Monday, May 25, 2009

In Memorium

Like so many men who came of age in the early 1940s, Glen Brand and Gerry Leeman went to war. Brand, from Clarion, Iowa, joined the Marines. A native of Osage, Iowa, Leeman, became a Naval aviator.

At the end of World War II both men returned to Iowa to attend college, Brand at Iowa State University and Leeman at Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa). Each also resumed a wrestling career that had begun as a schoolboy. Leeman had been an outstanding high school wrestler, winning a national AAU freestyle championship in 1940. Brand’s interscholastic career was far less stellar. He qualified for the Iowa State tournament only once and did not place.

Leeman won an NCAA title in 1946 and Brand won in 1948. Both were members of the American team that traveled to London for the 1948 Olympics. Leeman won a Silver Medal and Glen Brand won the ultimate prize for an amateur wrestler – Olympic Gold. Both men would continue to influence the sport throughout their lives – Leeman as a long-time coach at Lehigh University and Brand as a major supporter of wrestling at the University of Nebraska – Omaha. Because of their accomplishments and contributions to wresting each was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame – Leeman in 1977 and Brand in 1978.

Sadly, the parallel nature of their lives continued until the very end and both men passed away this past year.

Gerry Leeman and Glen Brand are just a few of the many Americans who have wrestled and served in the military. Glory Beyond the Sport: Wrestling and the Military, examines the centuries-old relationship between the two. It is written by Roger Moore and published by the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

Glory Beyond the Sport

Last month Mark Palmer wrote a detailed review of the book for InterMat Rewind.

Read Mark's review here.

You can buy the book on The Hall of Fame's website.

Glory Beyond the Sport is just one of several outreach projects from the Hall of Fame. In recent years Lee Roy Smith and his staff have toiled diligently to emphasize the relevance wrestling has had to our history and society. They also published The Wrestling Presidents: From Pins to Patriots and celebrated the contributions of African-Americans to the sport with a traveling exhibit.

I suspect that Dr. Melvin Jones would be proud. In 1972 Myron Roderick had a dream. The former Oklahoma State coach and first executive director of USA Wrestling wanted to establish a wrestling hall of fame. Myron shared his dream with Dr. Jones. Dr. Melvin Jones had been the youngest full professor at Oklahoma State University and a noted agronomist. When a serious eye injury forced him to give up teaching, he became a successful businessman. Working tirelessly (and giving much of his own money) Dr. Jones helped bring Myron Roderick’s dream to fruition. For those efforts, Dr. Melvin Jones was inducted as a Distinguished Member of the NWHOF in 1996. Dr. Jones also passed away last fall.

On this day set aside for remembering, I hope you’ll think of Gerry Leeman, Glen Brand and Dr. Melvin Jones.


I finished writing the above Saturday and was just waiting for my usual Monday morning to post. Each Memorial Day and Veterans Day over the two-year lifespan of this blog I have written one honoring veterans. My dad served in Korea, was active in veterans affairs and taught me to respect those that have served. As strongly as I feel about the debt we owe these men and women there has always been a certain amount of detachment – until yesterday.

Mark Rowell was the best man at my wedding. I have known his son Matthew all of his life. My favorite moment in Matt’s life was when he was six or seven years old. I had just helped Mark move a freezer into the basement of their brand new home and Mark, Matt and I were on their back deck. Mark went inside to get a couple of cold ones. Matt climbed to the top rail of the deck, turned to me and said, “They hate it when I do this. They think its dangerous” - and then jumped six or seven feet to the ground.

A year and a half after he graduated from Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School, where he was a catcher on the varsity baseball team, Matt enlisted in the army. Yesterday, I learned that Matt has been seriously wounded in Afghanistan. The army Cougar he was driving hit a roadside bomb. He will survive, but both legs have suffered massive trauma. Today Mark and his wife, Tami, will reunite with Matt at Walter Reed Hospital.

Its so easy to forget that these young people who go off to war are someone’s son, or daughter, or mother, or father, or brother or sister. All across America today there are those who are remembering a lost loved one or who are worrying about the safety of someone serving in harm’s way. We owe them our best wishes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Lacin' em up one more time

“Carr, Banach, Gadson, Trizzino, Moreno – Lewis”. As the announcer called mat assignments at Saturday’s Northern Plains Freestyle Championships it felt like a scene from a “Back to the Future” movie – that I had traveled back in time to a dual meet featuring Cyclone and Hawkeye wrestlers from the Seventies and Eighties. In a way – it was “back to the future’, because these were the sons of those great athletes – Nate Carr Jr., Riley Banach, Kyven Gadson, Nick and Joey Trizzino and Michael and Gabe Moreno. But Lewis – well – that really was Randy Lewis being called to the mat.

If you’re any kind of wrestling fan you’ve been following this story for the last month. Randy Lewis – two-time NCAA champ, Pan-Am Games champ and 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist – announced that he was going to “lace them up” one more time to see if he could compete with this generation of freestyle wrestlers, some of whom were not even born when he won Olympic Gold. Just a couple of weeks before his 50th birthday he planned on entering the Northern Plains Open.

The announcement immediately captured the imaginations of fans and the wrestling media. Andy Hamilton of the Iowa City Press Citizen, J.R. Ogden of The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dan McCool of The Des Moines Register and Gary Abbott from all wrote columns or blogs in the days and weeks leading up to Saturday’s event. The best coverage, however, was provided by Kyle Klingman and Jason Bryant from Wrestling 411.

Long known for his flamboyancy, many wondered if Lewboo (as he’s known to most wrestling fans) would follow through. After all – he’s made the “comeback” announcement before. Most wondered about just what he would be able to do against wrestlers half his age. Would he still have the “impossible leg” – the ability to let opponents in on his leg and then turn that into his own takedown?

Randy reached the height of his career at a time when freestyle wrestling might have been its most exciting. His epic battles with Lee Roy and John Smith, Darryl Burley and Ricky Dellagatta are legendary. They could ring up more points in a single match than many of today’s wrestlers (under today’s freestyle rules) will score in an entire season. For fans, it was awfully fun to watch – all that movement, all that scoring. In what has long been considered the most controversial match in American wrestling history, the 1984 Olympic Trials bout between Randy and Lee Roy Smith, the scoring came so quickly that the actual score is still debated today – 25 years later. Thanks to youtube you can watch many of those matches. Allow your self some time – you’ll get hooked – you’ll watch one and then have to watch another and then have to fast forward to John Smith vs. Sergei Belaglazov – its addicting stuff.

As I drove to Waterloo Saturday to watch, the question kept coming back – how much of the old Lewboo will I see? I had been fortunate enough to watch Randy in person once and on Iowa Public Television’s College Wrestling several times during his Hawkeye career and then again on television at the 1984 Olympics. Well – the matches are all up on youtube so you can see for yourself – but here are some observations. In the first round the old “impossible leg” was in evidence. In the second round he showed that amazing mat savvy and positioning that was always one of the keys to his success.

The irony of the semi-finals was that he was matched up against someone that wrestles in the style of a young Randy Lewis. Two-time UNI All American, Moza Fay, is a counter wrestler and a scrambler who is very comfortable “rolling around on the mat”. Moza just had too much for Randy in that match and, fittingly, he won it on the mat – using tilts to win the first period and a leg lace to win the second. Then Moza showed that he was feeling what we were all feeling – tremendous respect for one of American wrestling’s icons. He raised Randy’s hand and kept him on the mat letting the ovation from the crowd swell and last. It was a classy act.

That respect – that’s what I take away from Saturday. I got goose bumps when all wrestling stopped for his matches and everyone in the arena crowded around to watch. From the high school competitors to Olympic Bronze Medalist, Lincoln McIlravy (and his whole family) - we all wanted the best possible vantage point.

Its true in all walks of life that younger generations often don’t have enough respect for the accomplishments of those that precede them. Its not entirely their fault, we – their parents and grandparents - don’t always take the time to familiarize them with the history. We don’t take them to Stillwater to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame or to the Dan Gable International Wrestling Museum in Waterloo. We don’t tell them about Lee Kemp or Bruce Baumgartner.

USA Wrestling has planned ceremonies to honor Iowa natives and Olympic Champions Glen Brand (1948) and Bill Smith (1952) at the World Team Trials in Council Bluffs on Saturday May 30th. I hope I feel the same respect among the fans that I felt Saturday in Waterloo.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Share wrestling with a friend

Tom Carr has been the wrestling administrative assistant at Michigan State University since 2007. Prior to that he was an assistant coach at Central College in Pella, IA and before that he was on the staff of the Buckeye Wrestling Club. Part of Tom’s work at MSU is developing marketing and promotional programs. He read last week’s “sales letter” from Mark Palmer and wrote a lengthy response which explores the concept of “sharing” wrestling. Here is Tom’s response.

“I think that there are two sides to selling wrestling though. Your responder attacked it very well from the practical side of things in selling it to ADs. But as you said we have to get John Fans butt in the seat!

Because of the decline in male students I believe that small schools are going to add more teams in the next few years in order to attract enrollment. I know from my experience when I was the head assistant at Central College in Pella that there was a huge emphasis on recruiting. Our AD of course wanted good wrestlers. Our Dean of Enrollment just wanted us to have 40 kids in the recruiting class.

At MSU it is about the experience.. We are responsible for having an experience for our athletes and our fans and that is the part of my job that I love the most! I love wrestling and I wouldn't say it is easy for me but when I sat down and made our marketing plan I looked at who we could invite in to be new fans. We reached out to students, local youth wrestlers, and the community around campus.

I talked to a local MMA promoter to ask him how he got thousands of people to come watch amateur MMA fights and one of the things he said that stuck out to me was that he puts his picture on all of the posters because he has people come to the shows because they know him from coaching youth lacrosse, running a charity tennis tournament or his job working for the state.

In promoting and drawing a crowd it is the coaches that are good at inviting other people into the mix and sharing their passion for the sport that are able to build boosters and a fan base. This comes at a price because anytime you invite people in you have to make sure there are barriers that ensure NCAA rules and the athletes life as a student are respected. If you look at the coaches at schools that draw well they have all done a great job of sharing their passion. Brian Smith, Dan Gable, Rob Koll. If you hear these guys talk wrestling they have a passion that gets you excited to watch wrestling. Whether you are a fan or not.

It is like fund raising. No one wants to hear about Muscular Dystrophy but Jerry Lewis is passionate about making an impact and finding a cure. His passion is so contagious that he is able to pull others in. Singers, athletes, politicians, and every imaginable type of celebrity have been pulled in and appear on his telethon. Their star power is huge but more than anything it is Lewis and his will to bring more people into the cause that has allowed them to raise over a billion dollars.

It was the passion of the Magic Johnson (Go Green!) and Larry Bird rivalry that took college basketball and made it a revenue sport. The passion of two of the greatest wills in sports colliding in a little arena in Utah lit the sports world on fire. When it took off the coaches ran with it, reinvested in their programs and fans, and look at it now. At MSU it always amazes me that Magic Johnson didn't play in a 20,000 seat arena. He played in the same 5,000 seat arena we wrestle in! Thirty years later MSU plays in a Final Four in a football stadium that draws close to 70,000 fans.

My father is from Mississippi, a state that until recently had no amateur wrestling. When I was in college my uncle came to visit us and he saw a Dan Gable book I had. He doesn't know what a headlock is but he knows who Dan Gable is and he knew about Gable's passion to compete and 30 years after Gable's Gold Medal he sat there and told me about how hard it was for him to follow what was going on in Germany but he checked the paper every morning to see if Gable had beaten the Russians.

I want to turn this around and ask people. Instead of selling wrestling… How do we share wrestling? I know wrestling has a passionate fan base that will travel anywhere in the country to see the NCAA tournament. Next year the tournament is in Omaha. In a region that supports the sport. How do we get those fans to bring their friends? How do we get an office worker in downtown Omaha to convince his coworkers to go watch some wrestling instead of going out for a beer on Thursday afternoon?

We have to answer that question if we want to grow the sport. A few winters ago I took my girlfriend to an Association of Volleyball Professionals tournament; if they can sell thousands of tickets for a beach volleyball event in Columbus, Ohio in February we can find a way to share wrestling.

One more note. Some places put a lot into the production of their matches. We have to make sure that we do more for the fans that do come so they enjoy themselves and come back. Just putting out a mat and some chairs doesn’t really do very much I could write a lot about this but I will leave it at we don’t have to sell wrestling. We have to share wrestling!

If you want an AD to ad a program bring him to the Iowa/ Minnesota dual in Carver Hawkeye Arena, Bring them to the MYWA Championships, or take him to the Ohio, Iowa, or Pennsylvania State Championships. Share the passion of wrestling with them, invite them in and help them understand the sport. Be positive, don’t talk down to them. Don’t talk about hard work and cutting weight! Talk about the legends, the scoring, and OK maybe a little about how hard the sport is. That is how we can sell the sport and grow the fan base.

Now that we have wrestlers going on to be celebrities in MMA how do we get them to bring their fans to the events? At MSU we definitely get people come check out a match because of Rashad and Gray. We try to capture and keep them. What MMA guys are going to host fan parties in Omaha next year?

So now, here is my challenge before I go back to work. Next year everyone reading this can see a marquee match… A high school or college rivalry, state tournament, or the NCAA finals. Who are you going to share the sport with?"

You can visit Tom's website at

Monday, May 4, 2009

Could you sell college wrestling? - results

On April 13th I announced a contest to determine who could write the best sales letter to “sell” college wrestling. One entry took a slightly different angle and is worthy of posting. However, there may be a permission issue that I am investigating. The other two entries came from wrestling historian, writer and fan – RevWrestling’s Mark Palmer. Mark did an outstanding job. I’m going to post his letter to fictional administrator, Pat Killwrestling this week and his letter to Aaron Sportsjunky next week. I hope you agree that Mark has hit both targets.

“Pat Killwrestling, PhD
President, Whatsamattawith U
123 Administration Center
College Town, US 12345-6789

Dear Dr Killwrestling,

These days, you have plenty of concerns. Your endowments have taken a huge hit from the stock market plunge. The current recession is putting added downward pressure on your budget, causing prospective students to delay -- or deny -- their dreams of attending college.

At times like these, the last thing you may be considering is -- adding another sport. Right now, intercollegiate sports may seem like an unnecessary luxury.

But... what if a sport could pay its own way... and then some? What if a sport could attract intelligent, high-achieving scholar-athletes -- men and women -- to your school who might not otherwise compete in sports?

That sport is wrestling.

Yes, the oldest sport, the sport of ancient Greek and Roman cultures, is the right sport for your college, right now. Here’s why:

Low initial investment: To launch a wrestling program, all you need is a room and a wrestling mat. You probably have a storage room in your gym, fieldhouse or student activity center large enough to serve as a wrestling room. Compare that to the acreage required for field sports… or the unique facilities necessary for water sports or equestrian activities.
Low ongoing costs: You already know what it costs to keep your existing football and basketball programs going for an entire season. By contrast, it takes only a fraction of that amount to sustain a college wrestling program. Top-tier mat programs report yearly costs in the $50,000 - $100,000 range.
Number of new students: By sponsoring an intercollegiate wrestling program for men, you can expect to add at least one to three dozen new students to your overall college enrollment. Add in a separate program for women, and you can double those numbers. Those scholar-athletes mean additional tuition payments now… and a source of additional alumni support after graduation.
Loyal fans = school support: Wrestling fans are among the most loyal of any sport. They never miss a single wrestling event during the season, which means enhanced revenues from the sale of tickets, programs, refreshments and souvenirs. What’s more, this loyal support can translate to increased donations to your college.
Positive notoriety: What do John McCain and Howard Dean have in common? The same thing that Chief Justice John Roberts and the late Paul Wellstone share -- they were all wrestlers in school. You might be surprised to learn that Oscar-nominated actor Tom Cruise, ABC News’ George Stephanopolous, and novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter John Irving once wrestled. Think of the positive press coverage your school would receive if one of your wrestler-graduates goes on to a successful career on the silver screen... or in service to his/her country.

These are just some of the benefits you and your school can experience by establishing an intercollegiate wrestling program. I’ll be contacting you next week to further discuss the tangible benefits of having your college become the newest school to offer “the oldest and greatest sport” – wrestling.