CEDAR FALLS — A little more than five years ago, Northern Iowa reached out to the Big 12 Conference about joining the league as an affiliate member for wrestling.
At that time, the Big 12 wasn’t interested, so the Panthers jumped from the Western Wrestling Conference to the Mid-American Conference, signing a five-year contract with the MAC.
That contract ended in March after UNI hosted the MAC Championships in the McLeod Center. Since then, the Panthers and new director of athletics David Harris have been considering whether the program should remain in the MAC or join the Big 12.
After exploring both options, UNI decided to not renew its contract with the MAC. And on July 1, UNI and Fresno State will join the Big 12 as the 11th and 12th members.
“We looked at all the pros and cons,” UNI head coach Doug Schwab said Thursday night. “Troy (former UNI director of athletics Dannen) reached out five years ago and the Big 12 did not see the value we would add to their conference at that time. Five years later, I think they see the value we will bring.
“We had a great experience in the MAC, developed some great rivalries, especially with Missouri, which we think we will be able to keep that going.”
UNI will not wrestle a full Big 12 slate next fall, but does have three Big 12 foes lined up with trips to South Dakota State and Oklahoma State, and Iowa State will visit the West Gym.
While there are more regional rivals for UNI in the Big 12, Schwab said a big factor in the Big 12’s invitation and in UNI’s decision to jump conferences is to rival the Big 10, which dominates the Division I wrestling landscape.
“It’s a true Big 12 with 12 teams,” Schwab said. “A big pro is the Big 12 is going to better prepare us for the national championships. We are going to have a mini national tournament before the national tournament.
“It’s also going to help us with recruiting. The Big 12 is a more visible name.”
The Big 12 will now consist of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Fresno State, Air Force, Northern Colorado, Wyoming, Utah Valley, South Dakota State and North Dakota State.