Dave Hickman: Wrestling with Turnbull firing

MORGANTOWN — It’s funny sometimes what will stoke the collective fire.

Where West Virginia University’s athletic department is concerned, the latest ignition point is the school’s wrestling program.

Largely ignored by the ticket-buying public, the program exists in pretty much a vacuum, performing in front of family and friends and a handful of hard-core wrestling buffs. That it still exists at all is somewhat a surprise — not because of anything regarding its relative worth, but because, given the gender-equality demands of Title IX, it is rare that any low-profile, male-only sports survive.

Just 79 NCAA Division I schools now field wrestling teams. WVU is one of just four that compete in the Big 12. Not a single school in the SEC sponsors the sport. Since 1972, 669 colleges (from Division I down through junior colleges) have dropped the sport according to the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

Yet when Oliver Luck fired Craig Turnbull after 36 years coaching the sport at West Virginia, it was greeted with outrage in some quarters. Granted, much of that no doubt stemmed from the notion that a 36-year veteran coach — or any 36-year veteran — deserved better, rather than any real interest in the wrestling program itself. Still, that a move in the largely ignored wrestling program could generate anything more than passing interest remains rather odd.

I guess it’s at least a tiny bit analogous to the misguided attempt to end the rifle program a few years ago. That was greeted with outrage almost universally, even though 99.9 percent of those expressing that outrage had never and will never go see a rifle match. True, the similarity ends with the comparative success of the two programs — the rifle team is still perhaps the most dominant in the country and a source of tremendous pride for fans of a school whose mascot carries a rifle — but it was still outrage over something that happened in a program that almost no one actively supports.

So, was Luck justified in ending Turnbull’s near-40-year tenure at West Virginia (he was also an assistant coach for three years)? Well, that remains to be seen.

In defense of Turnbull, he is and was West Virginia University wrestling. He was the face of the program for nearly four decades and produced some pretty good teams and individuals. At the risk of simply regurgitating his bio, he was a four-time Eastern Wrestling League coach of the year who mentored five individual national champions, 26 of the program’s 29 All-Americans, 42 EWL champions and more than 160 NCAA Championships qualifiers. He is the seventh-winningest active coach in the country with 287 dual-meet victories and coached the team to 12 top 25 finishes at the NCAA championships.

On the flip side, though, in those 36 years Turnbull actually coached just three national championship wrestlers (Greg Jones won three of the five WVU titles) and his best teams were produced rather sporadically. Think of a football or basketball coach who might win a conference title here or there, but without much consistency. He wouldn’t be around for 36 years.

That’s not to demean Turnbull’s accomplishments. Again, he’s coaching a sport with very little support or interest. But the truth is, if he’s an iconic figure it is because of his tenure more so than his success.

And recent results have to matter. That’s where things get a bit murky. In 2013, Turnbull’s team had a dual-match record of just 2-13. That’s when Luck apparently began considering the future of the program and told Turnbull that things had to improve. And they did improve. WVU’s dual-meet record in 2014 was 11-7. By all accounts, Turnbull’s next recruiting class is a good one.

Consider this, though, when comparing the improvement from 2-13 to 11-7. In 2013 the schedule included matches against Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers, as well as a second match against each of the three other Big 12 teams, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. WVU went 0-6 in those matches.

In 2014, Maryland, Penn State and Rutgers were off the schedule and the matches with the three other Big 12 schools were reduced from two to one. In their place were Gardner-Webb, Anderson, Midland, Drexel, VMI, Southern Illinois-Evansdale, Northern Colorado, Davidson, Virginia and Indiana. The Mountaineers went 9-1 against those teams.

Of those 10 new opponents, only Virginia and Indiana were in the Top 25 at the NCAA championships, finishing 23rd and 25th, respectively. Anderson is Division II, Midland is in the NAIA and the other six combined to score 1.5 points in the Division I tournament. Those 1.5 points came from Gardner-Webb, which matched West Virginia’s point total in the event.

In other words, while WVU may or may not have been better this year as opposed to last, it’s hard to look at 2-13 to 11-7 as much more than an adjustment in the schedule. Against the eight schools that were on the slate both last year and this (including the three Big 12 opponents), the records were nearly identical — one win in 2013 and two in 2014.

Again, though, was Luck justified in making a change? Well, that depends far more on what happens now rather than what Turnbull accomplished. How much does West Virginia want to see the wrestling program succeed?

Money isn’t really a huge issue here. The school doesn’t spend as much as it could, but it has a fairly new and very good wrestling facility (that Turnbull was instrumental in getting built) and scholarship limits are set by the NCAA. All in all, the money WVU spends on the sport is below average, but those who spend more also make more, generally in wrestling hotbeds where fans actually show up.

(Just as an aside, a website concentrating mainly on high school wrestling in Pennsylvania, d10wrestling.com, compared the points scored in the NCAA tournament with what each school spends on wrestling. Edinboro topped the bang-for-the-buck list by spending just under $7,000 per point scored in the tournament, national champion Penn State was at about $11,500 per point and the three other Big 12 schools were between $10,700 and $23,500. The top 40 on that per-point list all paid less than $90,000. West Virginia, with 1.5 points, paid $427,162 per point.)

But instead of money, the direction of the program probably depends as much on the coach as it does in any sport going — on his ability to recruit and develop and market the program. Luck apparently felt that after 36 years, there might be better options out there to handle that than Turnbull.

If he’s right, and if he finds one, well, maybe it works out just like baseball, where Randy Mazey has energized the program. If Luck doesn’t find the right guy and the program isn’t invigorated, then he looks heartless for firing an icon for no good reason.

The truth is, it’s a hard call to make right now. But in either case, wrestling at WVU matters now just a bit more than it did a few weeks ago.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

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