On Iowa Wrestling And Dynasties

Pop quiz time, true believers! Guess which wrestling programs correspond to Teams A, B, and C below.

TEAM A: 34 team national titles, 76 team top 10 finishes, 134 individual national titles, 428 All-Americans
TEAM B: 23 team national titles, 58 team top 10 finishes, 79 individual national titles, 297 All-Americans
TEAM C: 7 team national titles, 56 team top 10 finishes, 68 individual national titles, 281 All-Americans

Team A isn't too hard to suss out -- it's Oklahoma State, the winningest program in the history of the sport. Team B shouldn't be too hard to figure out, either -- it's our beloved Iowa Hawkeyes, who got a late start on this dominance thing but have done pretty well for themselves over the last 30-odd years. But Team C? Who dat?

It's not Minnesota.

It's not Penn State.

Would you believe that it's... Iowa State? Yep, our friendly neighbors to the west are the proud owners of the program with the third-most team national championships and the fourth-most individual national champions. In fact, in terms of team top 10 finishes, individual national champions, and All-Americans, Iowa State's totals compare quite favorably with Iowa's own totals. The difference? Team national titles, where Iowa has over THREE TIMES AS MANY CHAMPIONSHIPS* as their Cyclone counterparts. Even in a sport as individualized as wrestling, the team title still holds sway as the most potent measuring stick of a program's greatness. And it's there where Iowa State hasn't been able to keep pace with Iowa.

* While The Open Mat's figures credit ISU with 7 team titles, Wiki recognizes 8 ISU team titles. I'm not sure which figure is correct, frankly.

Iowa State's greatest run came in the 60s and 70s -- from 1965 to 1977, they won six titles, more than any other team in the country. That title in 1977 seems like a relic from a long time ago in a land far, far away -- since then, Iowa State has won precisely one team title (in 1987, when they ended Iowa's bid for a 10th straight team title). By contrast, Iowa has won 21 team titles since 1977, or 60% of all the team titles awarded in that span. Which is not too shabby.

But dominance always depends on your frame of reference. Over the last 35 years, Iowa has been far and away the most successful program in the sport. If you expand the window to the sport's beginnings (in 1928), Oklahoma State runs away from the field. If you shrink the window to the last few years, Penn State is the clear juggernaut. Iowa didn't feel like much of a dominant force in the mid-2000s, when Oklahoma State and Minnesota were owning the sport (from 2001 to 2007 those two teams won all of the titles, with Okie State's four-peat from 2003 to 2006 bookended by Minnesota titles in 01-02 and 07) and Iowa was finishing well off the pace.

The interesting thing about looking at the history of team titles is that a program's success is often cyclical. There are notable exceptions -- Oklahoma State won a title at least every other year from 1928 to 1968 (minus a four-year span from 1950-1953) and Iowa had streaks of 9 in a row and 6 in a row (as well as streaks of 11 out of 12 and 9 out of 10 that overlapped those streaks) in the 80s and 90s -- but for the most part it's hard to dominate the sport year in and year out. Unless you're Iowa or Oklahoma State, the trend has been to win a title or two and then fall back while you reassemble a new team to contend. And while Iowa and Oklahoma State have won a lot of team titles, even they've had periods where they dropped back to reload.

And in the current setting perhaps dynastic runs are dinosaurs. The rise of eastern programs like Cornell and Penn State, the possible emergence of sleeping giants like Ohio State, the return of recent powerhouse Minnesota, and the continued success of mainstays like Iowa and Oklahoma State... all of these things seem likely to inhibit the ability of a dynasty to flourish. The competition is simply too fierce, the talent is too evenly distributed, coaching talent and knowledge is too widely disseminated (this is the Achilles' heel of Dan Gable's astonishingly successful coaching tree: the secrets to Iowa's success are now taught all over the country). The days of one program lording over the rest of the country for year after year are probably dead and buried. It's Penn State's turn in the spotlight right now, but their day won't last forever -- it may not even last longer than the season that just ended (though I'd still favor them to turn their current run into a three-peat in 2013). There's always someone waiting to knock you off -- and now there seem to be more "someones" than ever before.

* * *

An interesting aside about The Open Mat's dynasty data? Oklahoma checks in at #4 on their rankings. While they've long lived in the shadow of their more accomplished sibling down in Stillwater, the Sooners have had no shortage of success themselves: 7 team national titles, 61 top 10 finishes, 65 individual national champions, 264 All-Americans. They actually have more top 10 finishes than Iowa or Iowa State. Of course, their last team title came in 1974 -- before Iowa had even won their first team title. Suffice to say, their dominant days were long ago.

Also interesting to note how close the totals are for Minnesota and Penn State:

MINNESOTA: 3 team national titles, 34 top 10 finishes, 21 individual national titles, 157 All-Americans
PENN ST: 3 team national titles, 45 top 10 finishes, 25 individual national titles, 177 All-Americans

And, finally, UNI checks in at #10 to give the state of Iowa three programs in The Open Mat's top 10 dynasties. That certainly firms up Iowa's claim as the pre-eminent state when it comes to college wrestling.

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