If the world were operating like business as usual, Thursday at U.S. Bank Stadium might have gone something like this:
• Gophers heavyweight Gable Steveson would have advanced to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Wrestling Championships on the strength of two dominant victories, with coach Brandon Eggum showing him the way.
• Tom McGinnis, Gophers senior associate athletic director, and Melvin Tennant, executive director of Sports Minneapolis, would have looked at a wrestling crowd of 40,000 or more in the football stadium and felt a sense of pride.
Instead, a week after the coronavirus pandemic led to sports shutting down across the globe, those four men were left to deal with the letdown of the canceled tournament while still looking forward to possibilities in the future.
“To have it canceled so close to it coming to fruition is certainly a disappointment for us,” said McGinnis, who with Tennant and many others helped secure the NCAA Championships for Minneapolis. “But it probably pales in comparison to the 330 young men who were going to come here and compete in front of the hometown crowd, or maybe for the first time in the championships or in their senior year trying to become an All-American.”
Added Tennant, “We’re deeply disappointed, but we know we had all the plans in place that would have allowed the NCAA to have a very successful event here, but we understand it was a tremendously difficult decision they had to make.”
Bidding for more
The 2020 Wrestling Championships are gone, but the university and Sports Minneapolis, the sports marketing arm of Meet Minneapolis, are trying to get the event back to U.S. Bank Stadium. The NCAA has taken bids for championships running between 2022 and 2026, and Minnesota has bid on the Wrestling Championships, the men’s and women’s Frozen Four, the women’s volleyball championship and basketball preliminary rounds during that span, McGinnis said. Decisions from the NCAA are expected in October.
The soonest the Wrestling Championships could land in Minnesota likely would be in 2023. The event is scheduled for St. Louis in 2021 and Detroit in 2022. McGinnis doesn’t expect that the NCAA would bump another city in front of those two, plus Minnesota already will be busy with the semifinals and final of a men’s basketball regional at Target Center in 2021 and the women’s Final Four at Target Center in 2022.
“Another great reason to let St. Louis and Detroit have their fun with it,” McGinnis said of the wrestling tourney.
Tennant added: “For us the sooner the better. ... We’ve had a great relationship with the NCAA over the years, and we believe they trust us as one of their go-to destinations.”
Coronation chance canceled
The NCAA Championships were shaping up to be a coronation for Steveson, the sophomore heavyweight from Apple Valley. He took a 15-0 record, a championship in the rugged Big Ten tournament, and the No. 1 seed into nationals. He finished third last year.
“It was clear that [Steveson] was the favored wrestler,” Eggum said. “But you still have to go out and win it, and to earn it in front of your home state would have been amazing for him.”
Steveson kept things in perspective: “It was very tough. I was looking forward to competing in my home city and winning us a national championship, but it’s better safe than sorry with this going on,” he said. “Right now, it’s about keeping everyone safe and making sure everyone’s OK.”
He’ll miss out on that shot at a title, and also on a possible unique scenario. Seniors Seth Gross of Wisconsin at 133 pounds and Mark Hall of Penn State at 174 each are Apple Valley graduates chasing their second NCAA individual championships. Add in Steveson, and there was the potential for a trio of Eagles being national champions.
“It would have been crazy for us three to come back home to our city and maybe even us three win it all,” Steveson said. “… Their last year. They’re pretty sad about it. But what can you do? It’s just not our decision at that time.’’