Missouri wrestling finally has a conference to call home: The Mid-American Conference.
When Missouri elected to move from the Big 12 Conference to the Southeastern Conference three months ago, Athletic Director Mike Alden and the department made a promise to head coach Brian Smith that his program would have a conference to wrestle in come season. The SEC does not offer wrestling.
“We were all confident the athletics department would find us a conference,” senior Nathan McCormick said. “They made it a point to not having any of the wrestlers worry. We took their word for it. I knew they would take care of us.”
The promise was fulfilled on Wednesday when the MAC announced the addition of Missouri as an affiliate member.
“Was there the unknown? Yes. We looked into everything,” Smith said. “We didn’t rush into the decision. We feel what’s best for the program is the MAC. With eight other schools, location, recruiting, it just gives us everything, everything we need. I like the idea of having a conference tournament with nine. Who knows even down the road (with the addition of) even more teams. It gives you the feel of a NCAA tournament.”
Along with the Tigers, Northern Iowa and Old Dominion joined as affiliates. The conference now consists of nine wrestling programs: Missouri, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa, Ohio and Old Dominion. The conference is the third largest in Division I wrestling behind the Big Ten Conference and the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association.
“It’s great that the school changed to the SEC with all the sports but wrestling,” senior heavyweight wrestler Dom Bradley said. “You got to adapt with the conference. Mizzou made a great choice. We’re fortunate the MAC let us in.”
With the new conference entering its 15th season, Smith, already the winningest coach in program history with a record of 173-83-3, looks to add more wins under his tenure. Smith kept the conference affiliation low-key until Tuesday’s weight-lifting session when he told the team.
“He never hinted to it," McCormick said. "All he told us all summer was that he would find a conference (and) just keep working hard. He didn’t want to get our hopes up. It didn’t change anything. We will just continue working hard.”
Missouri has a five-year agreement with the MAC running through the 2016-17 academic year. Missouri will travel to Buffalo, N.Y., to wrestle in the MAC tournament in early March. Next season, the Tigers will be scheduled to face all eight of the league’s team.
The MAC has a history of succeeding at the national level. At the 2012 NCAA Championship Tournament in St. Louis, The MAC sent 24 wrestlers.
It’s one thing to be in a conference. It’s another to be in a conference and compete for a league title and later a national championship. Missouri returns nine out of its 10 starting wrestlers from last year’s Big 12 tournament championship team. Bradley, an All-American, returns from an Olympic redshirt year after finishing third at the national tournament in 2011. McCormick looks to qualify for his third straight bid to nationals.
“We can just move on now,” Smith said. “If the SEC down the road started wrestling, we’d be in it. You have to look to the future and the future is the MAC, which is now.”
All eyes are on the Tigers now as they prepare for the season-ending goal to wrestle at the Wells Fargo Arena.
“The goal is about what we’re going to do this year at the national tournament on March 21 in Des Moines, Iowa,” Bradley said. “You have to ask yourself: Where do you want to be? Do you want to be on the podium or not?”
The first thing one will see inside the fourth floor of the Hearnes Center, home to the wrestling squad, is a poster that reads, “The road to the National Championship runs through Mizzou.” Now that the team has a conference, it has a chance of getting back on that road.