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InterMat Rewind: Terry and Fran McCann

Mark Palmer

7/30/2007
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Perhaps more than any other sport, wrestling seems to be a family affair. Usually when one youngster takes up the sport, the younger siblings follow big brother onto the mat.

Terry and Fran McCann
That was the case with Terry and Francis McCann, two brothers whose contributions to wrestling extend far beyond their years as wrestlers in the 1950s and early 60s.

The McCanns grew up on the northwest side of Chicago, "very much a working-class background" as Fran McCann describes it. Terry was the oldest of six siblings; Fran was six years younger. "Terry very much set the tone for the family, even later in life," recalls Fran. "We younger ones weren't afraid to ask him for advice. He really seemed to enjoy that."

"He was more like a dad than a big brother to me."

Terry and Fran were both competitive by nature, but rather small in stature. They both loved to play sports with the neighborhood boys … but found the sport they came to love for the rest of their lives, thanks to a wrestling program conducted on the local playground.

Meet Terry McCann

In a 2006 interview published in Mike Chapman's "Legends of the Mat", Terry McCann described the moment when he saw a photo in a magazine, and realized that he could excel at wrestling: "I was at a candy store and saw a picture of this little guy, Allie Morrison, getting a gold medal for wrestling. (Morrison won the gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics.) I was very impressed. I thought he was just a little guy, and that if he could do something so special in sports, so could I. That was the start. I had a vision."

Terry McCann realized that vision. He became an Illinois high school state champion, a two-time NCAA champion as a wrestler at the University of Iowa, and won the gold medal in freestyle competition at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Both Terry and Fran went to Carl Schurz High School in Chicago. "They didn't have the greatest coaches, but they always got us great competition," recalls Fran.

Allie Morrison
Terry became a three-time Chicago city champion, and qualified for the 1952 Illinois high school state tournament his senior year. According to a story from the book "Little Men of the Mat" by Larry Fox, McCann came out for the 112-pound finals with a huge rip in his wrestling tights. It didn't affect his wrestling ability; Terry McCann pinned Louis Fatta of Maywood Proviso in just 37 seconds -- up to that time, the quickest finals match in Illinois state championship history. "I guess I had to win in a hurry, before my pants ripped any worse," Terry McCann was quoted as saying.

Hawkeye hero

While wrestling seemed to come easy for Terry McCann in high school, good grades had not. He realized his dream of being accepted to the University of Iowa … however, it was on a probationary basis. Terry worked hard to prove himself worthy academically. In his first year at Iowa City, Terry attacked the books with the same determination as he showed on the mat, and, as a freshman, earned a B average.

Back in Terry's time, NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from varsity competition. When McCann became a sophomore, he qualified for the varsity team … and for the right to compete at the 1954 NCAAs in the 115-pound weight class. McCann's title hopes were dashed when he lost to eventual three-time college champ Hugh Peery of Pittsburgh in the semifinals 6-5. All was not lost; McCann earned All-American honors by placing third.

According to "Legends of the Mat", it was early in Terry's career at Iowa that he met one of his childhood mat heroes, Bill Koll -- a three-time NCAA champ in the 1940s at what is now Northern Iowa, known for his fierce wrestling style, including punishing body slams. (Iowa coach Dave McCuskey had been Bill Koll's coach in college … one of the reasons Terry became a Hawkeye.) After one of McCann's matches, Koll came right to the point: "Quit dancing around out there. You go all out, attack every second you're on the mat. Attack, attack!"

Terry McCann took the advice of the legendary wrestler and coach to heart -- and to the mat. His junior year, he won his first Big Ten title … only to top that achievement a couple weeks later with his first NCAA title, defeating Oklahoma State's Dave Bowlin in the 115-pound finals at the 1955 NCAAs at Cornell University. Senior year, Terry earned another Big Ten title, and his second 115-pound 1956 NCAA championship … this time, beating Bill Hulings of Pittsburgh in the finals. Just as impressive, in his last two years at Iowa, McCann never lost a match.

The Midas touch

After graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in commerce -- maintaining that B average he built right from the start -- Terry's wife Lucille urged him to realize that Olympic dream first kindled as a kid in a candy store, seeing the magazine photo of Allie Morrison with his gold medal. Because Terry thought the wrestling training opportunities were best in Oklahoma, the McCanns -- who had two children at the time -- moved from Chicago to Tulsa, where Terry took a job in an oil refinery.

Terry McCann
Just before the 1960 Olympic Trials, Terry injured his knee, and was unable to wrestle at the qualifier event. The Olympic Committee ruled that Terry could have another chance, so he went up against two-time NCAA champ Dave Auble from Cornell University. After winning their first match, Terry had another potential setback before the final match -- he collapsed from the heat, and was hospitalized. He came out of the hospital to win a place on the 1960 US Olympic team.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Terry McCann won his first three matches (the third by pin), but, in the fourth round, lost to Finland's Tauno Jaskari. However, the next day, he bounced back to pin Russia's Michail Shakov (who he had tied two years earlier) and got decisions in his last two bouts to win the gold medal in freestyle at 125 pounds.

Golden … then, the toughest match yet

After the Olympics, Terry McCann enjoyed a golden life. He continued to serve the sport he loved, as a volunteer coach in Chicago and for the Olympics, and as one of the founders of what is now USA Wrestling. In addition, he became an avid surfer and an executive in various organizations in that sport.

Terry demonstrated his leadership skills away from the sports world, too. For more than a quarter-century, Terry served as executive director of Toastmasters International, which, under his leadership, experienced tremendous growth in terms of number of clubs and individual members. He and Lucille had a total of seven children and 18 grandchildren, and lived an active life in southern California.

Then, in April 2005, Terry McCann was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lung disease caused by asbestos, which the wrestler was exposed to in that refinery job in Oklahoma while training for the Olympics. He put up a tough fight, even filming a commercial to urge citizens to contact Congress about proposed legislation that would have prevented individuals like him from suing asbestos manufacturers, but passed away on June 7, 2006 at age 72.

Lee Roy Smith, executive director for the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, said of Terry McCann, "Although his stature was small, his attitude, confidence, courage and leadership while representing the sport both nationally and internationally was that of a giant." A fellow Olympic wrestler and coach (and a 1950s NCAA champ for the University of Illinois), Werner Holzer, said, "During my 50 years in the sport of wrestling, as an athlete, coach and administrator, I have seen all the great wrestlers … Terry had it all; he was the most complete wrestler, the one who excelled the most in every aspect of the sport."

Meet Fran McCann

Francis J. McCann may be Terry's younger brother, but his career as wrestler and coach is uniquely rich with many accomplishments of his own.

Fran was a four-time qualifier for the Illinois high school state tournament, and a four-time Chicago city wrestling champion. He earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State, the top college wrestling program in the country at the time, crafting his skills under the young-but-already accomplished head coach, Myron Roderick, who Fran describes as "the greatest at teaching technique."

While with the Cowboys, Fran placed second in the Big Eight conference tournament. But Stillwater was a long way from Chicago, and, after two years, "I considered dropping out," Fran discloses, "but I decided to transfer to Iowa."

Fran McCann, Tom Huff, and Shewyn Thorson in 1962
While at the University of Iowa -- his brother Terry's alma mater -- Fran made a name for himself by earning All-American honors at the 1962 NCAAs held at Oklahoma State, placing fourth in the 115-pound weight class. "I gave Gray Simons his toughest match in the tournament," says Fran. (Lock Haven's Simons went on to win his third title.)

Fran had thought he'd have two years of eligibility at Iowa, but the NCAA said he had only one year. According to the younger McCann, "At that time, in the Big Ten, you couldn't redshirt … I was really disappointed."

Back to the Cowboy way

It was at this point that Fran McCann decided to go back to Oklahoma State … not as a wrestler, but as an assistant to coach Myron Roderick. "I learned so much from Roderick," discloses Fran. "His mind was incredible. He was so advanced in his thinking … He wanted you to buy into his philosophy that technique was critically important to a wrestler's success."

Fran McCann
While in Stillwater the second time, Fran worked out with Oklahoma State wrestling sensation Yojiro Uetake -- a three-time NCAA champ for the Cowboys in the mid 1960s originally from Japan -- as he prepared for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. Fran also decided he wanted to be a college wrestling coach, so he soaked up knowledge from Cowboy coach Roderick, and earned his bachelor's degree from Oklahoma State.

After graduating, big brother Terry -- by then, the owner of an Olympic gold medal -- suggested that Fran continue his education to fulfill his dream of being a coach. Fran earned his master's degree at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, then, staying in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, was hired by Winona State.

Call him Coach McCann

Fran McCann spent eight years at Winona State, where he coached wrestling and taught physical education. "It was a tough league -- Mankato, Bemidji, St Cloud," according to Fran. "We experienced a lot of success, despite having no scholarships, a $25 recruiting budget, and a $3,500 budget for the entire wrestling program. But we had men who truly loved the sport." While at the school in southeast Minnesota, Fran coached 25 NAIA All-Americans; his 1969-70 team was undefeated, and another team placed third in the NAIA championships.

In 1976, Fran McCann moved up to Division I competition by heading south … to Indiana State University in Terre Haute, a school perhaps best-known as the alma mater of basketball superstar Larry Bird. In his decade as head coach, the McCann-led Sycamores accomplished great things … but the McCann era at ISU might be best known for the wrestling superstar he coached, Bruce Baumgartner, the only US wrestler to earn four Olympic medals.

"He never won a New Jersey high school state title," says Fran. "(But) when he came here for his recruitment visit, I said, 'We've got to get this guy.' He was that impressive."

Baumgartner did not qualify for the NCAAs his freshman year. McCann describes his heavyweight's sophomore year as being a "great season -- the year his confidence really grew." The Sycamore big man made it into the 1980 NCAA finals, where he met up with Oregon State's Howard Harris, who had pinned every one of his opponents up to the finals. Despite getting a takedown on Harris -- the first scored against him in two years -- Baumgartner was pinned in the third period. (Harris is the last wrestler to pin his way through the NCAAs.)

Junior year, Bruce Baumgartner racked up an incredible 42-1 record, but met the same fate at the 1981 NCAA heavyweight finals as the previous year, this time, suffering the fall at the hands of Iowa's Lou Banach. However, under coach McCann's guidance, Baumgartner had a perfect 44-0 senior season, capped off by defeating Oklahoma's Steve "Dr. Death" Williams in the finals to win the 1982 NCAA heavyweight title … the first national wrestling title for Indiana State.

Notre Dame years

Fran McCann recalls the day when the assistant athletic director from the University of Notre Dame came to Indiana State, asking for recommendations for possible wrestling coaches. After Fran offered some names, the visitor said, "What about you?" Within weeks, the McCann family was moving from Terre Haute up to South Bend.

Fran served as head coach of the Notre Dame wrestling team for eight seasons, where the Fighting Irish compiled a 50-53-1 record, taking on the top teams in the country.

Fran McCann
Then, the shocking news: Notre Dame announced it was eliminating wrestling as a sport.

"I went to the AD about another matter, and he told me 'We're dropping the program,'" remembers Fran. "It was a total surprise, no warning."

"I had to tell the wrestlers. I will never forget the shock and hurt on their faces."

In a quote from a 1993 article from the "Notre Dame Observer", junior wrestler Emil Soehnien said, "He really didn't have to say much. His tears said about it all."

"The person who had endowed the [wrestling] program had died," recalls Fran in an interview for this article. "The school redistributed the funds. The family was very upset -- felt the school had gone against their loved one's wishes."

"What made it especially sad was all that had been accomplished - we had placed the highest in Notre Dame's history -- and what was to come … I was fully expecting us to have our best-ever year the following season."

At the time of the announcement, Fran McCann was offered -- and accepted -- a teaching position at Notre Dame, where he still teaches physical education to incoming freshmen. He is also a volunteer wrestling coach at a high school in the South Bend area.

"There is an effort to revive the program," reports the former Fighting Irish wrestling coach. "There was a big reunion last year, very influential alumni. They're having an alumni outing next week."

Looking back on his coaching career, Francis McCann can be proud of the lives he shaped, and the honors awarded. He earned NAIA Wrestling Coach of the Year honors in 1970, and was inducted into the NAIA Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1986. In April 2007, Fran received a lifetime of service award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame at a dinner hosted by the Minnesota chapter. In September, he will be inducted into the Winona State Athletic Hall of Fame.

Memories of Terry

Fran McCann has a wide range of powerful memories about his late brother, Terry.

Fran and Terry McCann
"His quote, 'If you're ever satisfied, you don't progress' reflected the way he lived his life," says Fran. "The gold medal was his life goal. Becoming a CEO was another life goal. He kept reflecting that idea to me -- to keep striving. That's a belief that I still hold."

"He was so tenacious. He had to work hard for everything … He had an incredible work ethic."

"Pound for pound, probably the strongest guy I ever knew," recalls Fran. "He didn't lift weights but did a lot of rope climbing."

"I think he may have been the toughest guy of his era," says Fran. "I've the scars to prove it." And a great story to back up those scars: "When Terry was preparing for the 1960 Olympics, we worked out together at the Tulsa Y. We were the only two in the room. It was the summer, incredibly hot. We were really battling. It was especially intense because we knew each other moves so well, we could anticipate the other guy … At one point, Terry said, 'Go get cleaned up.' I was a bloody, sweaty mess. I looked like I had been beaten up. As we got up to leave the room, we discovered that a father and his two kids had been watching us. They had these shocked looks on their faces."

With their involvement in wrestling, both Terry and Fran McCann left so much on the mat … and made the sport much richer for it.

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