My all-time greatest college wrestlers

Updated: November 2, 2010

By Mike Chapman

Cael Sanderson (left), the only Div. I wrestler to go unbeaten (159-0) in a four-year career, later appeared on a box of Wheaties.

Last issue, I wrote about my long experience with the sport of wrestling and the opportunity I had to talk with so many of the sport’s top coaches, athletes and writers of the past 75 years. And I said that in this issue I was going to select what I consider to be the greatest 15 college wrestlers of all time.

This isn’t a ranking of “who would beat who” or “what might have been if only…..” (with three exceptions at the end).

It is a list based primarily upon records and accomplishments of the top wrestlers in collegiate history, dating back to the first NCAA tournament in 1928. Yes, I realize that there were plenty of college matches prior to 1928, but I am starting my list with the “official” NCAA tournament because it is too difficult to rank the best wrestlers of all time without the benefit of them facing the other top men in a national collegiate tournament.

Robin Reed never lost a match any time anywhere, but had only limited college experience at Oregon State. Allie Morrison was undefeated during his college career at the University of Illinois and won the Olympics in 1928 — but he never competed in the NCAA meet. Joe Henson never lost while at the Naval Academy but did not get to test himself in a single NCAA tourney due to World War II.

Also, there are great wrestlers who hit their peak shortly after college, such as John Smith, Doug Blubaugh and Bruce Baumgartner. They would undoubtedly make a list of the all-time greatest American wrestlers ever, but perhaps not quite make the top 15 in a list of the top collegiate wrestlers.

No one made this list without winning at least two NCAA titles.

And only one made this list who lost more than once after his freshman year.

Why the cutoff after the freshman year? Because many of the early wrestlers did not have to compete as freshmen so I tried not to place too large an emphasis on that first year, though I did take it into account where the results were spectacular — like with Cael Sanderson.

Also, no one made this list who lost to the same wrestler more than once. If a wrestler loses once to a foe, that is understandable; it could be a fluke or a bad night. But if he lost twice to the same man, he doesn’t make this “Top 15” list. Sorry.

This list is top heavy with wrestlers from the two most dominant states, Oklahoma and Iowa. There are six wrestlers from the state of Oklahoma in the top 15, representing two colleges, and six from the state of Iowa, representing four different colleges. Since these two states have totally dominated the collegiate sport, it makes sense that they produced the cream of the crop over the long haul.

Other states represented are Pennsylvania (two), Oregon (one) and Wisconsin (one).

With those “conditions” uppermost in mind, here is my ranking of the top 15 college wrestlers of all time. A final word of caution — don’t take it too seriously. After all, this is not “life and death” stuff but merely an opportunity to look at one man’s ranking and compare it with your own list.

No. 1 – Cael Sanderson, Iowa State — It’s been eight years since Cael Sanderson completed the greatest collegiate wrestling career of all time. He was an incredible 159-0, winning four NCAA titles, four Outstanding Wrestler (O.W.) awards, and earning the Dan Hodge Trophy three times. Sanderson’s achievement was so remarkable that Sports Illustrated, which generally pays very little attention to college wrestling, ranked it the second greatest college performance of all time. This one isn’t even close — it’s Cael Sanderson in a runaway!

No. 2. Dan Hodge, University of Oklahoma — Dan was 46-0 with 36 pins, including 24 in a row at one point. He won two O.W. awards at the NCAA tournament and was never taken down his entire college career. He never had a close match. He pinned his way through the NCAAs in 1956 and then pinned every foe in both the national freestyle and Greco-Roman tournament a few weeks later. So remarkable was his career that Sports Illustrated put him on the cover of its April 1, 1957, issue and he remains to this day the only wrestler so honored by the nation’s top sports periodical.

No. 3. Yojiro Uetake, Oklahoma State University — He was 58-0 and was given two O.W. awards at the NCAA tournament. He was the perfect blend of quickness, skill, technique and mental toughness. Rumors are that he was never taken down in college or never had a close match and neither is quite true, but he was never in danger of losing at any time. Yojiro was so good in college that he won an Olympic gold medal for his native Japan after his sophomore year at Oklahoma State.

No. 4. Bill Koll, Iowa State Teachers College – Returning to campus life after seeing action in World War II (like many college athletes of that era), Koll was a man on a mission. He was 45-0 at Iowa State Teachers College (now UNI) and was feared far and wide for his ferocious style of wrestling. He was the first wrestler to win two O.W. awards at the NCAAs and was a pinning machine.

No. 5. Dan Gable, Iowa State University – His focus and dedication are legendary even outside the sport. He was 118-1 at Iowa State, losing in the NCAA finals his senior year (1970) in the biggest upset in wrestling history. He won 181 straight high school and college matches and once pinned 24 foes in a row. Though freshmen were not eligible his first year, he won the very tough Midlands tournament by beating an NCAA champion in the finals and was named O.W. He is the highest wrestler on the list with a loss.

No. 6. Gray Simons, Lock Haven State – Wrestling at 115 pounds, he claimed an all-time record of seven national titles in college (four at the NAIA level and three at the NCAA level) and he was the O.W. in those seven meets an amazing six times. Simons never lost after early in his freshman year and won his last 84 matches in a row. Many in his era believe he was the finest technician they ever saw.

No. 7. Lee Kemp, University of Wisconsin — After being NCAA runner-up as a pure freshman, losing to a great senior (Chuck Yagla of Iowa) in overtime, Kemp was 110-1-1 his final three seasons and won three NCAA titles at 158 pounds. He had superb strength, quickness and mat position and was almost impossible to score on. His overall record was 143-6-1, but five of the losses came in his first season, just one year out of high school.

No. 8. Stanley Henson, Oklahoma State — Some “old timers” say Stan was the best pure wrestler ever. Henry Wittenberg, 1948 Olympic champion, told me he had never seen such skilled wrestling. Henson was so slick that people often overlook the fact that he was also very strong (from working in the Oklahoma oil fields) and mentally tough. His only loss came when he wrestled up a weight as a sophomore (against Oklahoma’s Bill Keas) but he defeated Keas in a rematch despite suffering a dislocated shoulder in the bout. Henson won three NCAA titles and was O.W. as a sophomore in 1937, and probably would have been the next two years, as well, but voters were reluctant at that time to give it to the same wrestler more than once.

No. 9. Pat Smith, Oklahoma State — Winning the NCAA championship as a pure freshman, Smith was a marked man from there on and overcame tremendous pressure to become the first four-time NCAA champion ever. He compiled a career record of 121-5-2, going his last 98 matches in a row without a loss, including his fourth title at 158 pounds, in 1994. Like Kemp, he never lost after his freshman year despite being under tremendous pressure.

No. 10. Carlton Haselrig, Pitt Johnstown — He won six NCAA titles, an incredible feat that will most likely never be matched. Competing at heavyweight, he won three Division II national titles and then proceeded to win three Division I titles. He posted a record of 143-2-1 and went through his last 123 matches in a row without a loss. An indication of his superb athletic skill is that he played for the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL without playing college football.

No. 11. Buddy Arndt, Oklahoma State – Hardly anyone seems to know it, but Buddy Arndt reportedly never lost a match in high school or college! After winning two state titles at Tulsa Central he won two NCAA titles at Oklahoma A&M, then left for World War II. He flew over 100 combat missions in the war — then returned to win his third NCAA title in 1946. He is the only wrestler to win NCAA titles on both sides of World War II, before and after. He never lost a scholastic match. Bill Koll told me personally he thought Buddy Arndt might have been the best wrestler he ever saw.

No. 12 Jack VanBebber, Oklahoma State – Undefeated in three seasons at Oklahoma A&M, VanBebber is the first three-time NCAA champion to win a gold medal in the Olympics, which came one year after his senior year (1931). He was such a star in his era that in 1950 the Associated Press selected him as one of the top 10 amateur athletes in the first half of the century, an amazing tribute for a wrestler.

(The only reason Arndt and VanBebber aren’t higher on the list is due to the fact that they wrestled far less matches than did wrestlers 50 years later and, hence, had far less opportunities to suffer an upset or fluke loss.)

No. 13. Lincoln McIlravy, University of Iowa — Winning the NCAA title as a pure freshman puts Lincoln in a very elite group of great wrestlers. He wound up his career with four trips to the finals and three championships, and was the complete wrestler, possessing superb skills, endurance, strength and mental toughness. His overall record at Iowa was 98-3, two of those losses coming as a pure freshman.

No. 14. Rick Sanders, Portland State — A man of unbelievable talents, Sanders was 103-2 in college, winning five national collegiate titles on three levels. He won two NCAA titles and finished second as a senior in a shocking upset (to Dwayne Keller of Oklahoma State). Very few wresters could match his skill level and his unorthodox style of wrestling. Sanders had a large percentage of pins and often scored in double figures.

TIE # 15. Keith Young, Iowa State Teachers College — Probably the most overlooked college wrestler ever, Young won three NCAA championships for Iowa State Teachers College and was undefeated his entire college career. (As an indication of how tough he was, he also won thee national freestyle titles during the same period.) In addition, he was the only wrestler to ever defeat Lowell Lange, another three-time champion, during Lange’s great career.

TIE # 15. Lowell Lange, Cornell College – He was NCAA champion as a true freshman for Cornell College and wound up with three titles. Had he not missed his entire sophomore season due to an auto accident, he probably would have become the sport’s first four-time champion. As a junior, he handily defeated the defending NCAA champion who had won when Lange was out for the year. Lange finished with a career mark of 46-1, his only loss coming when he moved up a weight to battle Keith Young.

Special mention: I said at the outset I would not get into “what ifs” but there are three cases — one due to a horrible injury and two because of an eligibility mix-up — that simply must be addressed.

The hyperextension of Randy Lewis’s elbow during a match his final season (1981) was the worst injury I ever saw in 40 years of following college wrestling. If not for that injury, Lewis could well have made the list. He was NCAA runnerup as a pure freshman, undefeated NCAA champion as a sophomore and moved up a weight as a junior to beat the defending NCAA champion, Darryl Burley of Lehigh, a great champion in his own right. (Lewis also made the 1980 Olympic team while still in college.)

Riding an 81-match winning streak, Lewis blew his elbow out midway through his senior year and still came back to place seventh, basically wrestling with one arm.

An eligibility mix-up knocked out both Bill Smith (Iowa Teachers) and Wade Schalles (Clarion University). Smith had two NCAA titles to his credit and was undefeated in 54 matches when forced to miss his entire 1951 senior season.

One of the most exciting wrestlers of all time, Schalles won four national titles (two in Division II and two in Division I) in college but missed the tournament his senior year (1974) due to an eligibility flap. Schalles’ college record was 156-5-2 with a stunning 106 pins!

There are many others that were considered and could be selected without much problem; in fact, they may be on your list.                         They include three-time champions Earl McCready (Oklahoma State), Dick Hutton (Oklahoma State), Bill Nelson (Iowa State Teachers College), Myron Roderick (Oklahoma State), Rex, Ed and Hugh Peery (Oklahoma A&M and Pitt), Larry Hayes (Iowa State), Nate Carr (Iowa State), Mark Churella (Michigan), Mike Caruso (Lehigh), Mark Schultz (Oklahoma), Tom Brands (Iowa), Barry Davis (Iowa), Ed Banach (Iowa), Jim Zalesky (Iowa) and Stephen Abas (Fresno State).

And two-time champions Richard DiBatista (Penn), Tommy Evans (Oklahoma), Terry McCann (Iowa), Jim Nance (Syracuse), Dave Auble (Cornell University), Jess Lewis (Oregon State), Chris Taylor (Iowa State), Greg Strobel (Oregon State), Ben Peterson (Iowa State), John Smith (OSU), Gene Mills (Syracuse), Chris Campbell (Iowa), Mike Sheets (Oklahoma State), Terry Brands (Iowa), Lou Banach (Iowa), Ben Askren (Missouri) and Jake Herbert (Northwestern).

So, there you have it: one man’s list of the 15 (or 16, with the tie) greatest college wrestlers of all time. I hope you enjoyed reading it, mulling it over and that it inspires you to come up with your own ranking.

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