Monday, August 3, 2009

A tree of greatness

Dave McCuskey coached an NCAA Division I wrestling championship team, 2 Olympic champions and a silver medallist (11 Olympians total), the first African-American NCAA individual champion and at least 7 members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. That resume alone is enough to make him a Distinguished Member of the Hall of Fame himself.

Last week the Sporting News published a list that they called their “50 greatest coaches of all time”. The online wrestling community arose immediately to question the omission of Dan Gable from the list. Jason Bryant took it a step further and wrote an excellent blog that also pointed out that the great Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State) coach, Edward Gallagher was also missing. As I read the uproar over the original list and the reaction to Jason’s comments, I was surprised by an apparent lack of recognition for Gallagher by much of the online readership. I suppose that relates to a general lack of appreciation of history among the young.

Wrestling super fan, Bill Lahman, has spent the last four years’ tracking the influence on wrestling of the University of Iowa and Dan Gable. Here’s a link to Bill’s list on It’s a labor of love for Bill and an impressive piece of research.

I suspect that if you asked most wrestling fans to identify Dave McCuskey (without a Google search) you’d get a lot of blank stares. Some might know that he led Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) to the NCAA crown in 1950. A few others may be aware of his later tenure at the helm of the Iowa Hawkeyes. Almost none could outline the “tree of greatness” that is rooted with Dave McCuskey.

Finn Eriksen, a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, was on McCuskey’s very first ISTC team. Graduating in 1932, Eriksen went on to found the famed Waterloo (IA) West High School program. More importantly, he is credited with improving high school and youth wrestling throughout the country.

Bill Smith, one of the Olympic champions coached by McCuskey, is one of the few men to coach high school championship teams in two states. In 1956 the eventual state champions from Illinois and Iowa met in a dual meet and Smith’s Rock Island (IL) Rocks dominated the Iowa state champs from Davenport. He coached at the intercollegiate level at the University of Nebraska and as an interim replacement at San Jose State. At the senior level, his San Francisco Olympic Club teams won three national Freestyle team titles and four in Greco-Roman. In 1968 he was the Canadian Olympic coach. Returning to the high school ranks, his Concord Clayton Valley team won the 1976 California state championship. Today’s coaches and competitors are still influenced by Smith through his technique videos and DVDs.

Keith Young was a three-time NCAA champ for McCuskey. After college he would go on to a long career as a high school coach. Like Bill Smith, he would win championships in two different states – one at Blue Earth, MN and two at Cedar Falls High School.

Another “three-timer”, Bill Nelson taught wrestling for over 30 years, 20 as the head coach at the University of Arizona.

Hall of Fame member Gerry Leeman was an NCAA champion on McCuskey’s 1946 ISTC team that finished 2nd to Oklahoma State. In 1948 he won an Olympic silver medal. In 1953 he took over the reigns at Lehigh University. In his 18 years there six of his wrestlers won ten NCAA individual championships – with Hall of Fame member, Mike Caruso, winning three of those. His 1961-62 team was undefeated in dual meets and finished fourth at the NCAA tournament.

In a career that was wrapped around his combat service in World War II, Bill Koll was undefeated and won three NCAA titles for McCuskey. After graduation, he embarked on a long college coaching career. Koll coached at the University of Chicago while earning his Masters degree from Northwestern. He then spent two years at Cornell College (makes for a great trivia question, doesn’t it?) leading the Purple to an NCAA 9th place finish in 1951. In 1953 Dave McCuskey moved on to the University of Iowa and Bill Koll returned to Cedar Falls to take over the helm at ISTC. In his eleven seasons there he lead the Panthers to four NCAA Division I Top Ten finishes. He was then instrumental in founding the “College Division” (now the NCAA Division II) and would host the first 2 DII tournaments and finish in the Top Ten twice at the Division II level.

While at ISTC, Koll coached future college coaches, Bill Dotson and the man who would replace him as Panther head coach, Chuck Patten. Dotson coached many years at the University of New Mexico and Patten led the Panthers to two NCAA Division II team championships. The “Patten arm” of the McCuskey/Koll success tree branched out into college coaches, Mike McCready, who coached three NCAA Division III individual champions at Upper Iowa University and Jim Miller, who has lead Wartburg College to seven NCAA Division III team championships. Patten’s influence on the sport also extends through successful high school coaches Marv Reiland (three Iowa state team titles at Eagle Grove High School) and Dick Briggs, high school coach of two-time NCAA champion and 1998 Hodge Trophy winner, Mark Ironside. Respected NCAA referees Mike Allen and Keith Poolman also wrestled for Chuck Patten.

Bill Koll’s influence moved east when he took the head coaching job at Penn State in 1965. His Nittany Lion teams finished in the Top Ten at the NCAA tournament six times and posted a 38-match unbeaten dual meet streak from 1969-1973. While at Penn State two of his wrestlers, Andy Matter (2) and John Fritz (1) won three NCAA championships. Koll also coached future Penn State coaches Rich Lorenzo and John Fritz and his legacy runs through NCAA champions like Jeff Prescott, John Hughes, Kerry McCoy, Sanshiro Abe and Jeremy Hunter – all of whom coach wrestling at some level (McCoy as the head coach at Stanford University).

Bob Siddens may not have been Dave McCuskey’s best wrestler, but his influence may have been the greatest. His Waterloo West Wahawks won eleven state championships. One of his wrestlers, Dale Anderson, went to win two NCAA individual championships and help Michigan State University win the 1967 team title. Siddens also coached Dan Mashek, the winningest coach in Iowa high school wrestling history. Mashek coached 1996 Iowa Hawkeye national champion Daryl Weber who is now a successful high school coach at one of the nation’s strongest programs – Christiansburg, VA. Former University of Northern Iowa, University of Iowa and current Stanford University athletic director, Bob Bowlsby also wrestled for Siddens.

And then there’s Gable. “Daniel” Gable wrestled for coach Siddens from 1963 to 1966. As most wrestling fans know, Gable went undefeated in high school and won three state championships. In a Des Moines Register interview prior to Siddens’ induction into the Register’s athletic Hall of Fame Gable said, “He shaped my career. He could always push my right button at the right time, and he helped me, not just as an athlete. As my high school guidance counselor, he knew what to say at the right time.” In what may have been one of the greatest “passing of the torch” moments in all of sports history, in 1997 Bob Siddens handed Dan Gable his 15th, and last, NCAA team championship trophy while Jim Zalesky and Tom Brands looked on. Fittingly, it took place where the tree is rooted – on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa. It’s too bad Dave McCuskey wasn’t there.


Butch Devine said...

My name is Wilbur(Butch)Devine Jr. I was recruited from Amityville, New York by Dave McCuskey, to wrestle for the Iowa Hawkeyes. I wrestled 1st team from 1963-1966 @ 157 pounds. I was Dave's 2nd African-American to wrestle for the Hawks. Coach McCuskey. I think that Coach is very deserving to be a member of the Distinguished Member of the Hall of Fame. "The Whip" as we affectionally called him, got the best of out of his wrestlers.

Jim Brown said...


Thank you so much for reading and for your comments.

Jim Brown

University said...

We have a few college students online from University-of-Northern-Iowa and we love your blog postings, so well add your rss or news feed for them, Thanks and please post us and leave a comment back and well link to you. Thanks Jen , Blog
University of Northern Iowa

Anonymous said...

Butch -
I knew you as Willie when you were at SUI. I didn't know much about wrestling, but I knew you were a good wrestler -- I didn't know the team and the coach were so outstanding.
It's great to read about it.

Anonymous said...

The first time that I Buy Viagra I felt a little uncertain but after use and compare Viagra with Generic Viagra I realized that it's a great product despite the brand or the pharmacy where you can buy the pill. Did you know ? there's a lot of controversy around Viagra, where to find Cheap Viagra . However is the same if you buy Viagra Without Prescription in a physical or Viagra Online Without Prescription via internet