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The greatness of Dan Hodge

How do you measure the greatness of a wrestler?

Dan Hodge
Most of us would start with national and conference titles. Then, factor in won-loss records, pinning percentages, how many points put on the board ... all those statistical measures are key to determining a wrestler's greatness. Other factors to consider: various honors and awards during his/her wrestling career, including Outstanding Wrestler honors at specific tournaments such as the NCAA championships.

Yet another measure of a wrestler's greatness: the quality of his/her opponents. Did they face challenging competitors who also had accumulated impressive titles, stats, and honors ... or did he/she manage to skate through their careers relatively unscathed because their competition wasn't, well, very tough?

Dan Hodge was the dominant college wrestler of the 1950s ... and one of the all-time greats. The University of Oklahoma mat star of the mid-1950s won all the national and conference titles he could at the time. His individual statistics were nothing short of mind-blowing. He was richly rewarded with awards and honors at the time ... and, more recently, the leading award presented to the nation's top college wrestler is now named in his honor. And ... Hodge defeated opponents who had been -- or were about to become -- NCAA and conference champs.

The 411 on Dan Hodge

Dan Allen Hodge was born in May 1932 on a farm outside Perry, Oklahoma. He wrestled at Perry High School -- one of the all-time great prep programs in the nation -- where he won an Oklahoma state title in 1951. Immediately upon graduation, he signed up for the U.S. Navy, where he was able to continue his wrestling career, earning a spot on the 1952 U.S. Olympic men's freestyle team. Having completed his service to Uncle Sam, Hodge was heavily recruited by Northwestern University ... but the Oklahoma native was persuaded to return to his home state by University of Oklahoma head coach Port Robertson. The Sooners were one of the leading college wrestling programs of that era, and still rank fourth in total number of NCAA team titles won (seven), behind Oklahoma State, University of Iowa, and Iowa State.

The pinning machine with the perfect record

Hodge was the 177-pound starter for Oklahoma for three seasons, from 1955-1957. (Back then, freshmen were not allowed to wrestle varsity.) He compiled a perfect 46-0 record. Of those wins, 36 were by fall, for a pinning percentage of 78%, one of the all-time highest in NCAA history.

Hodge won three Big Seven conference titles (1955-57), and three NCAA titles those same years. In the 85-year history of the NCAA wrestling championships, He is only one of two three-time Nationals titlists to have won all three of his finals bouts by pin; the other wrestler who earned that distinction was Oklahoma State heavyweight Earl McCready, the first three-time NCAA champ (1928-30). (Like Hodge, McCready had a perfect college record and was a fall guy, pinning 20 of his 25 opponents, for an 80% pin rate.)

During his collegiate career, Hodge was a much-feared competitor. Newspaper and magazine accounts of his matches referred to him as "Dangerous Dan" and "Homicide Hodge." Years later, one of his college rivals said something to the effect of, "When you knew you were going to wrestle Dan Hodge, you didn't get too many good nights' sleep." That same wrestler -- a conference and NCAA champ -- also said his arms would be covered with black-and-blue marks from Hodge applying his powerful grip. (Perhaps you've seen an elderly Dan Hodge crush a pair of pliers or turn an apple into applesauce on a grip-strength demonstration on a past NCAA telecast not too many years ago.)

Two-time OW, two-time Olympian

Dan Hodge on cover of SI
Hodge is one of a handful of wrestlers to have been named Outstanding Wrestler at more than one NCAA championship -- in 1956 and 1957. What's more, he is the only U.S. amateur wrestler to have been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine as a wrestler in the more than 60-year history of the sports magazine, in the April 1, 1957 issue.

What's more, Hodge was a twice a member of the U.S. Olympic men's wrestling team in the Fifties. Only one year out of high school, Hodge competed at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland but did not place. Four years later, Hodge -- then about to embark on his senior year at Oklahoma -- took to the mats for Team USA at the '56 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia where he won a silver medal on a controversial call where some observers believe he won the match, and should have been presented with the gold.

Now, some words on Hodge's age ... and rivals

There are those who have said that Dan Hodge's flawless college record and stellar pinning record was the result of his being older than most of his rivals. It is true that Hodge was a bit older than many college wrestlers of that time; he turned 25 not long after hanging up his wrestling tights and graduating from Oklahoma in 1957. He was a married man with an infant son when he wrestled for the Sooners. (There's a classic photo of the feared wrestler, sitting on the sidelines, wrapped in a robe, with Dan, Jr. sitting peacefully on his lap.)

In terms of being older than typical college athletes, Dan Hodge was not some one-of-a-kind anomaly. In a decade or so immediately after World War II, a number of wrestlers delayed or interrupted their college careers to serve in the military, as Hodge did immediately after graduating from high school, serving in the Navy before enrolling at Oklahoma. (As you'll see, one of Hodge's toughest college rivals interrupted his college life for military service.)

There are others who believe that Hodge's dominance in college was because he did not face tough competition ... alleging that the 177-pound weight class may have been light on talent in the mid-1950s. Not true. This article will introduce you to four of Hodge's foes who were highly respected wrestlers from top programs who earned NCAA and/or conference crowns.

First, a word about the photos: Hodge and most of his opponents wrestled in trunks, sometimes worn with tights ... oftentimes without shirts. This was the standard college wrestling uniform at a number of schools in the 1950s. Singlets were not worn back then ... and, in fact, were banned by the NCAA until the late 1960s.

Now, let's meet some of Hodge's most accomplished college rivals ...

Ned Blass, Oklahoma State

Ned Blass
College wrestling fans who have never set foot in the state of Oklahoma are familiar with the Bedlam Series between the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. It's a wrestling rivalry that goes back to 1920, where the Sooners and the Cowboys now face each other twice a season.

Dan Hodge's first official college match as an Oklahoma Sooner in January 1955 was a Bedlam Series bout vs. the team from Stillwater, Oklahoma. If that weren't intense enough, the untested sophomore would be stepping onto the mat against veteran Ned Blass, a two-time NCAA champ (1953, 1954) for Oklahoma State who was crowned the Oklahoma high school heavyweight state champ the same year Hodge won the 165-pound title for Perry.

In that first Bedlam Series dual meet held in Norman, Oklahoma, Hodge more than held his own against Blass. In fact, the rookie nearly put the defending champ onto his back. While Blass escaped without getting his shoulders put to the mat, he lost to Hodge on decision, 8-3. It was the Cowboy's only loss his senior year ... and one of only three in his entire college career.

This January 1955 Hodge-Blass Bedlam bout was their first and last college meeting. The next time the Sooners wrestled the Cowboys, Oklahoma State sent out a wrestler other than Ned Blass.

Hodge at the 1955 NCAAs: At the Nationals at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Hodge pinned Penn State's Joe Krufka -- a Navy teammate of Hodge's -- at 4:23 in the 177-pound finals to claim the first of his three consecutive NCAA titles.

Jim Gregson, Oklahoma State

Jim Gregson
For Dan Hodge's junior year, Oklahoma State sent out a seasoned veteran -- and past NCAA champ -- to do battle with the defending titlewinner: Jim Gregson.

A product of Blackwell, Oklahoma, Gregson won the 175-pound title for the Cowboys at the 1949 NCAAs ... then served in the military for a number of years before returning to Oklahoma State for the 1955-56 season as a senior.

Hodge and Gregson met each other on the mat at the first of two Bedlam Series duals in January 1956 at Oklahoma State's Gallagher Hall (now Gallagher-Iba Arena). In a battle of the two mat veterans (both well into their 20s), Gregson earned the distinction of being one of only a few opponents to score on Hodge -- in this case, an escape -- but the Sooner junior defeated the Cowboy senior, 5-1.

In the last dual meet of the season in late February 1956, Dan Hodge and Jim Gregson tussled again at the second Bedlam Series dual of the season, this time on Hodge's home turf. Again, Hodge failed to pin his Oklahoma State rival, but managed to hold Gregson scoreless, 6-0. Gregson's only two regular-season losses as a senior were to Hodge.

To provide a couple additional indicators of Jim Gregson's greatness ... the Blackwell native had earned the role of 175-pound starter in the late 1940s by defeating an Oklahoma State teammate, the defending NCAA champ, in a series of ranking matches (wrestle-offs). What's more, the 1949 NCAA 175-pound champ found himself in the 191-pound finals at the 1956 NCAAs, where he lost to Iowa's Kenneth Leuer. However, Gregson earned a place in the history books for having the longest break between appearances in the NCAA finals (seven years).

Gary Kurdelmeier, University of Iowa

Gary Kurdelmeier
Gary Kurdelmeier was one of the top wrestlers at Iowa in the 1950s. The hairy-chested Hawkeye was teammates with some all-time legends of the program such as Terry McCann (who went on to win a gold medal in freestyle at the 1960 Rome Olympics) and Simon Roberts (the first African-American NCAA wrestling champ, 1957). Prior to coming to Iowa City, Kurdelmeier was a two-time Iowa state champ from Cresco High School, a nationally-recognized prep power from the 1930s through the 1950s who produced future Iowa State coach Harold Nichols, and 1970 Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

Kurdelmeier and Hodge tangled at least twice in college. In January 1956, the Sooners came to the Iowa Field House ... with Hodge pinning the powerfully-built Kurdelmeier in his home gym.

Later that year, Hodge and Kurdelmeier faced off again in the 177-pound semifinals at the 1956 NCAAs at Oklahoma State's Gallagher Hall. "Dangerous Dan" had pinned his way through his side of the bracket before meeting the Iowan ... and continued to play the role of fall guy, putting Kurdelmeier's shoulders to the mat at 4:36. (Kurdelmeier went on to place third at 177, earning All-American honors.)

Just to be clear ... Kurdelmeier was no patsy. He lost only a handful of matches in three seasons as an Iowa starter, two of those two NCAA heavyweight champs Bob Norman of Illinois, and Gordon Roesler, Hodge's teammate at Oklahoma (back then, it was not unusual for a wrestlers to drop down or jump up a weight class or two) ... and the two matches to Hodge. Kurdelmeier eventually won titles at the Big Ten conference championships as well as at the 1958 NCAAs ... then, in the early 1970s, became head wrestling coach at Iowa, laying the foundation for the success of the Hawkeye program which his assistant, Dan Gable, built upon when he took the helm in 1976 when Kurdelmeier was promoted to an administrative position at Iowa.

Hodge at the 1956 NCAAs: After pinning Kurdelmeier in the semifinals in Stillwater, Hodge went on to face Roy Minter of Minnesota State-Mankato for the title. The Sooner made even shorter work of Minter, getting the fall at 1:37 to win his second straight title.

John Dustin, Oregon State

John Dustin
Fresh from winning the Pacific Coast Conference championship, John Dustin of Oregon State found himself facing defending champ Dan Hodge in the semifinals of the 177-pound bracket at the 1957 NCAAs at the University of Pittsburgh. Hodge, the top-seeded senior, lived up to his reputation by pinning his way through the bracket at his last Nationals ... until he encountered Dustin in the semis. The Beaver put up a good fight, admitting years later that when Hodge had him in a pinning predicament, he screamed out in pain ... so the referee would stop the action. ("He was breaking me up," Dustin said in an interview decades later.) Hodge managed to win all but ten of his matches by pin; John Dustin was one of those ten who went the distance with the Sooner known as "Dangerous Dan." (Final score: Hodge 8, Dustin 2. Dustin went on to place fourth in the bracket, earning All-American honors.)

Hodge at the 1957 NCAAs: Hodge closed out his collegiate career by pinning all of his foes (except for John Dustin), concluding with putting Franklin & Marshall's Ron Flemming's shoulders to the mat at 7:35. (Back then, college matches lasted nine minutes.) For the second time, Hodge was presented with the Outstanding Wrestler trophy.

Awards and honors

Here's a quick recap of some of the highlights of Dan Allen Hodge's amateur wrestling career:

  • 1951 Oklahoma state champ for Perry High School, 165 pounds
  • 46-0 collegiate record, with 36 falls
  • Never allowed a takedown
  • 3x Big Seven conference champ at 177 pounds (1955-57)
  • 3x NCAA champ (1955-57)
  • 2x Outstanding Wrestler, NCAAs
  • 2x U.S. Olympic men's freestyle team member -- 1952 Helinski (did not place) and 1956 Melbourne (silver medal)

    Now, just a few of the honors presented in the years since Hodge stepped off the mat:

    Titles in boxing and pro wrestling

    After graduating from University of Oklahoma in 1957, Dan Hodge sought to continue his career in sports. He was persuaded to become an amateur boxer, winning a Golden Gloves title, which then led to a brief pro boxing career which he left because of shady dealings with a manager. Hodge then traded the boxing ring for the professional wrestling ring. In a nearly two-decade career, Hodge was a multi-time Junior Heavyweight Champion.

    Dan Hodge Trophy

    Often referred to as "the Heisman of college wrestling," the Hodge Trophy has been presented each year since 1995 by Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine (WIN) and Culture House to the top college wrestler in any division, or to use the words of the folks who give the award, "to the nation's most dominant college wrestler." The voting committee consists of all previous Hodge winners, national wrestling media, retired college coaches from different regions of the country and a representative of each of the national wrestling organizations. In addition, now fans have some input as they can cast a vote online.

    Criteria for the award includes a wrestler's record, number of pins, dominance on the mat, past credentials, quality of competition, sportsmanship/citizenship and heart.

    A number of famous wrestlers have won the Hodge Trophy, including Cael Sanderson, Ben Askren, Jordan Burroughs, Stephen Neal, Kerry McCoy, Logan Stieber and Alex Dieringer.

    Sports Illustrated cover story

    In the more than 60-year history of Sports Illustrated, only one amateur wrestler has appeared on the cover of the popular national sports magazine: Dan Hodge, in his Oklahoma Sooner wrestling gear, on the April 1, 1957 issue. (There have been former amateur wrestlers who have been featured on the SI cover over the years ... but as football players or pro wrestlers.)

    NCAA 75th Anniversary Team honoree

    To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, in 2005 the NCAA and the National Wrestling Coaches Association came up with a list of 45 top collegiate wrestlers over the years, and asked the wrestling community to vote for the 15 all-time greatest wrestlers. The final list had only three individuals who wrestled prior to 1970 ... with Dan Hodge being one of them.

    Perry Wrestling Monument Park

    Earlier this year, Hodge's hometown of Perry, Oklahoma dedicated a new park -- the Perry Wrestling Monument Park -- designed to honor the rich legacy of wrestling at Perry High School -- one of the nation's top high school programs -- and the great coaches and wrestlers who made that happen. Dozens of Perry Maroon wrestlers have won state and national titles, with two earning medals at the Olympics: Jack VanBebber (gold medal, 1932 Los Angeles) and Dan Hodge (silver, 1956 Melbourne). In May 2016, a bronze statue of Hodge was unveiled in the Perry Wrestling Monument Park to coincide with his 84th birthday.

    Want to know more about Dan Hodge? Check out these two books: "Oklahoma Shooter: The Story of Dan Hodge" by Mike Chapman ... and Ed Frost's book about Hodge's college wrestling coach, titled, "Port Robertson: Behind the Scenes of Sooner Sports."
  • Comments

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    Bud Balloch (1) about 2 years ago
    Robin Reed comes up short! The greatest American wrestler and possibly coach in our history. Google his name and you'll be blown away I guarantee it! Weighing only 134 lbs he could and did beat and pin everyone including the Heavyweight Gold medal winner! Do yourself a favor and look him up!
    rcardinale (1) about 2 years ago
    Hodge was certainly a fine wrestler. However, I need to remind Mr. Palmer if 2 Time NCAA champ and Gold medalist in the 1952 Olympics Bill Smith was not removed from the 1956 team because "he was deemed a professional" Mr Hodge would not have won his silver medal.