Looking back 80 years: 1937 NCAAs on film

Want to know what the oldest and greatest sport looked like 80 years ago?

The finals of the 1937 NCAA Wrestling Championships -- held at Indiana State University -- provide a glimpse of college wrestling as it was eight decades ago, in what may be the oldest surviving film of the NCAAs available for viewing online.

The black-and-white, silent film of the finals -- posted to YouTube by Oklahoma State -- provides nearly an hour of footage of most of the title matches that year.

InterMat thought it would be fun to travel back in time to take a look at the ultimate college wrestling event of 80 years ago, and learn a bit about the event, its host, and participants.

Hot spot for the '37 NCAAs: Terre Haute

The 1937 NCAAs were held at was then called Indiana State Teachers College on March 19-20, 1937. The school now known as Indiana State is located in Terre Haute, a city on the Indiana-Illinois border located about an hour southwest of Indianapolis. (The name Terre Haute is French for "high land.")

Just to be clear ... Indiana State is not to be confused with Indiana University, the Big Ten school in Bloomington, about one hour straight east of Terre Haute that's home to the Hoosier wrestling program that recently hosted the 2017 Big Ten conference championships.

The 1937 NCAAs were the tenth edition of the collegiate wrestling championships. The first NCAAs were held at Iowa State University in 1928. Ohio State welcomed the NCAAs in 1929 and 1930, followed by Brown University in 1931, Indiana University in 1932, Lehigh in 1933 and 1935, University of Michigan in 1934, and, in 1936, Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va.

The 1937 NCAAs can claim some notable firsts. It was the first time Indiana State had hosted the wrestling championships -- or any national sporting event. It was the first time any teachers' college had welcomed the ultimate college wrestling event. And, it was the first time a school that didn't have an intercollegiate wrestling program hosted the NCAAs, according to the Terre Haute Tribune-Star.

Despite not having a wrestling program back in the late 1930s -- or today, for that matter -- Indiana State once had an intercollegiate wrestling program ... and it produced the U.S. heavyweight mat champ with the arguably most impressive hardware. Bruce Baumgartner, the wrestler who, despite never having won a state championship in his native New Jersey, won the heavyweight title for the ISU Sycamores at the 1982 NCAAs, and a total of four Olympic freestyle medals: two gold (years), one silver, and one bronze. (Indiana State can also claim at least two other internationally-known sports superstars among its alumni: gymnast Kurt Thomas ... and basketball's Larry Bird.)

The Sycamores put on a successful show

Despite not having a wrestling program, by all accounts Indiana State was a great host for the 1937 NCAAs. The school and the city of Terre Haute welcomed 85 wrestlers and their coaches from 25 colleges representing 12 states -- along with numerous officials representing the NCAA -- who converged upon the Indiana State Teachers College Gym on North Seventh Street in the western Indiana city.

"By all accounts, the college and the community were gracious hosts," according to a historical feature published by the Tribune-Star in 2010. "The Chamber of Commerce and the Elks purchased tickets to promote the meet and student and faculty committees allocated responsibilities to advance the event."

The 1937 Sycamore yearbook devoted an entire page to the 1937 NCAAs which included a half-dozen small photos, and some text about the event.

"To various committees of students and faculty members goes the distinction of performing a splendid job in the promotion of this affair," the yearbook reported.

"The National Committee wrote that they had never been so impressed with the efficiency exercised by local committees. Not only were the essential details taken care of in a proficient manner but other items were incorporated in the program that contributed to the success of the tournament."

Both the yearbook and the 2010 newspaper retrospective both singled out the Indiana State band -- under the direction of Harold Bright -- for praise for performing the school songs for each of the participants.

Despite the Terre Haute public schools providing its students holding tickets for the NCAAs a "holiday" on Friday, March 19 to attend the championships, "attendance at the sessions was very disappointing," to quote the Sycamore yearbook, which quickly went on to say, "The visitors were completely satisfied with the treatment they were accorded. The members of the National Committee were unanimous in their praise of the meet as the best conducted in the history of the championships."

What college wrestling was like 80 years ago

Today's college wrestlers, coaches and fans would be blown away by the differences between the 1937 and 2017 NCAAs. Eight decades ago, the NCAAs were a much smaller event than nowadays -- 85 wrestlers in 1937, vs. 330 participants at recent NCAAs. What is now a three-day event took just two days to complete 80 years ago.

Watching even just a minute or two of the 1937 NCAA wrestling championships finals film on YouTube, and it's obvious that college wrestling was a much different sport than it is today. For starters, matches lasted ten minutes regulation ... with up to two three-minute overtime periods. What's more, the point-scoring system we know today didn't exist until 1942. Instead of awarding points for takedowns and escapes, winners were determined by what was then called "time advantage" -- a tally of the number of seconds each wrestler was in control of his opponent, very much like today's riding time. If there was no clear difference in the "time advantage" tallied by each wrestler, the referee would determine the winner based on his assessment of who was more active or aggressive. All that said, there was one way to win a match back in 1937 that still holds true today: by fall. However, back then, a wrestler had to hold his opponent's shoulders to the mat for two seconds, not one second as today.

You won't see anyone wearing singlets or headgear in the 1937 NCAA film. Singlets were not allowed by the NCAA until the late 1960s; headgear first made its appearance in the mid-1950s at the collegiate level. Standard uniform for college wrestlers in the Thirties was usually wool trunks, with full-length tights, and shirts optional. Wrestlers at some schools such as Oklahoma State and others in the Midwest often competed in just trunks, bare-chested. Per NCAA rules, it was up to the host school to determine uniform requirements. From the 1937 NCAA finals film, it appears that Indiana State required all wrestlers to wear shirts, as wrestlers from Oklahoma State and other schools that usually wrestled stripped to the waist wore shirts at the Nationals in Terre Haute.

You'll note that the mats also don't resemble those we see in amateur wrestling today. Eighty years ago, there were no vinyl-covered, foam-core mats; mats were usually covered in something called Canton flannel, and stuffed with anything from horsehair to shredded newspaper to straw. These old-school mats did not have the ability to absorb shock like today's mats ... and, because they could not be easily disinfected, rashes, boils and other skin conditions were a constant foe for all wrestlers of the past.

A few words about the film ...

Realize that back in 1937, there was no Internet, so no live streaming coverage like we enjoy today. Television was a brand-new invention which would not find its way into American homes for another decade or so. Until the early 1960s, it was up to the host school to film (at minimum) the finals matches, then make those films available to other schools for rent or purchase outright. The first NCAA finals to appear on TV: the 1963 NCAAs at Kent State University in Ohio, as part of ABC's "Wide World of Sports", a weekly "sports anthology" show that brought together segments of action from two or more sporting events, on a tape-delayed basis, two or more weeks after the event. This writer has seen ABC's coverage of the 1964 NCAAs from Cornell University; it showed only two or three matches in edited form, interspersed with NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships footage, all linked together by a studio announcer saying something like, "We'll return to the heavyweight title match in a few minutes, but, first, let's head back to the pool ..."

Now, onto the film ...

The 1937 NCAA finals film is approximately 50 minutes in length. Back then, there were only eight weight classes: 118 pounds, 126, 135, 145, 155, 165, 175, and heavyweight (called unlimited, because, back then, there was no top weight limit as there is today). All-American honors were awarded to the top three placers in each weight class.

The film on YouTube does not show the finals matches in ascending order from 118 to heavyweight. As you'll see in the comments section under the screen where the film appears, a viewer has provided links to when each match starts and ends, which, to this writer, appear to be pretty accurate if you want to watch them in weight-order, or want to start your viewing at 155 pounds, for instance.

Here's a bit of information about each of the title matches on the film:

118 pounds: Joe McDaniel of Oklahoma State (called Oklahoma A&M -- Agricultural & Mechanical -- at that time) earned a 2:15 time advantage over Bill Carr of Oklahoma in the finals. Carr placed third after losing to Davis Natvig of University of Northern Iowa in the second-place match.

Dale Brand
This was the first of three NCAA titles for McDaniel, who won again in 1938 and 1939.

126 pounds: Dale Brand of Cornell College of Iowa defeated Ted Anderson of Central Oklahoma, time advantage 1:37, in the finals on film. Anderson had won the 123-pound crown at the 1936 NCAAs.

135 pounds: Northern Iowa's Ray Chaney earned a referee's decision over Morey Villareal of Central Oklahoma. This match is not on the film.

145 pounds: Oklahoma State's Stanley Henson beat Jack McIlvoy of Illinois, time advantage 8:30. Henson was named Outstanding Wrestler for the 1937 NCAAs, and went on to win two more titles in 1938 and 1939. Henson, considered by many historians to be the best college wrestler of the 1930s (and some say, in the era between World Wars I and II), was featured in a 1939 Life magazine photo-shoot of the Oklahoma State wrestling program. Henson celebrated his 100th birthday in November 2016.

155 pounds: Bill Keas of University of Oklahoma earned a 35-second time-advantage win over Kansas State's Ernest Jessup in the finals. Keas owns the distinction of being the only college wrestler to defeat Stanley Henson.

165 pounds: Harvey Base of Oklahoma State defeated cross-state rival Marshall Word of Oklahoma, with a 3:40 time advantage.

John Whitaker
175 pounds: John Whitaker became University of Minnesota's first-ever national mat champ with a 6:07 time advantage win over Illinois' John Ginay, who went on to win the title at 165 at the 1938 NCAAs.

Unlimited: Oklahoma State's Lloyd Ricks got a 1:35 time advantage victory over Indiana's Bob Haak. Minnesota's Clifton Gustafson defeated Haak in the second-place match, putting the Hoosier big man in third place. (In addition to being an NCAA All-American wrestler, Gustafson was an NCAA heavyweight boxing champ for the Gophers.)

At the end of the event, Oklahoma State ran away with the team title, with 31 points, to claim their fourth consecutive championship, and sixth overall. (Note that in some early years of the NCAA championships, team points were not tallied.) The Cowboys won half of the individual titles, with Joe McDaniel, Stanley Henson, Harvey Base, and Lloyd Ricks leaving Terre Haute as champs.

The Oklahoma Sooners came in second in the team standings, with 13 points, and one individual champ: Bill Keas. Tied for third place was Northern Iowa and University of Minnesota, with 9 points each, and one champ each: Ray Chaney for the UNI Panthers, and John Whitaker for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. University of Illinois placed fifth with 8 points, despite having no individual champs ... with Cornell College right behind with 7 team points, and Dale Brand winning an individual title for the Mount Vernon, Iowa-based school.

Can't get enough old-school amateur wrestling? Check out these InterMat Rewind features: Major changes in wrestling ... and old-time wrestling uniforms. And, to see film of the Nationals from 55 years ago, take a look at the finals of the 1962 NCAA wrestling championships.


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Josh Henson (2) about 2 years ago
You note that Bill Keas was the only wrestler to beat Stanley Henson. I would add that Henson was wrestling up a weight class in that dual meet match for the sake of the team (Henson eventually won the nationals later that year at 145 and Keas won at 155). Early in the bout Henson dislocated his shoulder but refused to stop, rather than let archrival Oklahoma get extra team points. Henson lost by referee's decision when neither wrestler scored in the match, a scoreless draw. Henson then wrestled most of the rest of the season up a weight class until he could get a re-match with Keas, which Henson handily won. In fact, Henson wrestled most of that season with his arm in a special brace to keep his shoulder from moving dislocating again and thus beat most of the men that year literally one armed. With that victory, Henson could then legitimately say that he beat every wrestler he ever wrestled in college (and none scored an offensive
point or maneuver on him in his entire college career). One wrestler said Henson was more dangerous with one arm than most men with two.
IdeaMark (1) about 2 years ago
Josh Henson -- Thank you for clarifying things and adding some great details on Henson vs Keas. -- Mark Palmer, Senior Writer, InterMat