coaches don’t remember that, and I don’t think they understand how quickly things can change.” 

Iowa State coach Kevin Dresser

“I think overall at some point, ADs are going to have to make a decision about how many non-revenue sports are you going to keep? And that’s what I fear. We’re going to go down to a model where everybody’s gonna keep football and basketball and women’s basketball, but then after that — I don’t know if it’s sooner than later — but I think it’s inevitable that everybody else is up for grabs. I think initially every AD is going to approach it differently, but I think ultimately, they’re all gonna get their hand forced into, if we’ve got to come up with $20 million that we didn’t think we were going to have to come up with, how are we going to do that? Are we going to try to cut everybody’s budget 50 percent in non-revenue sports or are we going to get rid of three or four non-revenue sports? I think at some point in time these ADs’ hands are going to get forced and you’re going to have to put all of your eggs in the financial basket and not in the one that the college sports model was designed to do, and that’s to have 24 sports and support those sports across the board as evenly as you can.” 

Maryland coach Alex Clemsen 

“Olympic sports could look drastically different in the next five to seven years than they look today. Time will tell. There’s enough money for everybody to continue to survive. It’s just how does the money get shared? How does the money get invested? And how does the pie get cut up? And is a broad-based Olympic sports offering still viable or important or a fabric of what we do at the collegiate level? I sure hope it is because I think it’s good for our society.” 

Kent State coach Jim Andrassy 

“I’m not even sure what it means for wrestling and Olympic sports, but I think it’s horrible. We’ve totally taken the amateurism out of college sports and there could be lawsuits all over the world, I just think at some point we’ve devalued a college education, we’ve devalued the food, tuition, room and board and what it’s worth. … Kids are going to go from school to school, wherever they can get the most money and they’ll probably never end up with a degree. It kinda is what it is at this point. I’m older, I don’t have much time left (in coaching) and I’m actually glad I don’t have much time left because I’m not a fan of the system now and the way it’s going.” 

Missouri coach Brian Smith

“There’s a lot of stuff that still needs to be (figured out). When I’m hearing ADs not knowing what the heck’s going to happen, then it’s still got a long way to go.” 

Rider coach John Hangey

“You have to go about your business and have to keep running your business as a head coach, but you sit back and you think about what could be coming down the path. It’s scary because you’ve got a family to support and a livelihood to live, so it’s tough.”

National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Mike Moyer 

“(College wrestling coaches have) always understood the three Rs — relationships, relevancy and revenue. But it definitely raises the game a lot. Those things have become more important than ever. We keep reminding them that wrestlers are built to do tough things, and our coaches, because of what we’ve been through, they’re battle tested and they’re prepared for this. And we need to execute. But they have the skills and the tools. The one thing I’m really trying to emphasize is making sure our programs are of moderate cost, because from my experience, when there’s a budget crisis, the Olympic sports that are most vulnerable are oftentimes the ones that cost the most money. Sometimes you can get away with costing a little bit more money if the coach has great relationships and if the program’s really relevant. You can spend a lot of money, but you better be bringing in a lot of money if that’s the case.”