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BAD TIMING: Could Penn State have won a championship in 1996 if the Nittany Lions had Kolat and McCoy in their line-up?

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Updated: December 2, 2013

By Kyle Klingman

Editor’s Note: This story appeared in the current issue of Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine, which was printed Nov. 27, 2013. To receive that issue and subscribe to WIN, go to WIN-magazine.com.  (https://secure.msdservices.com/winmagazine/subscribe/)

 

Coulda. Shoulda. Didn’t.

That’s the way Kerry McCoy describes Penn State wrestling during the 1990s. The Nittany Lions came close to winning its first NCAA championship since 1953 — seven times they placed in the top four during the decade — but never quite got there.

Penn State found its stride when Cael Sanderson took over as head wrestling coach in 2009. Sanderson has led his team to NCAA championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013. He hopes to add another in 2014.

“I really did think it would come together at some point,” said Jeff Byers, the voice of Penn State wrestling radio broadcasts since 1990. “I didn’t know when, but they were so close so many times. I really did think at some point there would be a title. I’ve been following them since I was a kid. It wasn’t an unrealistic possibility for them to win titles in those years.

“I thought they would win a title but I didn’t necessarily think they would win three in a row and would be looking for four in a row like they are.”

To appreciate the current status of Penn State wrestling it is imperative to take a glimpse into the past. As far as comparisons go, Penn State wrestling travels alongside its fiercest rival: the University of Iowa.

The 1990s were a decade of revival for the Hawkeyes. Iowa was the dominate team during the late 1970s and early 1980s. They won every NCAA tournament from 1978 through 1986 (nine in a row). That all changed in 1987 when Iowa State outdistanced Iowa by 25 points. Penn State finished third with eight All-Americans … 10.25 points behind Iowa.

Iowa placed second again in 1988, sixth in 1989, and third in 1990. By 1991, Iowa head wrestling coach Dan Gable had his team back in a familiar position: first place in the team standings by a convincing margin (48.25 points better than second-place Oklahoma State).

The Hawkeyes dominated the NCAA tournament again in 1992, but by 1993 Penn State was making a strong push to dethrone Iowa. The Nittany Lions had just joined the Big 10 and they were in contention right out of the gate. Penn State and Iowa tied 18-18 in an early season dual.

But it was the Big Ten tournament where Penn State tested Iowa’s championship mettle. The Hawkeyes won several crucial matches on its way to a 4.5-point victory over the Nittany Lions. Iowa went on to win its third NCAA championship in a row (36.25 points better than second-place Penn State). Oklahoma State won the NCAA tournament in 1994 and Iowa took the championship back in 1995.

By 1996, Penn State should have had its best team in program history. That team never materialized.

Iowa dominated the 1996 NCAA tournament. The Hawkeyes placed first with 122.5 points (two champions and seven All-Americans); Penn State placed fourth with 65 points (one champion and three All-Americans).

Those numbers alone make it hard to imagine that the Nittany Lions were a serious threat to Iowa’s crown, so it sounds absurd to envision that it might have been Penn State’s best team.

mccoy penn state action

Penn State had three wrestlers place in the top three that season. Sanshiro Abe placed first at 126 pounds; John Hughes placed second at 142 pounds, and his identical twin brother, Russ, placed third at 150 pounds. Noticeably absent from the line-up were Penn State’s biggest stars: Kerry McCoy and Cary Kolat.

McCoy won the NCAA tournament at heavyweight in 1994 but placed third in 1995 after an upset loss to Northern Iowa’s Justin Greenlee in the semifinals. Rather than return to college competition, McCoy turned his focus to freestyle. He had ambitions of making the 1996 Olympic Team at 220 pounds.

McCoy came close, too. He placed second at the U.S. Open to eventual Olympic gold medalist Kurt Angle and placed third at the final Olympic Trials. McCoy returned for his senior year in 1997, winning the NCAA tournament with a 3-2 victory over Stephen Neal of Cal State-Bakersfield.

“Would I have redshirted if the entire team was in place?” asked McCoy rhetorically. “Probably. It was one of those things where the bigger goal was the Olympic Team that year. I probably could have been persuaded to continue here if Kolat was there. John and Russ Hughes were both there. No one knew exactly what was going to go down that year.”

Cary Kolat’s absence from the team takes a deeper understanding; an understanding that involved John Fritz, Penn State’s head wrestling coach at the time.

Kolat came to Penn State as the top recruit in the nation. His goals upon arrival were simple: become the best wrestler in the world. Winning four NCAA championships were part of that goal.

As a true freshman, Kolat reached the 1993 NCAA tournament finals at 134 pounds, placing second to T.J. Jaworsky of North Carolina. After a 22-5 season, his goals immediately shifted from winning four NCAA titles to three.

As a sophomore, Kolat entered the 1994 NCAA tournament undefeated, but was upset in the semifinals by Babak Mohammadi of Oregon State. Kolat wrestled back for third.

Two opportunities down, two to go for Kolat.

Cary Kolat won two NCAA titles for Lock Haven in 1996 and ‘97 after placing twice for Penn State in ‘93 and ‘94.

Cary Kolat won two NCAA titles for Lock Haven in 1996 and ‘97 after placing twice for Penn State in ‘93 and ‘94.

Kolat spent the better part of a week sulking at his house after the loss. He wasn’t wrestling at his highest level and he wasn’t competing in his favorite style of the sport either. Kolat had ambitions of winning an Olympic gold medal in freestyle. Why not take a step away from college wrestling so he could focus on the international style?

“I went into the office and I told coach (Fritz) that I wanted to redshirt next year (1995 season),” said Kolat. “His initial response was, ‘You don’t run the team,’ which is true. No athlete runs the team. At the time, I was a guy who was devastated and I think if he would have just slowed down a little bit and said, ‘Let’s take a couple months and get through the summer and let’s talk about it again.’

“His response was so immediate  –– like I was trying to run the team –– that I took it as this guy doesn’t care about me. I felt a little burnt. It was like two bulls going at it. He had to run the team and he can’t let an athlete run the team. My perspective as the athlete was I need some help and I need some time. By the time I left the meeting I said ‘Well, if you don’t care about me then I’m transferring.’ It’s kind of how it went down.

“Now, when I say Fritzy and I have a good relationship, we do. I think had we taken some time, and had his response been different, and me being young and immature, my responses probably weren’t correct. It was two guys who reacted wrong to the situation. Who knows, maybe I would have stayed at Penn State.”

Had Kerry McCoy — the current head coach at Maryland — and Cary Kolat — associate head coach at North Carolina — been in the Penn State line-up in 1996 the results would have been different for the Nittany Lions.

But would it have been enough to knock off Iowa?

It is completely plausible to suggest that both Kolat and McCoy would have won individual NCAA championships that year. McCoy only lost one match during his last three seasons of collegiate wrestling, winning the NCAA championship in 1997.

Kolat transferred to Lock Haven following a redshirt season in 1995. He won his first NCAA championship at 134 pounds in 1996 and his second in 1997 at 142 pounds. Kolat only lost one match in his final two seasons of competition.

In a somewhat interesting dynamic for a college wrestler who just transferred to another school, Kolat worked out with his former teammates during the summer and during the season. He made the 30 minute drive from Lock Haven to Penn State for additional workouts after scheduled team practices. Kolat was still part of the team even though he wasn’t in the line-up.

“What could have been if we would have had all the guys?” asked McCoy of a possible NCAA championship. “Russ Hughes lost in the quarterfinals. Chris Bono won the NCAAs that year and Russ beat him three times that year. Russ could have been a champ. John won the year before and took second that year.

“Obviously, I could have won and Cary won for Lock Haven. Not only could we have won but we could have had four or five champs and a bunch of other guys place.”

So, would Penn State have defeated Iowa in 1996? Perhaps, but it would have been difficult. If you take the points Kolat scored at the 1996 NCAA tournament (22) and add them to the points that McCoy scored at the 1997 NCAA tournament (23.5) that gives Penn State an additional 45.5 team points.

However, you have to subtract the 3.5 points that Penn State’s Biff Walizer scored at the 134-pound weight class since he wouldn’t have been competing (Kolat would have been in the line-up instead). That means 42 additional team points for Penn State and the final score might have been: Iowa, 122.5 to Penn State, 107.

On paper, the Nittany Lions needed 16 more points to win. On the other hand, the scope of the entire season would have changed. Different expectations mean different outcomes. Penn State needed to pick up key wins that it didn’t get during its fourth-place finish in 1996. And there is every reason to believe that Iowa would have performed better had it been challenged.

“We’ve all talked about it,” said Kolat. “We know we could have pulled it off around that time. They did a good job of recruiting the right guys and getting the right guys in the right places. It would have been a good team. I have a competitive nature. I think had I sat around and we got through the summer and I was in the room doing what I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have redshirted. I probably would have been ‘I’m in, I’m ready to go.’”

As it turned out, McCoy and Kolat had successful international careers well beyond college. Both were members of the 2000 Olympic Team with McCoy making his second Olympic Team in 2004. Kolat won a silver medal at the 1997 World Championships and a bronze in 1998; McCoy won a World silver medal in 2003. Sanshiro Abe, Penn State’s lone NCAA champion in 1996, made the Olympic Team for Japan later that year.

The potential for the 1996 Penn State wrestling team, in hindsight, seem limitless. But, as McCoy put it: Coulda. Shoulda. Didn’t.

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