Monday, November 24, 2008

A man on a mission

Johnny Cobb has a mission – to bring intercollegiate wrestling to Texas. Cobb, the wrestling coach at Tascosa High School in Amarillo, is working to establish men’s and women’s teams at West Texas A & M. He is joined in his efforts by one of his former wrestlers – Olympic champion, Brandon Slay – and Amarillo Palo Duro coach, Steve Nelson.

I asked Coach Cobb, a former Oklahoma State University wrestler, when and why he started this journey.

“…Seriously thinking about it 20 years ago when I first took the wrestling program at Tascosa H/S.

I knew we had great Tx. kids, yet many would never have a chance to pursue a college dream because of the cost of out of state tuition. It was also ridiculous that there was not one NCAA college program in the entire state. Tx. has an Olympic champion and this year Mohamed Lawal missed the team by a few seconds and we had a female bronze medallist (Randi Miller). Texas needs a program!”

According to the National Wrestling Coaches Association participation statistics, Texas has approximately 6,700 high school wrestlers. What makes Texas unique is that roughly 1,600 of those participants are girls (that’s almost 30% of all high school girls wrestling in the country). To make the need greater, there are also no four-year college wrestling programs in the neighboring states of Arkansas (which just recently sanctioned high school wrestling championships) and Louisiana.

If the mission of a state-funded college system is to meet the full educational needs of its constituency, then clearly wrestling should be available to Texas college students.

Coach Cobb and Slay first approached West Texas A & M with a proposal soon after Slay’s triumphant return from Sydney in 2000. They recently demonstrated their total commitment by presenting WTAM athletic director, Michael McBroom, nearly $50,000 in pledges and equipment to go toward establishing the two teams. While AD McBroom was impressed, he painted a challenging picture.

“I am interested in wrestling. (College president) Dr. O’Brien is interested in wrestling, but only when we have the facilities and funds to support it appropriately.”

An expansion of athletic facilities is the first hurdle. The university has proposed just such an expansion, but the national economy is making it more difficult.

AD McBroom estimates that it will cost just over $300,000 a year to fund wrestling. His numbers:

Head Coach: $60,000 (includes benefits)
Graduate Assistant: $10,000
Scholarships: $105,000
Athletic Trainer: $40,000
Sports Information GA: $10,000
Team Travel: $60,000
Recruiting Travel: $10,000
Supplies/Equipment: $15,000

He states that the annual expenses can be met in two ways – attract enough new students that the increased athletic participation fees generate enough revenue or FULLY ENDOW the program. The latter option would require raising $5 million.

There’s a real Catch 22 involved with raising that kind of capital. You have no wrestling alumni because you don’t have a wrestling program. You have no wrestling program because you don’t have the primary type of donors that can fund one – wrestling alumni.

So - Coach Cobb and Brandon Slay are doing it the hard way – knocking on doors, writing letters, looking to the wrestling community for support. They have the backing of some major names in the sport. What they haven’t found yet is someone like Art Martori who was instrumental in saving Arizona State wrestling.

I don’t personally know all those that read this little blog – but I know some – and there aren’t many that have an extra $5 million lying around. However, in the time that I have been writing the blog I HAVE been introduced to people who are very generous to the sport – who work hard for the sport. Most of them do so without much fanfare.

Just Friday I read a set of testimonials from several individuals who have succeeded in all walks of life. All credited their college wrestling experience as a building block of their success. I suspect that there are hundreds – maybe thousands – more who have used the lessons learned from wrestling to excel. Are all of them still connected to wrestling in some way? I don’t know. But if they’re not we need to re-engage them with the sport.

We’re just a bunch of fans – what can we do to help. Well first of all, you can email a pledge of financial support to Johnny Cobb at Just as importantly, perhaps, is to show the rest of the world what wrestling means to us – show up at meets, do what we can to attract new fans, tell anyone who will listen the Henry Cejudo story, email links to videos of the inspirational heroes of our sport like Anthony Robles or Kyle Maynard. The more we ourselves support wrestling the more likely we are to attract the kind of support that can help people like Johnny Cobb achieve his mission.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Road to Cedar Rapids - Volume 2

Last year when Brandon MacWhinnie became the first wrestling All-American in the history of Stevens Institute of Technology it was more than a personal triumph. It was also a victory for Athletic Director Russ Rogers and a group of enthusiasts who were instrumental in returning wrestling to varsity status in 2004.

Stevens dropped wrestling from its roster of varsity sports in 1992. I asked AD Rogers about the resurrection.

“We had a very active club that was eager to take the program to varsity status. Our thought process at the time was centered around trying to meet our students' interests and provide them with the best possible experience. We also felt confident that we could carry a strong program. New Jersey is a great state for wrestling and our institution offers a high quality education.”

Reinstating a program requires commitment from many people. One of those is Stevens head coach Mike Clayton. Coach Clayton was hired last season and was named NCAA Division III Rookie Coach of the Year after the Ducks finished 23rd in the 2008 Championships in Cedar Rapids.

A native of Brooklyn, IA, Coach Clayton wrestled at the Naval Academy, where, after graduation, he was an assistant coach. During his time in the Navy and then, after leaving the service, he coached at the Apprentice School in Virginia. In 2004 he became the head assistant at the US Military Academy.

As we’ve seen all too frequently in the past few years, a wrestling program can be dropped almost instantly. Bringing one back takes a lot more time. Building numbers “in the room” is one of the key challenges. As Coach Clayton noted in a pre-season press release, “We’re excited to see our roster up from 17 wrestlers last year to 27 this year.”

I asked Coach Clayton about the outlook for the 2008-09 season.

“This season we return 9 of 10 starters but will sit one starter out to rehab an injury at 125. We are pretty solid from 133 up through the line-up and for the first time at Stevens actually have depth at several weight classes that will help our dual meet success. We are young and still building. We’ve started the season out ranked #27 in the pre-season coaches poll. This is the first time in school history we’ve earned a coaches’ poll ranking so it’s nice to be recognized by our peers for the hard work we’ve been putting in.”

He’s also excited about the recent hiring of former Division III All-American, Danny Song, to be his assistant. Song has been competing the last couple of years with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club while completing graduate work at the University of Iowa. According to Clayton, “(Song) really brings a great work ethic and strong background to the room having trained with Hawkeye Wrestling Club for the last 2 years.”

In addition to coaching, Clayton is a tireless promoter of his team, his school and his sport. He’s started both a fall clinic and a summer camp and writes a regular blog.

Ducks Blog

As at most Division III schools, academics are first and foremost. According to AD Rogers the wrestling team GPA last year “was almost a 3.2.”
Coach Clayton also talks about the education available at Stevens, “We are listed as one of the top 100 colleges in America each year. Our engineering and business technology departments are excellent as well as offering great opportunities in pre-medicine, pre-law and computer science.”

Coach Clayton is looking forward to returning to Cedar Rapids for the 2009 Championships and continuing the successful rebirth of Stevens wrestling.

Cedar Rapids update

Flood recovery continues. Downtown is now sprinkled with red and white “We’re Back” banners marking businesses that have re-opened.

One of the treasures of downtown Cedar Rapids has always been Penguin’s Comedy Club. Unable to re-build in their old location, Penguin’s has relocated to the Clarion Hotel. They have booked TC Hatter and Marcianne for the weekend of this year’s Division III Championships. It’s a unique act that is “family friendly”. Shows will be Friday at 8:00 and Saturday at 7:30 and 10:00. The late show Saturday will be a perfect way to finish the night after finals. The Clarion is convenient to all of the “southwest side” hotels. For more information visit

Make your trip to this year’s championships even more fun – take in a show.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wrestling Heroes - Volume 3


Tommy Norris was twice an ACC wrestling champion for the University of Maryland. After graduation he enlisted in the Navy in hopes of becoming a pilot. Unfortunately, vision problems kept him from flying. Instead – he became a SEAL.

Lt. Col. Iceal (Gene) Hambleton was an intelligence expert who was flying a reconnaissance mission over Viet Nam in April, 1972 when his aircraft was hit by a surface-to-air missile. Lt. Colonel Hambleton was the only one of the six-man crew able to eject. The rest were killed.

Hollywood made a movie “based on a a true story”, called Bat 21 about the rescue of Iceal Hambleton.

Because the real story of this mission remained classified at the time of the movie, Lieutenant Thomas Norris and his Vietnamese “frogmen” get no mention in the movie. Lt. Norris and his small team twice went well beyond enemy lines to effect the rescue of, first, Lt. Mark Clark and then Lt. Colonel Hambleton. For his actions, Lt. Thomas Norris was awarded, against his own objections, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Six months later, Tommy Norris would again be sent on a rescue mission behind enemy lines. This time Lt. Norris would not escape unscathed. Suffering a severe head wound, Lt. Norris was given up for dead by all but SEAL team member, Michael Thornton. Thornton refused evacuation from the enemy ambush – “not without my lieutenant”. Thornton found Tommy Morris with a part of his head blown away by enemy fire and carried him to his rescue. For his actions on that October day, Michael Thornton became the first person to be awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing another Medal of Honor winner.

The complete story of these actions can be read at

Since Milo of Croton, wrestlers have been among those that have answered the call when a nation has needed it’s warriors to fight for freedom. The National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum is filled with Distinguished Members who have served the United States when most needed. J Robinson, Josiah Henson, Bill Smith, Gerry Leeman, Greg Gibson and many others came to our country’s aid in times of war.

The Hall of Fame has begun work on an exhibit called Glory Beyond Sport: Wrestling and the Military which is scheduled for launch in February, 2009. Plans are for the exhibit to travel for a year and then become permanent at the Hall. Executive Director, Lee Roy Smith, has asked for your help with this project. If you know of anyone who has distinguished themselves both in wrestling and in the military, please contact the Hall of Fame at

When we send young men and women off to war we owe them – at least our respect and our thanks – and perhaps so much more.

I hope you’ll take a few minutes during this week to remember those that have sacrificed so that we may have our freedom.

Written in memory of Korean War veteran Sgt. Arthur Brown Jr. Thanks, Dad.


Monday, November 3, 2008

If there were a Wrestling Fan Hall of Fame

Cael Sanderson greets you when you enter Smitty’s Shoe Repair. No – the Cyclone legend is not actually there – it’s an autographed life size cut out of the Olympic champion – holding a giant can of Hy Vee Chunky Vegetable Soup.

Calling Rich Foens, the owner if Smitty’s, a wrestling fan is a classic case of understatement. The walls of his shop on the square in Marion, IA are covered with wrestling memorabilia (and pictures of his grandkids). There are autographed photos and posters from Sanderson, Dan Gable and Tom Brands. You’ll also find the team pictures of the 1954 and 1956 Davenport High School state championship wrestling teams. Rich was on those teams. He finished fourth at 95 pounds in the Iowa state tournament in 1955.

Ostensibly, I had gone in to Smitty’s to get new heels on a pair of shoes. I really went in to ask Rich a question. Last week wrestling history buff, Mark Palmer, posted a video of the 1962 NCAA finals. One of the finalists was identified as “Frank Freeman” from Iowa State Teacher’s College (now UNI). I asked online viewers if this was the same Franc Freeman who coached Bettendorf (IA) High School wrestling for many years – including a couple of state championship teams in the early ‘80s. I got no reply – so I went in to ask Rich. “Yep, Francis O’Grady Freeman – we’ve been friends since the third grade.” Rich took me over to the 1956 Davenport team picture and pointed to a very young Franc Freeman.

Even though we’re from the same home town and attended the same high school, I didn’t meet Rich until about 20 years ago when my wife and I started dating. Romantic devil that I am one of our early dates was an Iowa wrestling meet. We ran into Rich and his daughter there. My wife had taught elementary school in Tipton, IA and had been a neighbor to Rich and his wife. A strong friendship developed. Coincidentally, my wife moved back to Cedar Rapids and Rich bought Smitty’s and moved to Marion. It has now become ritual that Rich and I chat before every Hawkeye meet.

Rich was coached by an Iowa high school legend – Jim Fox. Coach Fox is in the Iowa High School Football Hall of Fame and is in the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame as both a coach and official. He coached two state championship wrestling teams, two “mythical” state football championship teams (before Iowa had playoffs) and three “official” championship teams after playoffs were instituted. He also coached a US Congressman (Jim Leach) an Olympian (Gayle Hopkins) and six athletes who played at least four years in the NFL – including Roger Craig.

I asked Rich about wrestling for coach Fox. “He was young then – and hated to lose”. In 1956 the Davenport Blue Devils crossed the Mississippi River to wrestle the Rock Island (IL) Rocks who were coached by Bill Smith – now a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. The Rocks won handily. “He worked our tails off after that”, Rich said about coach Fox’s reaction to the loss. Both teams would finish 1956 by winning their respective state titles.

Simon Roberts was Rich’s teammate in 1954 when Si became the first African-American in the country to win a state high school wrestling championship. Rich remembers, “Si was wrestling Ronnie Gray from Eagle Grove in the finals. Si was a senior and Ronnie was a junior. Ronnie had won in 1952 and 1953 and most people thought he was going to become Iowa’s first 4-time state champion (note: Gray would win again in 1955). When Si beat him most people thought it was a fluke. We didn’t. Then when Si (competing for Iowa) beat Gray (of ISU) to become the first African-American NCAA wrestling champion he proved it wasn’t a fluke.”

If you ask Rich about his favorite wrestlers, Gable and Sanderson come up. Ask him to name an all-time Hawkeye wrestling team, however, and he won’t do it. “How do you say Tom Brands is better than Randy Lewis or Mark Ironside? It can’t be done”, says Rich. Yet – if you talk to Rich long enough it becomes apparent that he does have a favorite Hawkeye, “Don’t get me wrong - I know he wasn’t a great wrestler – but I loved to watch Ryan Fulsaas. So many times he would get behind but he never knew how to quit.”

Rich recently celebrated 50 years of owning a small business and 25 years as the owner of Smitty’s. If you’re in the Cedar Rapids/Marion area stop in and say, “Hi”. However, if you mention wrestling – you’d better be ready to hang around for a while.

By the way – if any of you readers know Mark Ironside, remind him that he still owes Rich that autographed picture for his wall.