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Photo: The West Gym at the University of Northern Iowa has been the home for the Panther wrestling program for over the past 97 years and has hosted events like the 1950 NCAA Championships.
Note: The following column, written by Mike Chapman — the founder of WIN Magazine, the Dan Gable Wrestling Museum/Hall of Fame and the Dan Hodge Trophy — appeared in the January 2020 issue of WIN Magazine. To read past and future columns by this Hall of Fame writer, subscribe to WIN (in digital or written form) by clicking here or calling 888-305-0606.
By Mike Chapman
When it comes to important structures in America’s long and storied wrestling history, few places can match the legendary West Gym on the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
That fact was driven home for me in dramatic fashion on Jan. 4, 2020, when I was attending the dual meet between host UNI and Utah Valley.
Built in 1923, the West Gym has been a key part of the campus for almost a century. The school has gone under four names since its founding in 1876 — including Iowa State Teachers College and State College of Iowa — before it became the University of Northern Iowa in 1967. Despite the name changes, one consistent feature of the college has been the strength of its wrestling program.
The school had its first dual meet in 1923 and became a national power in the 1940s, hitting its peak in 1950. That year, under Coach Dave McCuskey, Iowa State Teachers College (ISTC) went 11-0 and won two national team titles … in the NCAA and AAU.
ISTC won the NCAA crown in its own West Gym by a 30-16 margin over runner-up Purdue, and saw three Panthers claim individual titles. At 145, Keith Young won his second of three; at 155, Bill Nelson won his third, and at 165 Bill Smith won his second in a row. Two years later, Smith became UNI’s only Olympic champion in any sport when he claimed the gold medal at 160.5 pounds in Helsinki.
Perhaps the man most fans associate with ISTC wrestling is Bill Koll, who was an undefeated, three-time NCAA champion known for his ferocity on the mat. His last title came in 1948 and in 1953 he took over from McCuskey as head coach. In 1965, Koll moved on to become head coach at Penn State for 14 seasons. His son, Rob, is now the highly-successful coach at Cornell University.
Walking into the West Gym today provides a wonderful trip back in time. The long hallway in front of the wrestling room is decorated with large photos of all the national champions that the school has produced, in all divisions. The showpiece is the large display case for Bill Smith, which contains his bio, several photos and his Olympic gold medal encased for all to see.
The Bill Smith exhibit is right across from the doors into the wrestling practice room, providing a strong source of inspiration for today’s Panthers.
There’s a romance that people have with the building,” said Doug Schwab, head coach since 2011. “And our guys are definitely aware of the tradition here. We talk about it a lot. We don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure.”
Schwab brings even more tradition to the program. After a great high school career in Osage, Iowa, he was NCAA champion for the Iowa Hawkeyes in 1999 and was a three-time All-American. He was a member of the 2008 Olympic team at 145.5 pounds, and was an assistant coach under Tom Brands at both Virginia Tech and Iowa.
He loves the West Gym and the atmosphere it creates for his team. And he is focused on extending that tradition to include the current crop of Panthers.
UNI finished 13th in the NCAA in 2019 with Drew Foster leading the way by capturing the 184-pound title. And this year’s team is showing promise of a return to the glory days of yesterday. There are three All-Americans back: Max Thomsen who was fifth in 2017 at 149; Jacob Holschlag, fifth in 2018 at 197, and Bryce Steiert, 8th at 174 last year.
And then there is Taylor Lujan at 184. A senior, Lujan is a fan favorite for his non-stop, aggressive style. In his match against Utah Valley’s Jacob Armstrong, he scored 10 takedowns in a 25-9 tech fall. Lujan is fourth in the latest WIN rankings, with Steiert, Holschlag and Thomsen close behind.
Holschlag has been battling injuries the last two years but Schwab expects him to be ready by tournament time.
Sitting with me for the UNI-Utah Valley meet was Don Huff, the retired wrestling coach at West Waterloo High School, just 10 miles down the road from the West Gym. Huff won two state titles in high school … and both state meets were held in the West Gym.
“It’s amazing to think this gym could hold the state tournaments back then, let alone the NCAA meet in 1950,” said Don, gazing around the facility. “But it was a great atmosphere for wrestling all those years ago, and it still is today.”
The gym seats about 2,100 fans – so it’s mind-boggling that it hosted the 1950 NCAA tournament. Imagine all the wrestlers, coaches, officials and fans trying to cram into the little facility, especially now that the NCAA tournament draws around 16,000 fans for the final session alone.
That monumental 1950 event certainly adds to the romance of the building! Other champions that year besides the UNI stars were Anthony Gizoni of Waynesburg State at 121; Joe Patacsil of Purdue at 128; Lowell Lange of Cornell College at 136; Joe Scarpello of Iowa at 175, and Dick Hutton of Oklahoma State at heavyweight. Lange and Hutton were both three-timers while Scarpello and Gizoni were two-time champs.
One last point about the historic nature of the West Gym: the mat on which the Panthers compete has Bill Smith’s name emblazoned on a corner in large print. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who became a legend, and for a program that is fighting to get back in the nation’s circle of wrestling elites.
(Mike Chapman is the founder of WIN Magazine, the Dan Hodge Trophy, the National Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum, author of 30 books and was named to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2007.)