Not that Penn State ever needed much help, but Craig Turnbull can recall the recruiting boost the Nittany Lion wrestling program got back in 1992 when it went from the Eastern Wrestling League to the Big Ten Conference. The Lions went from really good to really, really good at the snap of a finger, said Turnbull.
West Virginia’s veteran coach believes his school’s move to the Big 12 Conference this year could have a similar impact on his program as well.
“Penn State got a tremendous bump when they went to the Big Ten to recruit those Pennsylvania and Ohio kids,” Turnbull said. “That gave them that little extra bit that they needed to actually compete to win national titles now (Penn State has won the last two NCAA wrestling championships).”
Turnbull is an old Eastern Wrestling League guy and he has fond memories of the conference and what the league has done for WVU wrestling. But at the same time, he also understands that the EWL of today is not what it was in the past.
“The EWL has changed considerably,” he mentioned. “Pick a number of years ago when Penn State was in the league and then Clarion was in that upper top 15 every year. Bloomsburg moved in and out of it, and Edinboro started to come up, but you had a very, very powerful league that people understood and Penn State added a lot to that.
“The loss of Penn State was significant,” he added. “Sometimes in recruiting, if we’re recruiting a kid from Ohio he may not be as familiar with a Clarion, a Bloomsburg or a Lock Haven, so the name recognition (as a member of the Big 12 Conference) will be huge.”
For Turnbull, competing against traditional wrestling powers Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State (along with possibly a dual-meet match with SEC-bound Missouri) gives the Mountaineer program the best of both worlds. That’s four big-time schools on the dual meet schedule with enough room left to continue to compete against West Virginia’s traditional rivals.
“With only four teams in the Big 12 we will keep a lot of our regional rivalries that we’ve historically built up over time. We will keep the Penn States, the Pitts, the Edinboros, Clarions and so forth,” he said. “Still, the very best high school wrestling is in Ohio and Pennsylvania and to be able to share with families that they will be able to drive to many of the dual meets to follow their son wrestle (is beneficial). Also, we’re going to get the value or the bump of saying every year that (a recruit) is going to get to compete against Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State in their gym and our gym, and when we are recruiting for that top athlete that can be a very pivotal thing.
“That can help us get that extra one or two guys that we really need to move up and to maintain things at an elite level.”
What West Virginia is becoming a part of in the Big 12 is really the Gold Standard for college wrestling. Oklahoma State has won 34 national titles, its last coming in 2006, and has produced 134 individual champions. Iowa State has won eight NCAA titles and boasts two of the most important men in the sport in Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson (now coaching at Penn State), while Oklahoma shows seven national titles and has produced 65 individual champions.
That’s a significant chunk of the sport’s history right there.
“To me it’s a tremendous thing,” Turnbull said. “We won’t spend as many flights going into the Midwest as perhaps a baseball would or a women’s soccer would, but we’re going to get a tremendous value out of adding those schools to our schedule every year. It takes away some of my stress for scheduling because in wrestling you only get 16 dates by the NCAA and you generally have three to four tournaments so that leaves you only 12 dual meets or so.
“If you look at the teams in the Big 10, they already have 11 dual meets and if they have three tournaments then we’re fighting real hard to get on Penn State’s schedule or to get on Iowa’s schedule or to get on Illinois’ schedule because they don’t have many dates to play with.”
“Now I won’t have to work as hard (to find quality dual meet opponents). I’m guaranteed to get those three or four upper-echelon teams every year and it takes some of the stress off and I can schedule more comfortably now,” he explained. “It’s the one component that we not only have to show in recruiting but we’ve also got to compete against.
“It’s really going to be a great situation for us.”
In the past, local fans have proven that they will come out and support top-quality wrestling at the WVU Coliseum.
“When we bring Penn State in here we’ll put 3,000 people in there because people recognize Penn State as a quality program with their history and so forth,” Turnbull mentioned. “It will be the same thing when we bring Oklahoma State, Oklahoma or Iowa State in here. They have such history that people recognize that this is what we’re committed to - we’re committed to wrestling programs with immense histories.”
Turnbull also sees a benefit when his team competes in the Big 12 championships each winter, even if the path to the NCAA championships will be much tougher now to navigate.
“It’s going to raise everyone’s bar individually and as a team,” Turnbull said. “We’ve competed well against them but, being realistic, I don’t know if we can sustain that year in and year out. Last time Iowa State was in our gym or the last time Nebraska (former Big 12 school) was in the Coliseum we beat both of them. The last time we competed against Oklahoma in the national duals it came down to heavyweight and Oklahoma beat us, I think, 20-17.
“But now the bar is higher. Can we do that every year? It’s going to be good for us. I think it is going to attract us those couple of extra recruits, and it’s going to raise the bar of the guys when they realize this is what we’ve got to compete against.”
Turnbull is convinced that membership in the Big 12 Conference, coupled with the impressive training facility that was constructed for the wrestling program a few years ago, makes West Virginia a viable option for the top high school wrestlers in the country now. That means the Mountaineers can go toe-to-toe with Penn State for some of the best kids in the region.
“If someone is interested in us and Penn State, (being in the Big 12) will at least throw something out that is comparable that we can at least make them think about it,” Turnbull said. “Penn State is always going to be someone you have to deal with for the better kids in Pennsylvania and just hope it’s not a weight class that they’re interested in. But it will certainly give us more of an opportunity to compete on a more even playing field.”
Turnbull, now in his 34th season guiding the Mountaineers, admits the recent move to the Big 12 has put a little more bounce in his step.
“And with these knees I’m looking for anything to give me a little extra bounce,” he joked.Be sure to follow WVU wrestling on Facebook by clicking the "like" button on Wrestling's Facebook page.