Monday, October 13, 2008

75 miles of glory

I’ve been known to drink the occasional beer or glass of wine. The lounge in the Cedar Rapids Marriott is my favorite watering hole – in no small part because the bartender wrestled in high school and is a Hawkeye wrestling fan. Last Thursday evening I was on my usual perch when two young men and a young woman rolled in. They were sporting white cowboy hats and Cornell College tee shirts. “We just drove all the way from Houston in a Ford Ranger.”

“Are you here for homecoming?”, asked the bartender.


Then absolutely out of the blue one of the men said, “Man I’m glad Terry Brands is back at Iowa. We’ll sure see that old ‘Gable style’ now”. May God strike me down if that is not true. Wellllll - bartender Lenny and I are now ecstatic. The wrestling talk poured as freely as the spirits. After 20 or 30 minutes the young woman asked why we were so involved in our discussion. Her friend replied, “because this is Iowa and wrestling’s a big deal here.”

Go forward one night. One of the managers at the Marriott is the step-brother of a Hawkeye wrestler and we were discussing the video of an Iowa practice that had recently been posted on the internet. The person sitting next to me was a Cornell alum, in town for homecoming. “Do you follow wrestling?”, he asked – followed by – “Did you know that Cornell is the smallest school ever to win the NCAA wrestling championship?”

Bartender Lenny (who attended UNI in the early ‘70s), “Did YOU know that UNI also won an NCAA team title?”

I checked to make sure I had a pulse, because this is my idea of heaven – wrestling talk with strangers – TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW!

I’m a wrestling history geek and the idea for this blog was spawned by those two nights of conversations.

Waterloo/Cedar Falls and Mount Vernon are roughly 75 miles apart. In the post World War II years, Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) and Cornell College joined the “Big boys” of college wrestling – and each won a title. The story of Cornell’s amazing 1947 season is one of the greatest David vs. Goliath tales in the annals of college sports. You can read about it in Mark Palmer's Rev-Rewind article.

Iowa State Teachers College was a power from 1947 through the early ‘50s, winning the NCAA championship in 1950 and producing three 3-time NCAA champs, an Olympic silver medallist and an Olympic champion.

Certainly almost all college wrestling programs would hope to have that history of success. Perhaps, however, what those 2 programs have meant to the sport since the 1950’s is the greater heritage.

Success rarely drops from the sky. That is the case with these two schools. The foundations for Cornell’s emergence were laid in the 1920’s with Hall of Fame coach Dick Barker who recruited Olympic silver medallist and Hall-of-Famer LLoyd Appleton to Mount Vernon. After leaving Cornell, Coach Barker founded the wrestling team at Michigan. Hall of Fame coach Paul Scott took over the helm at Cornell in 1941 and lead the Purple (now the Rams) to their post-war success. In addition to winning the 1947 NCAA and AAU championships he coached 3-time NCAA champion and Hall-of Famer Lowell Lange and NCAA champ Dick Hauser.

Hall of Fame coach Dave McCuskey was a 1930 graduate of Iowa State Teachers College who led the Panthers from 1933 – 1952. In addition to the 1950 NCAA championship mentioned above, Coach McCuskey’s Panthers were NCAA runners-up four times and won three AAU national titles.

From there the influence grows. Cornell grad Lloyd Appleton coached at West Point for 19 years and helped establish what would become the US military wrestling organization – leading us to the likes of Hall-of-Famer Greg Gibson and 2008 Olympian Dremiel Byers. Lowell Lange revived the Georgia Tech wrestling program and his Yellow Jackets interrupted Auburn’s Swede Umbach's 25 year run of (now) SEC titles. Lange’s team mate Dale Thomas went on to coach at Oregon State University, where his 616 victories still stand as the all-time NCAA record.

The Iowa State Teachers College teams of that era have had even greater influence. UNI Olympic gold medallist, Bill Smith is one of the very few individuals to coach high school championship teams in 2 states – Illinois and California. He also coached the Olympic Club of San Francisco team to three national freestyle and four national Greco-Roman championships. Three-time UNI NCAA champs and Hall-of-Famers Bill Koll, Bill Nelson and Keith Young would all go on to be influential coaches – Koll at Penn State, Nelson at the University of Arizona and Young at Cedar Falls High School. Additionally, Bil Koll’s son, Rob, would go on to a stellar collegiate coaching career.

It wasn’t just the Hall of Fame wrestlers from UNI that have influenced the sport. Leo Alitz, a member of those powerful post-war Panther squads, is in the Hall of Fame for his longtime career at the US Military Academy, where he coached Army’s only NCAA individual champ. Hall-of-Famer Bob Siddens was also a part of those outstanding UNI teams. His career at Waterloo West High School is legendary, but he is, perhaps, most famous for being the first coach of a guy named Gable.

Unfortunately – late Friday night – this blog took a sad turn when I learned of the death of UNI Olympic silver medallist and NCAA champ, Gerry Leeman. Like his team mate, Bill Smith – and so many athletes of that era - Leeman’s career was interrupted by World War II, where Gerry served as a naval fighter pilot. When the Osage, IA native returned to Iowa State Teachers College he won a title and was named outstanding wrestler of the 1946 championships. Then, in 1948 he won an Olympic silver medal. In 1953 Hall of Fame coach Billy Sheridan selected Leeman to succeed him as head coach at Lehigh University. While at Lehigh Leeman’s dual meet record was 161-38-4. He won six EIWA championships and had six wrestlers win nine individual NCAA championships – including the legendary “three-timer”, Mike Caruso.

Gerry Leeman

He was more than a coach. In a quote from a 1967 Sports Illustrated article about Caruso, Bethlehem (PA) shoemaker John Pappajohn says, "That Mr. Leeman, he is a very special man. I never forget one time, eight, nine year ago, when he come to get a shoeshine. 'You no look so good, Pappajohn,' he says to me. I say no, things is bad. My daughter is very sick in the hospital and need blood transfusions. You know what he do? He not even let me finish his shoe before he go over to the phone, and he call up the captain of his team. Before the day is through, every single one of his boys is down at the hospital, giving blood so's my daughter can have her transfusions. No, I can never forget that man."

He is survived by his wife, Darlene of Cedar Falls; two sons, Mark Leeman and Jay (Judy) Leeman of Bethlehem, Pa.; one daughter, Jerilou (John) Willmore of Hubbard; two brothers, Wayne (Susie) Leeman of Pinehurst, Ill., and Bill Leeman of Cassa Grande, Ariz.; two sisters, Beverly (Jim) Hoy of McHenry, Ill., and Barb (Larry) Campbell of Winterset; grandsons, Jayson Leeman, Cody Leeman and Travis Moseley; granddaughter, Heather (Justin) Dyar; stepgrandson, Ben Willmore; great-grandsons, Ayden Dyar and Prentice Dyar; sister-in-law, Betty Buckles; and special nieces, Becky (Darrel) Willhite and Bonnie Dunham. He was preceded in death by his parents; siblings, Albert, Dale, Keith, Donald, and Shirley; and brother-in-law, Gene Buckles.
As luck would have it, I attended UNI’s “Night of Champions” earlier this year where Gerry was one of the honorees. I feel honored to have been there.

(My thanks to Mark Palmer for his help in preparing this blog).

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