Penn State coach Cael Sanderson and Iowa coach Tom Brands make a match on Twitter
While it sounds too crazy to ever happen, try to imagine a world where conference scheduling issues kept Michigan and Ohio State from playing each other in football. Or North Carolina and Duke in basketball. Or… well, you get the point. It wouldn’t be cool. At all.
Now imagine that same world, where Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer, Coach K and Roy Williams, or any other championship-winning coaches, put their egos aside and said, “Enough with the scheduling quirks, we want to play. It doesn’t matter where the game is, or whether it counts towards the conference standings. Let’s figure out a way to make it happen.”
Now, let’s take this hypothetical one, wild step further: Imagine if the two coaches, not only figured out a way to get each other on the schedule, but also finalized the deal via Twitter, with thousands of fans getting a virtual front row seat to see all the details come together.
It seems too crazy to be true, huh? Only in college wrestling it actually happened.
In this case the participants were Iowa and Penn State, which in wrestling terms are basically Duke and Carolina on the mat. The schools have combined to win the last six National Championships, with Penn State taking home titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and Iowa winning in 2008, 2009 and 2010, not to mention 20 other times prior to that in the program’s storied history.
Yet when the Big Ten wrestling schedule came out earlier this year, simple logistics (travel schedules, venue availability etc.) kept the programs off each other’s schedules for the first time since 1982.
Calling the situation “not cool” would be an understatement. It was a devastating blow to anyone who cares about college wrestling, as well as to elite programs, which measure themselves against each other annually.
“Everyone was disappointed,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson said in a recent e-mail interview from the Wrestling World Championships in Hungary. “There are many exciting events in the Big Ten, but this one is special.”
So special in fact, that almost immediately upon hearing that the two schools wouldn’t meet up on the mat, both Sanderson and Iowa coach Tom Brands began to work back-channels to try and make a dual-meet happen. Too much was at stake for the schools not to figure out a way to make the match work; from a fan interest, TV viewing and venue-filling perspective, this was far and away the biggest meet college wrestling could possibly put on.
“Coach Brands and I discussed it right away when the schedules came out in the spring,” Sanderson said.
However, much like Big Ten officials before them, the coaches found the logistics not in their favor. “The window had been shut, but not locked.”
While the idea for the match was never completely dead, it was put on the back-burner for a few months.
Yet, ironically, it was actually the ever-evolving politics of wrestling itself which fueled the coaches to again reconnect, and try to figure out a way to put the match on. Much to the disappointment of many in wrestling, the NCAA is in the process of trying to alter the format of the National Championships, and on the Olympic level, there was major fear that the sport would be cut all together.
Simply put, wrestling had reached a point where every piece of publicity was much needed good publicity. So ultimately, what could possibly be better publicity than the two biggest college programs in the sport figuring out a way to get together on the mat?
Not much. Eventually conversations began again, and over time they spilled into the Twitter-sphere.
That’s right, Twitter.
@TomBrandsHAWK there seems to be something BIG missing on our schedules this year...
It was a decidedly 21st century way of handling things, yet even still, the timing of it all was especially ironic. Brands had just recently opened a Twitter account, but only after his children urged him to.
Even at that, Brands didn’t send his first tweet until Sanderson reached out on Sept. 5, saying “there seems to be something BIG missing on our schedules this year...”
It took Brands all of 10 minutes to respond. And when he did (his first tweet ever), it put a lot of eyes on the previously private conversation. It also put a lot of pressure on both coaches, schools and administrations to make the match work.
“With the buzz, we had to nail it down,” Brands said via e-mail.
And to the credit of both schools, they did.
Penn State agreed to travel to Iowa, which is no small deal, considering that the Hawkeyes routinely lead the nation in attendance. That includes a staggering 15,077 fans that showed up for a dual-meet between the two schools on Feb. 1. That number is just a few hundred fans short of the NCAA-record of 15,955, which not ironically, was also set by Iowa back in 2008.
Speaking of the Hawkeyes, to their credit, both the athletic department and school made a lot of sacrifices to make the match happen as well. Not only did women’s basketball head coach Lisa Bluder willingly re-arrange her home schedule to accommodate the wrestling program, but the school itself actually changed the schedule of a graduation ceremony to make it happen too.
Yes, that actually happened, and it shows just how important wrestling is to the folks in Iowa. It also showed how important a dual meet between the two schools was for the sport itself.
With the logistics in place after months of back-and-forth between the schools, the match that the college wrestling world craved finally came together: Penn State will travel to Iowa for a non-conference dual meet on Dec. 21 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It will be televised live by the Big Ten Network.
Incredibly, the deal came together less than 24-hours after Sanderson sent his initial tweet. And it came together at least in part because of the ground-swell of support and publicity that Twitter itself provided.
And with a date now set in stone, wrestling fans all over the country can mark their calendars for what will undoubtedly be the biggest, must-see event of the year. The dual-meet itself will also put all eyes on wrestling, at a time when it desperately needs it.
“This dual meet taking place is so important, so that the atmosphere and passion can be on display for everyone to see,” Sanderson said. "Pound for pound the in-arena intensity and atmosphere of an Iowa vs. Penn State dual meet matches any sporting event in the world.”
Brands echoed his rival’s sentiment.
“With where wrestling seems to be headed, we thought it is important to make this a go,” Brands said. “Keep putting wrestling on a big stage.”
There will be no bigger stage than when college wrestling’s top programs get together on Dec. 21.
The sport’s biggest match, is happening because of one small tweet.
Who could’ve guessed it?
Aaron Torres is a show writer for Fox Sports Live and contributor to FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.