Monday, September 28, 2009

Honoring greatness

They call themselves “Mac’s Boys”. National Wrestling Hall of Fame historian, Jay Hammond has said of them, “It could easily be argued that (they were) the best collegiate wrestling program in the country from 1946 – 1952.” Hammond points out that, “… they crowned 16 individual champions in those years. Oklahoma State had 12 champs, and no other school had more than five in that time frame.” Their numbers include three 3X individual NCAA champions, an Olympic Champion and a silver medallist and enough Distinguished Members of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame that they could have their own wing.

In 1950 they did something that only nine other schools have done – they won the NCAA “big school” team championship. Who are these guys? They’re the wrestlers of Iowa State Teachers College – now the University of Northern Iowa. Led by their legendary coach, Dave McCuskey, and boasting champions like Bill Smith, Gerry Leeman, Bill Koll, Keith Young and Bill Nelson their influence on the sport carries forward to today.

On October 18th the 1950 ISTC NCAA Championship team will be inducted into the UNI Athletic Hall of Fame. Many team members are already in the UNI ‘hall” as individuals. Inducting the entire team is an extraordinary honor. Wrestling writer, Kyle Klingman, says, “This will be a great day for Northern Iowa and for the sport of wrestling.”

UNI Athletic director, Troy A Dannen, commented on the induction and its importance.

“Of the 17 programs at UNI, wrestling has the longest and most consistent history of competitive success, and the 1950 national championship team certainly stands as the best of the best among those teams. While there has been individual recognition given throughout the years to some members of that team, recognition of the achievement of the team as a whole is long overdue.

Wrestling is at the bedrock of the sports foundation of our state. Northern Iowa, as a Regent institution with 90 percent of our students native Iowans, must always reflect the values and culture of our state. As an athletic department, this validates the ongoing commitment to the sport of wrestling. But you can never move forward successfully without knowing where you have already been, and the future success of wrestling at UNI is tied to the great history of success symbolized by the members of this team.

Basically, we recognize this team not only to salute their achievement, but to understand the competitive honor and glory we obtain tomorrow is only possible because they were the standard bearers, and we can never forget how our program was built, and who built it.”

Mac must be awfully proud of “his boys”.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Filled with hope

Today is the last day of summer. The transition to autumn has traditionally been a time of hope – hope for a bountiful harvest – hope for the new school year – hope for a winning football team.

The World Championships begin today in Herning, Denmark. Danny Felix, Trent Paulson and Jake Varner will take the mat for the United States first. For me, this is the end of the season. Take heart – the new season is just weeks away. Many of the nation’s top high school wrestlers will compete in the Super 32 Challenge on October 24th at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, NC. USA Wrestling will hold Preseason Nationals the following week (October 31st) in Cedar Falls, IA at the UNI Dome.

I am filled with hope as we transition from one wrestling season to the next. Here are some things I hope to see in the next 12 months.

More kids on the mat.

Kids have innumerable ways to spend their time. Few options can teach them perseverance, mental toughness and self-reliance like wrestling. Family life is strengthened by any activity that gives an opportunity for parental support – but there just seems to be something extra there within wrestling families. If you don’t believe me just watch a wrestling mom at a tournament.

Success at Cal State Fullerton.

The Cal State Fullerton administration has mandated that the wrestling team become self-supporting. According to coach Dan Hicks they need to raise $200,000 in cash by May 1, 2010 and another $200,000 in pledges by August 1, 2010 to keep the program alive. The National Wrestling Coaches Association is helping by holding the annual college All-Star Classic in the Titan Gym. You can buy tickets to the All-Star Classic or donate to the team at the Save Fullerton Wrestling website.

More intercollegiate wrestling opportunities.

High school wrestling participation continues to grow. However, the opportunities to follow in the footsteps of people like Dr. Norman Borlaug, John Irving and Senator John Chafee – and have wrestling as a part of the college curriculum – are not keeping pace. I hope that there are forward-thinking athletic directors who are considering adding wrestling – both men’s and women’s teams.

Butts in seats.

Nothing demonstrates support like buying a ticket and cheering on your favorite team or wrestler. The upcoming college season may be as excitedly anticipated as any in recent memory. The debuts of heralded freshmen like Jordan Oliver and Tyler Graff, the potential for tight team races in several divisions and the move of Cael Sanderson from Ames to Penn State are all generating a lot of preseason buzz. I hope that interest translates into new attendance records. Come on you PSU fans – can you average 5,000 people a meet?

More support for the Living the Dream Medal Fund.

So far 320 of America’s most avid wrestling fans have donated to the Living the Dream Fund. Designed to keep our best athletes in the sport by offering financial incentives for success, the fund is the brainchild of people like Michael Novogratz and Dave Barry. By this time next year I hope to see 10,000 more names on the contributors list. Click here to add your name today.

Oh – I almost forgot – I’m hoping for a Metcalf/Caldwell rematch, too.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Greatness on the curriculum

Nobel Peace Laureate Norman Borlaug died Saturday at age 95 from complications of cancer. Mark Palmer wrote about Dr. Borlaug’s wrestling background yesterday on He was inducted into the Outstanding Americans wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum in 1992.

The father of the “Green Revolution”, Dr. Borlaug is credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. He is one of only five people to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. (The other four are Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Elie Wiesel.) In 1999 he was named one of the “100 great minds of the Twentieth Century”.

In 1986 Dr. Borlaug founded the World Food Prize to “honor those who have made significant and measurable contributions to improving the world's food supply.”

Just ten days ago the Borlaug Learning Center opened in Nashua, Iowa to further research in crop and livestock production and agricultural engineering.

As Mark Palmer cites in his memorial, Dr. Borlaug credited wrestling with contributing to his success. "Wrestling taught me some valuable lessons," Borlaug told the University of Minnesota in 2005. "I always figured I could hold my own against the best in the world. It made me tough. Many times, I drew on that strength. It's an inappropriate crutch perhaps, but that's the way I'm made."

Jim Leach represented me in the Congress for thirty years. Last month he was confirmed as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. An Iowa state high school wrestling champion at Davenport High School in 1960 and a letterman on the Princeton wrestling team, Jim Leach is also enshrined in the Outstanding Americans wing of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum and in the Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame. In his great book Wrestling Tough, author Mike Chapman cites observations about wrestling made by Leach.

“Wrestling is a pursuit that shares with all sports all elements of competition. What differentiates it is its history, its individual discipline and its ‘equalitarian’ efforts. It does not matter how big or small, rich or poor, black, brown or white a wrestler is or what state he comes from”

“Wrestling imbues one with instincts for fairness and a necessity of preparation that is hard work.”

“Matches pit individuals of similar size, although dissimilar proportions, strengths, skills, stamina and knowledge … knowledge not in the sense of smartness, but athletic wisdom which only experience provides. The talented, unschooled athlete can’t prevail over the dedicated partner.”

Intercollegiate wrestling is under attack. Title IX mandates have created an atmosphere of fear among many college administrators. Eliminating educational opportunities for one gender is far easier than creating opportunities for another so they follow the path of least resistance. The current economic challenges have schools all over the country investigating budget cuts. Administrators are looking for programs they deem expendable. For many – wrestling seems to fill that bill.

It’s obvious that Chairman Leach does not consider wrestling an “expendable” part of his life. Dr. Borlaug considered the lessons he learned on the mat as valuable as those he learned in the classroom. Perhaps we should stop thinking of wrestling as a sport and start thinking of it as part of the curriculum. We could call it “Greatness 101”.

For more on the amazing life of Dr. Norman Borlaug go to yesterday's LA Times Obituary or the World Food Prize website.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The fifth season

US News and World Report recently named Cedar Rapids one of the ten best places to grow up in America. The article cites our low crime rate, good schools and affordable housing as primary factors.

I’d like to add one – wrestling. Cedar Rapids high schools are probably best known in the wresting community for producing 3X NCAA Division I champion and Olympic silver medallist, Barry Davis; 3X NCAA Division I champion Jim Zalesky; 2X NCAA Division I champion and Hodge Trophy winner, Mark Ironside and 3X NCAA Division II champion Gary Bentrim.

However, the sport has long been a part of the community fabric. Every day I encounter people with wrestling in their backgrounds – from my favorite bartender to the plant manager at the company where I buy most of my printing. If I need new heels on my shoes, I allow an hour to drop them off and an hour to pick them up because I know that Rich Foens, the owner of Smitty’s Shoe Repair, is going to come out from behind the counter and want to talk wrestling.

Several people were kind enough to share their reflections about growing up with wrestling in Cedar Rapids.

Bill Maroney describes himself as being very small when he started school at Wilson High in 1957.

“Coach Bo Cameron saw me in the hallway and talked me into coming out because he needed a 95lb wrestler. He said I could get a varsity letter and that was all it took to get me to try it. I actually loved it.”

When Wilson and Roosevelt High Schools were combined to form Cedar Rapids Jefferson, Cameron became the head wrestling coach and lead the J-Hawks to a state championship in 1962.

As for Bill Maroney, “I fell in love with the sport, it was the highlight of my high school experience. It also helped me in my career (by teaching me) dedication and perseverance. I joined the Marine Corps after high school and stayed in 27 years, going from Private to Major. I have always felt that wrestling helped me throughout my career.”

He continues to love the sport and has been a University of Iowa wrestling season ticket holder for 30 years. He has attended the NCAA Championships for many years – missing only while serving in Vietnam.

Another Bill – Bill Lahman – is widely known as one of America’s most passionate college wrestling fans. Bill was first exposed to wrestling in 1957 as a 4th-grader at Cleveland School. “Bill Quinby was the PE teacher (and) in his first years as a teacher. Bill was very active in setting up all of the sports for us to try; football, basketball, wrestling, baseball and track. He set up a few weeks of practices and then had a tournament at the end for us all to have several matches.”

Bill played football and wrestled at Jefferson and was a member of a state runner-up wrestling team in 1965 (and also a starting tackle on perhaps the most famous football team in Iowa high school history – the 1965 state champions). Bill remembers what it was like wrestling for Jefferson in the mid-60s, “We enjoyed a full gym of around 2,200 for nearly every home meet…”


Bill Lahman (CR Jefferson) defeats (CR Washington) 5-0. The official is long-time Iowa City High coach Clyde Bean.

Bill went on to wrestle for the University of North Dakota and finished fourth in the North Central Conference in 1968.

Bill also shared this interesting photo of two future Division I head coaches just prior to their 1966 high school state championship match.


Sandy Stevens has been frequently quoted as saying that she fell in love with wrestling because, “I fell in love with a wrestler”. Sandy and her husband, Bob (Bear) both attended McKinley Junior High and Washington High School before going to the University of Northern Iowa, where Bear wrestled for Bill Koll.

Sandy taught at Waterloo East High School for two years while Bear began work on his Masters and then both returned to Cedar Rapids to teach at “Wash”. In 1967 Sandy became one of the first (if not the first) women to be certified as a wrestling official. When Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School opened, Bear became their first head wrestling coach. The story is now almost legendary – the night before his very first meet, Bear realized that he had not arranged for an announcer and pressed Sandy into service. Thus began a career that has made Sandy’s one of the most recognizable voices in the sport.

Sandy remembers those early days at Kennedy, “…being involved in the start of a school and a wrestling team was exciting, a privilege and a joy. The fact that Bear and I could SHARE the experience made it even better. But it was also at times frustrating. Many kids wanted to stay at their former schools, especially athletes, so early on, we struggled to find enough bodies to put in singlets and then to win. I remember that one time our smallest wrestler literally weighed in with his winter coat and boots on! But you couldn't ask for more loyalty, dedication, work, and heart than those young men had! And their parents were amazing.”

Robert C. (Bear) Stevens went on to a distinguished career as an educator, ultimately as Superintendent of the Glenbard Township (IL) Schools for many years. Sadly, Bear passed away in 2001. I know one of his wrestlers pretty well and the impact Bear had on those young men is tremendous.

Gregg Dinderman was a self-described, “very poor wrestler”, but there’s no denying his love for the sport. Gregg made this observation, “I do like the notion that wrestlers in CR come from all neighborhoods, all backgrounds and all ethnicities, but still share this strange little sport in common.”

Gregg currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is the illustration director for Sky and Telescope Magazine.

Barry Davis started wrestling in the 4th grade at the YMCA. “I was lucky to always have great coaches, starting at the Y”. He wanted to be an Olympic champion from very early in his career and credits his father with his work ethic. “My dad worked two jobs to put food on the table. I saw the hard work he did and I put that same effort into my wrestling.”

Coach Davis also believes that the Cedar Rapids work ethic is why the community loves wrestling. “They appreciate hard work. They know that things aren’t always easy and that some times you just have to grind things out. And they take pride in what they do and in representing themselves and their community… like Quaker Oats – they take pride in making great products that are sold all over the world.”

Coach Davis wrestled at Cedar Rapids Prairie High School with another Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Jim Zalesky, and remembers the beginnings of the Prairie/Jefferson rivalry, “People came (to the meets) from all over the city – not just from Prairie or Jefferson - to see great wrestling”.

Barry Davis won 3 Iowa high school state championships, 3 NCAA Division I championships, an Olympic silver medal and two silver medals at the World Championships and is currently the head wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin.

Mark Ironside started wrestling because his older brother Matt would come home from Wilson Middle School wrestling practice and try his moves out on Mark. “At the time I was a 5th grader at Van Buren Elementary. Once he started showing me a couple things I entered a kids tournament at Linn Mar High school where I got beat pretty bad every match but one. Then a few weeks later I went to a tournament at Kennedy High school called the Daybreak Optimist. There were only 4 people in my bracket, but I won the tournament. From there on I was hooked.”

Mark, a two-time Iowa high school state champion at Jefferson, a two-time NCAA champion and 1998 winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy, has some concerns about the future of wrestling in Cedar Rapids.

“I think the wrestling culture in CR used to be a lot tougher than it is now. This used to be a pretty tough blue collar factory city, but now, along with most of society, things have changed. I don’t believe that the kids are raised the same these days with all the technology that they have vs. what their parents had. Hence, the kids today do not need to work for what they get as much and parents are fine with the kids spending hours in front of the TV playing games or on hand held games instead of having them get outside and exercise. That is not a knock on CR as it is the general society as a whole. I think that CR is a fantastic town with lots of pride. Along with the “potential” to produce some fantastic scholastic programs and businesses throughout.”

Mark is currently owner and president of Ironside Apparel and Promotions Inc. and has a website devoted to Hawkeye wrestling apparel. He remains active in wrestling as an announcer for University of Iowa wrestling meets on KXIC-AM radio and a wrestling commentator on our local ESPN radio affiliate, 1600. Mark also puts on his own wrestling summer camp at Jefferson High School and helps coach a freestyle club at Coe College.

One might say that, as a junior at Coe College, Clayton Rush is finishing his “growing up” in Cedar Rapids. I asked Clayton for his observations about the “wrestling culture” in Cedar Rapids.

“I feel like the community here is more responsive to wrestling than it is in Aledo (Clayton’s home town). There are summer clubs that are held here at Coe. In Aledo, there is hardly any summer wrestling that goes on, maybe a few kids. Here in Cedar Rapids there are enough kids that want to do summer wrestling to make a club. That also goes to show the support of their parents and the rest of the community. Not only do they support it, but they encourage it as well.”

I recently watched a video segment of Dan Gable finishing up a clinic. In his closing talk he said, “America needs wrestling. America needs tough (people).” Well – Cedar Rapids needs wrestling. Cedar Rapids needs tough people. We’re still battling to recover from the flood of 2008 – one of the five most financially damaging natural disasters in American history. We are still hundreds of millions of dollars short of what’s needed for a full recovery.

Barry Davis feels that the things that wrestling teaches are helping Cedar Rapids fight back, “It’s an individual sport, but you can’t do it on your own. You need someone to drill with. You need coaches. You can see that with the flood, the teamwork, the pride in the community…”

Yes, Cedar Rapids is a great place to grow up – both of my daughters did and now my grandkids are. It can be an ever better place to raise kids once we finally put the flood behind us. You can help. The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation has a number of flood relief funds and offers portals to other organizations serving flood victims. Click over there right now and make a donation.

And what about wrestling? Well, the NCAA Division III Championships will once again be held here at the US Cellular Center. Set aside the first weekend in March, 2010 to come to our great city and watch some outstanding wrestling.