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Ask the average wrestling fan how many NCAA team titles “East” schools have won and you would probably get a variety of answers.
But after looking all the way back to 1928 and the first collegiate championship your investigation comes up with just one: Penn State University hosted and won the NCAA team title in 1953.
Coached by Charlie Speidel, a member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, the Nittany Lions out-pointed the University of Oklahoma by six points. Cornell University was third with two other Easterners, the University of Pittsburgh and Lock Haven University, also finishing among the Top 10. Five of the 10 champions represented Eastern schools. Seventeen of the 40 All-Americans suited up for Eastern programs.
It would stand to reason that over the next decade — or half century — there would be another team champion from the East.
Pitt, Penn State, and the Naval Academy finished in the top 5 in 1954. Lehigh and Syracuse were among the final 10.
Over the next two years Penn State, Pitt, and Lehigh University wrestled to top-6 finishes.
Hall of Fame wrestler and coach Ed Peery looked like he had the guns in 1957 at Pitt. The Panthers hosted the NCAA Championships and had finished among the final three in 1954, ‘55, and ‘56.
But at the end of competition it was Oklahoma and 1956 Olympians Dick Delgado and Dan Hodge, plus five additional All-Americans, which hoisted the trophy.
Peery’s squad had three champions and five of the 10 titlists were from eastern schools.
The 1959 tournament saw five champions from the East.
The 1960s saw Myron Roderick’s talented Oklahoma State squads win five times, followed by Iowa State’s dynasty under Dr. Harold Nichols. The Cyclones won four of five titles during one stretch from 1969-73.
And then Gary Kurdelmeier begat Dan Gable and the Hawkeyes happened. Not only did eastern schools succumb but so did most of America and probably Canada and South America had they been allowed to compete. Since 1975 Iowa has won 23 national team titles.
The current landscape has a similar motif. Iowa, under head coach Tom Brands, has won three consecutive titles. Oklahoma State, with four trophies since 2000, and J Robinson’s Minnesota Gophers, with the other three titles in the twenty-first century, have slowly reloaded and appear ready to contend again.
But heading into the 2010-11 collegiate wrestling season there is a buzz coming from the East.
Cornell’s Big Red scored 90 points at the 2010 Championships in Omaha. Head Coach Rob Koll, the son of legendary wrestler and coach Bill Koll, returns a team that has the inside track to the right coast’s first team title since 1953.
Sometimes timing is everything. At least Koll hopes so.
“Last year we had a team that in a lot of years could have won a national championship,” Koll said. “We scored in the 90s but Iowa threw up 140. This is a year where it doesn’t look like anybody is going to put up big numbers, score 140 points, except hopefully us. There is no one school, Cornell included, that looks to have a dominant team.
“This is an opportunity for us to do it. It may not come around for another 100 years so we need to take advantage.”
Koll grew up in State College while his father was leading the Nittany Lions. Rob sought his fortunes outside state lines, attending the University of North Carolina where he would win an NCAA title in 1988.
In a wrestling-rich state like Pennsylvania, it would seem Penn State and Pittsburgh would have the pick of the litter. But that has usually not been the case.
In 1987 five schools from Pennsylvania finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships. Twenty-two of the 80 All-Americans represented schools from Pennsylvania, including heavyweight champion Carlton Haselrig of Division II Pitt-Johnstown.
The current recruiting landscape in Pennsylvania alone includes Cael Sanderson (Penn State), Pat Santoro (Lehigh), Tim Flynn (Edinboro), Rob Eiter (Penn), Randy Stottlemyer (Pitt) and Teague Moore (Clarion). Throw in Kerry McCoy at Maryland, Steve Martin at Old Dominion, Mark Cody at American, among others, and 18-year olds have plenty of choices, not to mention the Midwestern machines invading eastern territory for a star or two.
Winning recruiting wars, let alone national championships, is hard enough.
Rich Lorenzo coached at Penn State from 1979-92. Eleven times during his tenure the Nittany Lions finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Championships. From 1982-92 PSU won every Eastern Wrestling League team title. Eight times during that span Gable’s Hawks won NCAA titles. Oklahoma State won back-to-back in 1989-90 with Arizona State — the only western program — winning in 1988.
Three times Lorenzo’s squad finished among the top three at the NCAAs.
“If I had the answer to that question I would have applied it then,” Lorenzo said. “It comes down to the traditional schools and when it was time to put it on the line they were able too. We just didn’t get it done. No excuses.
“There is a little luck involved, especially when it comes to injuries. A lot of schools cannot handle an injury or two to their top guys. Those Midwestern schools are usually able to plug somebody in there that can compete immediately.”
A few wrestling historians jokingly make the point of location, location, location. It’s not just the East Coast, but the other side of the country has all but one title — Arizona State’s 1988 championship under head coach Bobby Douglas.
Some joke about the weather and proximity to bodies of water as a possible diversion from half-nelsons and cross-body rides.
“There are only three things that hurt wrestlers,” laments Lorenzo. “Making weight, injuries and girls. An injury takes some of that edge off, some of the confidence. You really have to find kids that are totally committed.”
Environment, as far as an administration’s support, certainly plays a role.
“We don’t have scholarships so financial aid is very important,” Koll said. “If a place like Cornell had to depend on kids getting in on their own merits we’d have about five percent of our current team. Just about every kid on our roster would be accepted to any other school, so we have to get that support from alumni and the administration to get those kids into Cornell.
“I think the biggest reason has to do with environment. The ability to get more kids into your school increases your recruiting base. Cost and affordability are a major factor. There are only a handful of Division I programs in Iowa, Oklahoma and Minnesota, so the best kids in those states are generally going to stay close to home. Having a regional power plays a role.
“A kid in Pennsylvania or in the Northeast might get offers from five or ten schools and a place like Edinboro or Clarion might offer one kid more than a Penn State.”
Some of the administrative support Koll speaks of has played a role in Clarion’s struggles. The Eagles finished in the top 10 in 1972 and ‘87. In 1973 Wade Schalles was one of three champions for a Clarion program that has since fallen off the first page of the NCAA standings. Having a Hall of Famer like Bob Bubb around doesn’t hurt either.
“You have to have financial resources, especially from an administrative level,” Koll said. “The reason we’ve been successful at this level is because of the support, mainly from the alumni.
Those two issues are significantly more important at a lot of schools. If you get an administration change that doesn’t support wrestling it’s hard to compete with the Big Ten or schools where an administrative change isn’t going to make a huge impact.”
“What (Rob) Koll has done at Cornell is fantastic,” said former Lehigh head coach Greg Strobel. “That rise is because of the alumni and an athletic department that has made a commitment. They don’t give scholarships but they’ve put money into the program, shown that support that it takes to compete at this level.”
“The 9.9 scholarships do restrict Eastern schools,” Lorenzo said. “In Pennsylvania a kid you might offer a partial scholarship to might be getting a full-ride someplace else. But at the same time a kid who may have placed at state, never a state champion, might turn out to be something special — Pat Santoro is a good example.
“There are so many factors. The best kids in Iowa aren’t leaving the state, but they only have three schools to chose from, not 10 or 15 within a couple of hundred miles.”
Prior to World War II, Eastern schools hosted seven of the 15 NCAA tournaments. Lehigh hosted in 1933 and finished second in 1939 at the tournament hosted by Franklin & Marshall.
The Mountain Hawks own 16 top-5 finishes and have been in the top 10 four times since 2002. Only Oklahoma State, Iowa, Iowa State, and Oklahoma have produced more individual champions than Lehigh.
“There is certainly a lot of great wrestling in the East,” said Strobel, a two-time national champion for Oregon State University and coach at Lehigh for 13 seasons. “That’s actually part of the problem. There are so many schools to choose from, the talent gets divided.
“The Midwest is concentrated around four or five schools and Minnesota is fairly new to the scene. Those schools have a strong fan base and the administration cares about wrestling. If things aren’t going well they are going to make changes. A lot of schools simply don’t care about wrestling.”
Although Penn State never dropped off the map, from 1999-09 there were just four top-10 finishes. The hiring of Sanderson, who was still early in his coaching career at Iowa State, sent a major wave through the East. Immediately, there was talk of Pennsylvanians heading to State College and a dynasty to come.
Only time will tell.
“I was a walk-on for Coach (Bill) Koll at Penn State,” Lorenzo said. “(Coaches) have to develop that confidence in you. It’s not always about getting the best kids, but about getting kids into your program that are willing to sacrifice a lot to be the best. Right now there are a lot of good, young coaches out there and that is creating more and more parity.
“I only knew Cael (Sanderson) from his wrestling. He carried himself very professionally and was very humble. Since he’s been at Penn State he’s been all that and even more. He has a lot of people believing in him, a lot of fans and supporters. But he has to make his wrestlers believe.”
With a highly-touted group of youngsters set to take the mat next month, perhaps Sanderson will be able to bring a title back to State College.
But if timing truly is everything, the Cornell Big Red might get the monkey off the East’s back next March in Philadelphia.
By Roger Moore
(Roger Moore is an author and freelance journalist who lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma. He has been part of the Oklahoma State wrestling radio broadcast since 1997 and was named WIN and the National Wrestling Media Association’s Journalist of the Year in 2005.)