At the 2008 NCAAs in St. Louis, Penn State University made headlines by having two of its wrestlers in the finals -- Bubba Jenkins and Phil Davis -- with Davis winning the 197-pound title, and the Nittany Lions claiming third-place honors in the team standings behind Iowa and Ohio State.
The 1953 Penn State was the last eastern college to win the NCAAs. That team was honored in a special ceremony at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma on May 30, 2008 … becoming only the second time an entire team has been so acknowledgedFifty-five years earlier, what was then called Pennsylvania State College made even bigger headlines. Not just for hosting the 1953 NCAAs, but also for winning the team title … the last Eastern college to do so.
That 1953 Nittany Lions team was honored in a special ceremony at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma on May 30, 2008 … becoming only the second time an entire team has been so acknowledged. (In 2007, the 1947 Cornell College of Iowa team was singled out for being the smallest school ever to win a national collegiate wrestling team title. To read about that Cornell team, click HERE.)
At the ceremony, four members of the 1953 Penn State team were in attendance: wrestlers Bill Cramp, Gerry Maurey and George Dvorozniak, and team manager Bill Winterburn. Jamie Moffatt, one of the authors of the book A Turning Point about the 1953 NCAAs and the team that won the title, made a PowerPoint presentation.
Penn State wrestling before 1953
The wrestling program at Penn State is one of the most enduring of all in the collegiate mat world. The Nittany Lions first took to the mat in 1909, wrestling just one dual meet … losing to Cornell University. (It was one of only eleven losing seasons in a century of Penn State wrestling.)
Among the highlights of the first couple decades: In 1921, Penn State was declared the National Dual Team champion after defeating Indiana University and Iowa State … and, in 1927, Charlie "Doc" Speidel became head coach. (More about him later.)
In the 1930s, Penn State battled with Lehigh for supremacy in the EIWA; during that decade, one or the other won or tied for the conference crown. In 1936, the wrestlers from State College broke Lehigh's five-year conference team title streak. The following year, Penn State set an EIWA team scoring record, with five individual champs.
It was at this time that Penn State began to bring national attention to itself. In 1935, the Nittany Lions had their first NCAA champ, Howard Johnston, who won the 165-pound title. At the 1942 NCAAs -- the last national championships before a three-year hiatus during World War II -- Penn State placed third.
After World War II, college wrestling in the U.S. was growing by leaps and bounds … and Penn State was a prime example. In the early 1950s, students were lining up to watch their Nittany Lions wrestle at Recreation Hall; according to an article about the 1953 NCAAs in a December 1989 issue of Town & Gown magazine, at times two thousand fans were turned away! And they saw great wrestling. In the three years from 1950 through 1953, the Nittany Lions won every dual meet … and won the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Championships (EIWA) each of those years, too.
At the 1951 NCAAs held at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Penn State had three finalists Don Frey, Mike Rubino, and Homer Barr. While none of them won an individual title, the Nittany Lions' overall performance put them in third place in the team standings behind perennial powerhouses of the time, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Travel restrictions sidetrack Penn State success
Given Penn State's success at the 1951 NCAAs -- and its ongoing dual-meet winning streak -- great things were expected of the Nittany Lions mat squad at the next national championships, held at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. This site -- at the time, the most western location ever to host the national wrestling championships -- posed a travel challenge for eastern wrestling programs such as Penn State. (This was before commercial jet travel; back then, teams would have traveled cross-country by train, bus or car.)
In 1952, the administration at Penn State determined that it would be too costly to send the entire wrestling team to Colorado for the NCAAs; only wrestlers, boxers and gymnasts who had won Eastern titles would be able to make a trip to a national tournament.
"One of the merits to be weighed in determining future policy on this question," said Franklin Lee Bentley, chairman of the Senate Committee on Athletics at Penn State, "was the location of a tournament."
The decision by the Penn State administration meant that only three Nittany Lions -- Joe and Dick Lemyre, and Bobbie Homan -- qualified under the new rule to travel to the 1952 nationals at Colorado State. What may have made matters worse for the Penn State program: This ruling effectively tied the hands of the wrestling head coach, Charlie Speidel. He could no longer pick who he considered to be the strongest contender; if that were the case, he might have selected Penn State's proven mat veterans Don Frey or Gerry Maurey instead of Bobbie Homan, who, despite being an EIWA champ, may not have been as prepared to tangle with the nation's top wrestlers.
This was borne out at the 1952 NCAAs. Bobbie Homan lost in a preliminary round, and did not place in the 115-pound weight class. However, on a brighter note, Dick Lemyre placed third at 130 pounds, earning All-American honors … while his brother Joe won the 167-pound NCAA title. Despite having only a three-man team, Penn State had two All-Americans, and claimed fifth place in the team standings.
"The mountain comes to Mohammed"
The travel restrictions tied to the 1952 NCAAs had frustrated head coach Charlie Speidel, who lobbied hard to have the NCAAs come to Penn State in 1953. As he told the decision-makers at a 1952 meeting to determine the host for the nationals the following year, "If Mohammed won't come to the mountain, we'll bring the mountain to Mohammed."
The mountain came to Mohammed … or, perhaps more appropriately, the mountain came to Happy Valley. Penn State would host the 1953 NCAAs. It was the school's third time to welcome the NCAAs, having hosted the event in 1930 and 1938. (More recently, the school also served as the site for the NCAAs in 1999.)
The man who brought the '53 NCAAs to Penn State
Charlie "Doc" Speidel not only brought the 1953 NCAAs to Penn State; it can be argued that he laid the foundation that has made the Nittany Lions one of the top college wrestling programs in the nation even today.
First, some perspective. In the first two decades of its existence, the Penn State wrestling program had a quick succession of five head coaches, some lasting only one or two seasons. The sixth, Speidel, put a stop to the revolving door.
Charlie SpeidelHired in 1927, Charlie Speidel served as head coach of the Nittany Lions' matmen for a total of 34 years, from the late 1920s up through 1942 … then serving in the Navy during World War II … then returning to coach at Penn State from 1947 through 1964. During that time, Speidel compiled a 191-56-13 overall record, for a winning percentage of .773. With Speidel at the helm, Penn State had six individual NCAA champs, 15 national finalists, and 41 All-Americans … as well as eight EIWA team titles. (This was before Penn State joined the Big Ten conference.)
Charlie Speidel grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where he was a Golden Gloves boxer. He was hired by Penn State to be the school's boxing and wrestling coach. Interestingly, he had never wrestled competitively! This was not that unusual among top high school and college wrestling coaches of the era; for example, legendary Oklahoma State head coach Ed Gallagher hadn't wrestled before becoming the Cowboys coach in 1917.
According to Town & Gown magazine, when Speidel took over at Penn State in the late 1920s, there were only twenty high schools in Pennsylvania that offered wrestling. The 2003 book about the 1953 NCAAs, A Turning Point (written by Jamie Moffatt and Roger Olesen), reports that large numbers of prep wrestling programs in the Keystone State and the rest of the east were launched in the late 1930s, with the sport coming into its own in the 1940s … a bit later than in other states also perceived as wrestling hotbeds, Oklahoma and Iowa.
As Penn State wrestling coach, Speidel had some challenges in building his program. For starters, immediately after World War II, he received limited support from the school's athletic department. According to A Turning Point, in 1949, Penn State had only one wrestling scholarship. (Like many other schools in the country at the time, Penn State was putting its financial resources into its emerging football program.)
What's more, unlike college coaches in Oklahoma and Iowa who had limited competition for local high school stars, Speidel was vying for the top prep wrestlers against other college programs located in east, including Lehigh, University of Pittsburgh, and Syracuse, as well as the military academies at West Point and Annapolis.
Innovation to make the most of the situation
Although faced with some challenges, Charlie Speidel used his creativity to help make his Nittany Lions competitive, not just with the programs in his region, but also against the national mat powers of the era: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa).
One way to ensure a steady stream of top recruits was to develop relationships with some of the top high school wrestling coaches in the area. In addition to focusing on the prep programs at Penn State's hometown of State College and nearby Bellefonte, Speidel cultivated friendships with three other top coaches in the east:
Art Weiss, head coach at Clearfield High School in north-central Pennsylvania, which still holds the record for producing the most state champs in the Keystone State, having just crowned its fortieth in 2008.
Henry Borsch, a teammate of Speidel's at Elizabeth High, then at the helm at Newton High School, New Jersey's dominant program at the time.
Frank "Sprig" Gardner, coach at Mepham High School, cradle of New York state champs in the fast-growing suburbs of Long Island.
What's more, for Charlie Speidel, recruiting became a family affair. As A Turning Point describes it, "looking for depth and balance and teamwork, (Speidel) also pursued the novel idea of recruiting brothers who wrestled. That way he could get two young men, sometimes three, instead of one. It was a strategy which worked and paid handsome dividends in the 1950s, a strategy which also worked for Dan Gable in the 1980s and 1990s."
Speidel's Penn State teams of the early 1950s featured three sets of brothers: The Maureys of Clearfield (Jim, Don, and Jerry) … the Freys of Newton (Don and Doug)… and Joe and Dick Lemyre from Mepham.
The 1953 Penn State season
The 1953 Nittany Lions continued their incredible winning streak that began back in 1950. During the 1952-53 season, Penn State won all nine dual meets, usually by comfortable margins (including two blowout shutouts, beating University of Virginia 30-0, and the University of Pennsylvania 38-0). According to the write-up about the team in the 1953 Penn State yearbook, the closest duals were against Maryland, and the University of Pittsburgh. In both, the score was tight through most of the evening … until Nittany Lions heavyweight Hud Samson came through with victories to seal the win for his team. (Back then, matches were wrestled in order by weight, concluding with heavyweight.) With the 23-3 win over Army on March 7, Penn State concluded the 1953 dual meet season with 29 straight wins… amassing four times as many points as all their competitors combined!
At the 1953 EIWA championships -- held March 13-14 at Princeton University in New Jersey -- Penn State notched yet another conference team title. Two Nittany Lions brought home individual EIWA titles: Dick Lemyre at 130 pounds, and Gerry Maurey at 137.
Life in 1953: The big picture
At this point, it might make sense to provide a big-picture perspective on life as it was in 1953, the year Penn State, the dominant wrestling program in the East, hosted the NCAAs.
The U.S. had come through the Great Depression of the 1930s, followed by further hardships caused by World War II. The Korean War had yet to be resolved, and the Cold War and Communism were becoming major concerns for more and more Americans.
In the years immediately after World War II, college enrollments were exploding, thanks in large part to the G.I. Bill, which made it easier for military veterans who had served their country to get a post-secondary education. Many colleges were expanding at an incredible rate, building new housing to accommodate the influx of incoming students, and adding new academic programs, especially those geared to the fields of business, science and mathematics.
Yet, despite all this, today's typical track of "graduate from high school, go immediately into college for four years non-stop" wasn't always typical for many male college students. Large numbers of college men found themselves taking time away from their educational careers to serve in the military. In some cases, patriotism drove this decision … or the realization that they weren't quite mature enough for the academic rigors of college. However, oftentimes, the main reason was financial -- there simply wasn't enough money to go to college at the time.
Military service factored into the college careers of a number of top wrestlers of the early 1950s. Bill Weick, the 157-pound champ at the 1952 NCAAs from Iowa State Teachers College (ISTC), had to leave school months after winning the title because of financial reasons, and entered the Army. (He came back to ISTC and won his second title in 1955.) After graduating from Perry (Oklahoma) High School in 1951, Dan Hodge served in the Navy, then enrolled at the University of Oklahoma in 1953, where he became a three-time NCAA champ at 177 pounds (1955-57).
Getting to the 1953 NCAAs
State College -- home to Penn State -- sits in splendid semi-isolation in the lush, hilly terrain of the north-central portion of the Keystone State, hours from the urban hustle and bustle of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Sure, the school and its hometown are located a few miles south of I-80, a major east-west artery that links New York City to San Francisco, traveling through major wrestling hotbeds such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa. However, back in 1953, there was no I-80; the Interstate highway system was still very much a dream. Air travel was a big deal back then; passenger jet service was introduced later in the decade.
A Turning Point described how some wrestlers made their way to State College for the 1953 NCAAs:
For a farm boy from Iowa or Oklahoma, Penn State was a long trip by train or car… In 1953, Dick Mueller drove with his coach and teammates from Minnesota. It took three days in a snowstorm. Bill Koll took his Iowa State Teachers College team from Iowa via Chicago two-and-a-half days. Jim Harmon, champion at 157 pounds for Iowa State Teachers, had never been east before. Gus Gatto, his teammate, had never been out of Iowa-Illinois.
The 1953 NCAAs at Penn State
1953 National Championships 101
The 1953 NCAAs were held March 27-28 at Recreation Hall, better known by its shortened nickname Rec Hall. The fieldhouse, located in the heart of the campus, was built in the late 1920s, and had a seating capacity of about 6,000. (With substantial upgrades over the years, it is still the home of the Penn State wrestling program. The 1999 NCAAs were held at the newer, much-larger Bryce Jordan Center.)
The 1953 NCAAs were held at Rec HallAccording to Jay Hammond's The History of Collegiate Wrestling, 166 wrestlers from 53 schools came to the event, "shattering the records set in 1951." (By comparison, recent-era NCAAs usually have approximately 330 wrestlers.) The University of Oklahoma was the defending team champion, but, as Hammond's book says, "There was no clear tournament favorite, and no school had more than four men seeded."
Only three individual champs from the 1952 NCAAs came to Penn State to defend their titles: Hugh Perry, the 115-pound champ from the University of Pittsburgh, whose father Rex was his coach… Joe Lemyre, 167-pound titlist from Penn State, the Nittany Lions' first since Howard Johnston in 1935 … and heavyweight champ Gene Nicks from Oklahoma State. These '52 titlewinners were given a prominent place in the 1953 NCAA program on page 3, with their three large head-and-shoulders portraits together taking up a third of the page.
Two 1952 champs who were eligible to compete at Penn State were unable to defend their titles. Tommy Evans, the University of Oklahoma's champ at 147, suffered a severe knee injury during the season, and was knocked out of contention … and, as mentioned earlier, 157-pound champ Bill Weick had left ISTC for the Army.
Taking to the mats for Penn State …
Host team Penn State was very well represented at the 1953 NCAAs, with a man in each weight class except heavyweight. (The usual big man for the Nittany Lions, Hud Samson, moved down to 191, one of two weights that Penn State didn't compete in during the regular season) Here's a brief biographical sketch on each of the Nittany Lions who competed at the national championships in their home gym:
115: William Crump, had not competed during the regular season. (This weight class, along with 191, was added specifically for the NCAAs… one that Penn State and most colleges normally didn't wrestle during the year.)
123: Bobby Homan, brought a 7-1 record to the 1953 NCAAs his only loss was to Pitt's defending champ Hugh Peery. Homan, the 1952 EIWA champ, was a 19-year-old sophomore from Wantagh, New York.
130: Dick Lemyre, had a blemish-free 6-0 record, including two pins… though, during the season, had a spell of failing to make weight. Teammate Larry Fornicola stepped forward to win three straight bouts. The 20-year-old Lemyre, a junior from Merrick, New York and the fabled Mepham wrestling program, was a two-time EIWA champ (1952 and 1953).
137: Gerry Maurey had built a near-perfect 7-1 record to the NCAAs (including 4 falls), with his only loss being to Maryland's Rod Norris. He capped off the season with an EIWA title. The 20-year-old junior from Clearfield, Pennsylvania was the Keystone State's first four-time state champ.
147: Don Frey, a co-captain of the team, had a 5-1-2 record, with three pins. (His only loss was to Cornell University's Frank Bettucci.) The 5'10", 21-year-old junior originally hailed from Newton, New Jersey.
157: Doug Frey, twin brother of Don, brought a 4-1-3 season to the '53 NCAAs… with his only loss being to Ed Rooney of Syracuse.
167: Joe Lemyre -- brother of Dick -- had a very impressive wrestling resume as 1952 EIWA and NCAA champ. The 22-year-old senior -- and team co-captain -- from Merrick, New York had a 7-2 season; those two losses were to Army's Al Paulekas, and Maryland's Ernie Fischer.
177: George Dvoroznick usually wrestled at 167. (Joe Lemyre would usually start the season at 177, then move down to 167.) The native of Plymouth, Pennsylvania had a 3-3-1 record during the 1953 season.
191: Hudson "Hud" Samson, the strapping (6'3") senior from Pittsburgh, usually wrestled heavyweight but gave up considerable poundage to other big men of the EIWA. However, that didn't stop Samson from amassing an 8-1 record in 1953. His only defeat was at the hands of Lehigh's Werner Seel, 3-0. In addition to being the Nittany Lions' big man of the mat, Samson was also on the varsity golf team!
What was expected from the hosts of the 1953 NCAAs? Pittsburgh Press sports editor Chester Smith was incredibly optimistic in his article for the event program: "(Coach Charlie) Speidel's current team is so well-rounded and has been so impressive in dual meets, at State they're entertaining a generous hunch that the national title won't leave town when the NCAA is held at State College."
Match fundamentals of the era
There are significant differences in how college wrestling matches were run fifty-five years ago. For starters, freshmen were not eligible to compete at the 1953 NCAAs. A regulation match lasted nine minutes, with three, three-minute periods. If a match ended in regulation with a tie score, there was no overtime period; the referee determined the winner. In 1953, to score a pin, a wrestler had to hold his opponent's shoulders to the mat for a full two seconds, not one second as today.
The brackets for each weight were designed for sixteen wrestlers -- half of today's brackets -- though some weight classes had up to 24, while some had less than half that number. To win a national title, most wrestlers had to wrestle four matches. Unlike today, conference championships such as the Big Tens or EIWAs were not determinants as to who qualified for the NCAAs; basically, it was up to an individual program and coach as to who wrestled at the national championships.
Let's go to the action …
According to The History of Collegiate Wrestling, there were few surprises on Friday, the first day of action at the 1953 NCAAs. Three schools -- Oklahoma, Iowa State Teachers, and Penn State -- each advanced four men into the semifinals.
To fully understand how close the race was for the team title at the 1953 NCAAs, the rules governing the point-total calculations were much different back then, compared to today. In 1953, a team earned six points for an individual title, four points for runner-up, two points for third place, and one point for fourth. (Note that only the first four places were determined in each weight class; these placers earned All-American honors.) Wrestlers earned one point for their team by scoring a pin, or winning by default. In addition, if a wrestler lost in his bracket, he could only advance into the consolation bracket if he lost to a finalist.
However, it wasn't a strictly by-the-numbers event. In A Turning Point, Cornell University's co-captain Don Dickason described the atmosphere inside Rec Hall for the 1953 NCAAs:
It became evident early on that Penn State had a good chance of gaining the championship. Each individual match was lustily cheered, for or against. If it was a Penn Stater, the cheering was for him. If not a Penn Stater, then the cheering of the home crowd depended on the opponent, someone threatening Penn State's lead, or vice-versa. Cornell was not about to win the tournament, everyone assumed, so our guys were cheered and supported, except when we wrestled Penn Staters."
Now, let's see how each of those Penn Staters did on their home mats in front of their hometown crowd:
Penn State's Bill Cramp shut out Arkansas State's Jackson, 3-0, in the opening round … but was pinned by Bob Christensen of Northwestern in the quarterfinals. Christensen had won his first match 6-2 over Gary McCain of Oregon State, and got a 4-2 win over Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's Robert Whelan to make it to the title round. The other finalist, University of Pittsburgh's Hugh Peery, defending champ at 115, pretty much breezed his way through his side of the bracket, getting victories by the scores of 9-4, 6-2 and 11-1.
Hugh PeeryThe finals: Hugh Peery, coached by his father Rex, a three-time NCAA champ at Oklahoma State for Ed Gallagher in the 1930s, held his opponent Bob Christensen to a single point. Final score: 5-1 Peery. In 1954, Peery won his third NCAA title; his younger brother Ed also won three NCAA titles for Pitt (1955-1957), making the Peerys the only father-son-son combination to win a total of nine individual championships in nine tries. Hugh Peery is the only champ from the 1953 NCAAs to be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He went on to become a dentist.
The first four placers in each weight class earned All-American honors. At 115, the All-Americans were Hugh Peery (first place), Bob Christensen (second), Richard Marks of Illinois (third), and Art Heft of Franklin & Marshall (fourth).
Bobby Homan of Penn State lost his opening-round match to Al Crancer of Arkansas State, 10-2, and did not go into the consolation bracket.
The two favorites in the weight class were Don Reece of Oklahoma, and Minnesota's Dick Mueller. The Sooner won his first two matches by fall, and got a 3-0 shutout victory over Pat McCarron of Iowa State Teachers in the semifinals. Mueller held Joe Lobaugh of Oklahoma State scoreless, 3-0, then beat Crancer 5-2 in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, the Golden Gopher got a 7-1 win over Harvard's John Lee to advance to the finals.
The finals: This match was critical to Oklahoma's team standings; if Don Reece won, at bare minimum the Sooners would tie for the team title, and perhaps win it outright. For that reason, the Penn State fans at Rec Hall were solidly behind Minnesota's Mueller. The Golden Gopher had been called earlier in the match for an illegal slam, and was behind Reece by two points. With 90 seconds left, Reece executed a tight sit-out… but Mueller pancaked him to his back, getting the fall at 4:45 in the second period. Mueller later became a two-time Big Ten champ, but did not win another NCAA title. He was a high school wrestling coach in the 1960s, and, according to A Turning Point, runs an Internet commerce company in Minneapolis.
In addition to Dick Mueller and Don Reece, the other 123-pound All-Americans were ISTC's Pat McCarron (third place), and Harvard's John Lee (fourth).
Penn State's Dick Lemyre pinned his first opponent, Michigan State's Ed Casallichio, in 49 seconds… then edged Jim Howard of Ithaca, 6-5, in the quarterfinals … then advanced to the finals on a referee decision over Oklahoma's Harold Reece (Don's brother).
The other finalist was Norvand "Snip" Nalan, two-time Big Ten champ from the University of Michigan. He pinned South Dakota State's Williams at 7:11 in the opening round, got a 7-2 victory over Toledo's Richard Lefter in the quarterfinals, and a 7-4 win over Colorado State's Bob Datteri in the semis.
Norvand NalanThe finals: Both Lemyre and Nalan were undefeated. If Lemyre won, Penn State would clinch the title. According to A Turning Point, Lemyre felt his match with Reese was the best of his career … but it took a lot out of him. Nalan, a two-time Iowa high school state finalist from Mason City, was described as being "just a little snip" -- a guy who "couldn't do more than 3 pull-ups," according to Michigan teammate Andy Kaul.
However, the Wolverine started the match with four unanswered points in the first two periods. There was a flurry of scoring from both men later in the bout, but Nalan came out on top, 7-5. The Penn State fans would have to wait for their team title. Nalan went on to win a second NCAA title in 1954, then had a long high school coaching career in Iowa and Minnesota.
Earning All-American honors at 130: Norvand "Snip" Nalan (first place), Dick Lemyre (second), Ithaca's Jim Howard (third), and Ed Casalicchio of Michigan State (fourth).
Gerry Maurey of Penn State drew a bye in the first round, then defeated Sam Ruzic of Iowa State, 3-1. Maurey then lost to Len "Gus" DeAugustino of Lock Haven -- also a product of Pennsylvania -- in the quarterfinals, 4-2. In the consolation bracket, Maurey beat Delance Duncan of Washington State, 4-1, then topped Oklahoma State's Donald Thompson, 6-3, and, finally, defeated Oklahoma's Ron Scott 10-2 to place third.
After defeating Maurey, DeAugustino dispatched Ron Scott in the semifinals, 9-6… putting him into the finals, where he went up against Norton "Pete" Compton, Big Ten champ from the University of Illinois, who seemed to breeze through his side of the bracket with scores of 9-3, 7-0, and 5-0.
The finals: Gus DeAugustino was able to score a key takedown in the first period, then ride his Illini rival Compton the rest of the period to hold the score at 2-0. The only other scoring the entire match: each wrestler got a one-point escape. Final score: 3-1 for DeAugustino. The champ from Lock Haven went on to a long coaching career at North Allegheny High School outside Pittsburgh (one of his most famous wrestlers: University of Iowa All-American Ray Brinzer), and at Duquesne University.
The All-Americans at 137, in order of placewinning: Len "Gus" DeAugustino, Norton Compton, Penn State's Gerry Maurey, and Oklahoma's Ron Scott.
Penn State's Don Frey got a bye in the first round, then got a 6-1 victory over Auburn's Bains. In the quarterfinals, Frey shut out Ian MacEwan of Kent State, 6-0 … but, in the semifinals, had his title dream derailed by Cornell University's Frank Bettucci, 7-3. In the consolation bracket, Don Frey pinned Leo Ballinger of Wyoming at 5:40, then got a referee's decision over Charles Uram of Pittsburgh to place third.
Before beating Don Frey in the semis, Frank Bettucci got a decisive 8-2 win over Warren DePrenger of Cornell College of Iowa… then got the fall over Wyoming's Ballinger at 5:14 … and, in the quarterfinals, topped Pitt's Uram, 7-3.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the bracket, Bob Hoke of Michigan State got a 10-3 win over Clayton Carothers of Lincoln… a referee's decision over 1952 finalist Tom Titsworth of Oklahoma in the quarterfinals … and, in the semifinals, shut out Bob Norris of Iowa State Teachers College, 3-0, to advance to the finals.
The finals: According to A Turning Point, Bob Hoke -- recently crowned Big Ten champ -- was a good eight inches taller than Frank Bettucci. After a scoreless first period, the Spartan got a reversal, followed by an escape by the Cornell wrestler to knot the score 2-2 at the end of the second. Bettucci scored another escape at the start of the third, then got a takedown to go ahead 4-2. Towards the end, Hoke got an escape to come within one point … but then Bettucci got a takedown at the buzzer to win 6-3. In addition to winning the title, Frank Bettucci won the event's Outstanding Wrestler award. Bettucci made the 1956 U.S. Olympic Team but injured his knee just before the event and was unable to compete.
147-pound All-Americans (in order of placement): Frank Bettucci … Bob Hoke … Penn State's Don Frey… and Charles Uram of Pittsburgh.
Doug Frey of the Nittany Lions held Springfield's Bill Bock scoreless, 8-0 … but then lost his next match, 4-3, to Ed Rooney of Syracuse, and did not make it into the consolation bracket.
This weight class featured arguably the most famous wrestler at the 1953 NCAAs, even though he lost his opening-round match, and never won an NCAA title. However, even folks who don't know a takedown from a touchdown know Donald Rumsfeld, who wrestled for Princeton University at 157. At the 1953 NCAAs, Rumsfeld lost his first bout to Jim Ellis of Indiana University.
The two men who worked their way through the 24-man bracket -- the largest at the tournament -- to the title bout were Dan Sniff of Colorado State, and Jim Harmon of Iowa State Teachers College. Sniff drew a bye in the first round, then pinned Virginia Military Institute's Berry at 4:05. In the quarterfinals, Sniff got a referee's decision over Oklahoma's John Eagleton, then, in the semis, defeated Pittsburgh's Joe Solomon, 6-1. Harmon shut out Hofstra's Turley in the opening round, 4-0, then got an 8-6 win over Vito Perrone of Michigan State. In the quarterfinals, Harmon beat Maryland's Bob Fischer, 7-5… then, in the semis, beat the man who beat Rumsfeld, edging out Indiana's Ellis, 3-2.
The finals: Although only a sophomore, Jim Harmon had been to the NCAA finals before, having lost to Oklahoma's Tommy Evans in 1952. In the first period, Dan Sniff scored a takedown, followed by an escape by Harmon to make the score 2-1. At the end of two periods, the score was tied at 4-4. In the third, Harmon rode his opponent the entire period, scoring two points riding time. The final score: 6-4 for ISTC's Jim Harmon. After the NCAAs, Harmon ran out of money for college, so he joined the Navy. He came back to Iowa State Teachers College in 1958 and graduated the following year, then returned to the Navy before going into ranching, then retirement.
All-Americans at 157: Jim Harmon … Dan Sniff … John Eagleton of Oklahoma … and Michigan State's Vito Perrone.
Penn State's Joe Lemyre was the second of three 1952 NCAA champs able to defend their titles at Rec Hall. In the first round, the Nittany Lion drew a bye … then pinned Nowitzky of Virginia Military Institute at 4:09 … then, in the quarterfinals, got a decisive 9-2 win over Oklahoma State's Carl Wood. However, Joe Lemyre's hopes of a title repeat were dashed in the semifinals on a referee's decision in favor of Don Dickason of Cornell University. In the consolation round, Lemyre bounced back, getting a win over Cornell of Iowa's Warren Sonnenman, then a 6-2 victory over Brown's Dana Eastham to claim third-place honors.
Don DickasonDon Dickason had three of his matches end by referee's decision. The Big Red wrestler won his first match over Nordquist of Illinois, 3-0 … then got the ref to declare him the winner over Eastham of Brown in the second. In the quarterfinals, he got a 7-5 win over Dale Ward of Army. Dickason's second ref's decision was his win over Joe Lemyre, which propelled him into the finals …
Also in the finals: Frank Marks of the University of Oklahoma. The Sooner racked up a 6-3 win over Indiana's Pankow … then a 6-2 victory over Lock Haven's Lentvorsky … then, in the quarterfinals, Marks beat Cornell of Iowa's Sonnenman, 3-1. In the semifinals, Frank Marks got a referee's decision of his own, over Ernie Fischer of Maryland, to advance to the finals.
The finals: How appropriate that the two wrestlers who made it into the finals thanks to referee decisions in the semifinals would have their title bout outcome determined by … you guessed it, the official. If Marks had pinned Dickason, Oklahoma would have a chance to catch up with Penn State in the team standings. But there was no fall; at the end of regulation, score tied at 1-1, Dickason was declared the winner by referee's decision -- his third of the tournament! After winning the title, Dickason served in the Navy, was a wrestling referee, then worked 33 years in admissions at his alma mater Cornell and at Penn State.
The 167-pound All-Americans: Don Dickason … Frank Marks … Penn State's Joe Lemyre … and Dana Eastham of Brown University.
George Dvoroziak of Penn State lost his opening-round match to Michigan's Dick O'Shaughnessy, a two-time Big Ten champ, 8-1, and did not go into the consolation rounds.
The 177-pound bracket was one of the lightest, with only twelve wrestlers. The two who made it to the finals: Ned Blass of Oklahoma State… and Al Paulekas of Army. Blass had drawn a bye in the first round, then got a 5-3 decision over Bob McCullough of Wyoming in the quarterfinals. In the semis, the Sooner trounced Bob Wirds of Iowa State, 16-8, in what A Turning Point described as "a takedown clinic." On the other side of the bracket, Paulekas dominated the competition, scoring a huge 13-4 win over Toledo's Ed Lanzi … pinning Don Lindell of Cornell of Iowa at 8:32 in the quarterfinals … and shutting out O'Shaughnessy 4-0 in the semifinals.
The finals: Ned Blass was a prime example of the Oklahoma State wrestling style in the 1950s and early 60s -- "take 'em down, let 'em up," seemingly scoring takedowns at will. A Turning Point described his title match: "Pualekas -- a short, stocky, straight-ahead wrestler was no match for Blass' takedown artistry. Blass held back and wrestled a conservative match, maneuvering Paulekas at will, keeping him off-balance and on the defensive… Result: Blass 8, Paulekas 4. The Army cadet never really had a grip on Blass the entire match." The following season, Ned Blass won his second title at 177, then served in the Navy, then was a teacher and wrestling coach in San Diego. (Interestingly, Blass and Gene Nicks were not only teammates at Oklahoma State, but also at Ponca City (Oklahoma) High.)
The four All-Americans at 177: Ned Blass… Al Paulekas… Iowa State's Bob Wirds… and Ed Lanzi of the University of Toledo.
Penn State's Hudson "Hud" Samson usually wrestled heavyweight for the Nittany Lions; however, because he typically weighed in at only 205 during the regular season, he was able to easily drop down to the 191-pound class that was unique to the NCAAs. On his home turf at Rec Hall, Samson made short work of his rivals on his side of the 15-man bracket, pinning Lou Williams of Oregon State at 3:40 of the opening round … getting a 6-1 win over Iowa State's Mel Walden in the quarterfinals … and holding Dick Torio of Toledo scoreless in the semis, 2-0, to make it to the title bout.
Samson's opponent in the finals was Charles Weber of West Chester State Teachers College. He had defeated Minnesota's Pete Veldman, 6-1 … gotten a fall over Oklahoma's Doc Hearon (a Golden Gloves boxer as well as a wrestler) at 8:08 in the quarterfinals … and, in the semifinals, earned a 5-2 victory over Gus Gatto of Iowa State Teachers College.
The finals: Early in the first period, the Nittany Lions' varsity golfer/wrestler took Charles Weber to the mat, then rode his rival the rest of the period. In the second, Samson started in the top position, then as A Turning Point describes it, "gradually worked Weber to his back. At 4:15 of the match, Samson got the fall with a tight body press. The partisan fans rocked Recreation Hall with exuberant stomping and joyful exaltation. With two pins en route to the title, he scored a remarkable eight of PSU's 21 total team points."
Hud Samson"Samson made Penn State's national championship possible, and -- in addition -- it was probable that it would not have happened if Samson had not wrestled."
After the 1953 NCAAs, Hud Samson received the William N. Neidig Award for "the senior who contributes the most to the success of Penn State wrestling."
191-pound All-Americans: Hud Samson … Charles Weber … Dick Torio of Toledo… and Gus Gatto of Iowa State Teachers.
Penn State did not have an entrant in the unlimited weight class. (Up until the 1980s, there was no top limit on this weight class.)
Ironically, the heavyweight class was the lightest in terms of number of wrestlers, with just eleven big men vying for the title. Gene Nicks of Oklahoma State was the defending champ. Nicknamed "Ninety-Second Nicks" for his propensity to pin foes fast, the beefy-but-boyish-faced, 238-pound Cowboy had drawn a bye in the first round … got a 6-1 win over Pittsburgh's Eldred Kraemer in the quarterfinals … then pinned UCLA's football/mat star Jack Ellena at 4:59 of the semifinals to find himself in the finals for the second straight year.
Going up against the champ was long and lanky Dan McNair of Auburn University, who was 6'2" and usually weighed in at 210… almost twenty pounds lighter than Nicks. Like his Cowboy rival, McNair had earned a bye in round one … then, in the quarterfinals, held Tom Megele of Hofstra scoreless, 5-0. In the semifinals, the New Orleans native got a referee's decision over Ed Husmann of Nebraska to make it into the finals.
The finals: There was no scoring in the first period. In the second, Nicks took top; A Turning Point described the Cowboy as "having a reputation as a brutal rider." However, he didn't turn the Auburn senior, so the score was still tied at zero. Here's how McNair described the final period in a 2003 interview for the book: "I rode him hard to start when he went to get up, I slipped in the cross-body ride. All the energy started flowing out of Nicks as I broke him down. I was able to get in a half-Nelson and started cranking him a few times … I got some back exposures on him." The match ended scoreless … but the referee raised Dan McNair's hand as the new heavyweight champ -- the first NCAA titlist from the deep South. After graduating from Auburn, McNair became a professor. Nicks went on to win his second heavyweight title at the 1954 NCAAs.
Heavyweights earning All-American honors: Don McNair … Gene Nicks … Pittsburgh's Eldred Kraemer … and Jack Ellena of UCLA.
It's a wrap!
In terms of team standings, Penn State earned 21 points … putting it in first place, knocking out 1952 team titlewinners, the Oklahoma Sooners, who placed second with 15 points. Cornell University was two points behind, placing third. Tying for fourth place -- two points behind the Big Red -- was Oklahoma State, and Iowa State Teachers College, each with 11 points.
Penn State won the team title with 21 points and had five All-Americans and one championIn terms of individual champs from the top five teams, Penn State had one (Hud Samson) … Oklahoma had none … Cornell had two (Frank Bettucci and Don Dickason) … Oklahoma State had one (Ned Blass) … and ISTC had one (Jim Harmon).
In terms of All-Americans from the top five teams, Penn State had five … Oklahoma had four … Cornell had two (their two NCAA champs) … Oklahoma State had two … and ISTC had three.
With Gene Nicks and Joe Lemyre each losing in their finals matches, only one of the three defending champs -- Hugh Peery of Pittsburgh -- was able to reclaim his title.
The Nittany Lions after 1953
In the December 1989 article in Town & Gown magazine, Penn State coach Charlie Speidel recalled, "Our team of 1953 had the team title all sewed up following the consolation round when Don Frey, Gerry Maurey, and Joe Lemyre each contributed third-place points. It mattered not whether Dick Lemyre or Hud Samson won titles. Their second-place scores would have been enough. But it was nice to have Samson come through."
"There's no question but that special credit for a good season should go to the unsung heroes -- the second-string men who stay in harness and battle in spite of almost knowing that they will never surpass the top wrestlers on their team."
"Coaching is not just teaching maneuvers and skills. A feature responsibility is to develop a happy family relationship and clannishness' among the men. Everybody must be kept interested and on the same plane as the so-called prima donna. They all want to belong."
What happened to Penn State after winning the 1953 NCAA team title on its home turf?
In 1954, the Nittany Lions had a 6-2 dual meet record. They placed second at the EIWA championships, and came in third in the team standings at the national championships held at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. At the 1954 NCAAs, Penn State had no individual champions, but two All-Americans -- Joe Krufka at 177, and Bill Oberly at 191. Both men placed third in their respective weight classes.
The following season, Penn State built a 5-2 record during the regular season, and were second in the EIWA conference team title race. The 1955 NCAAs, held at Cornell University, had three Penn State wrestlers in the finals, with Larry Fornicola and Bill Oberly winning individual titles (137 and heavyweight, respectively), while Joe Krufka lost to Oklahoma's Dan Hodge in the 177-pound title bout. All three earned All-American honors.
In 1956, Penn State compiled a 7-1 regular-season record, placed second at the EIWAs, and fifth at the NCAAs hosted by Oklahoma State. That year, the Nittany Lions had no individual champs, and two All-Americans: David Adams at 147, and Bill Oberly at heavyweight.
1957 was the end of a great run for the Nittany Lions. That season, Penn State's dual-meet record was 6-2-1; the team won the EIWA conference title at Rec Hall. A couple weeks later, Speidel's matmen headed southwest to the University of Pittsburgh, where John Johnston won the 130-pound NCAA title, and John Pepe placed second at 137, both earning All-American status. The following year, Penn State had a dual-meet record of 2-4-2, placed fourth at the EIWAs, and tied for fourteenth in the team standings at the 1958 NCAAs.
At the end of the 1964 season, Charlie Speidel retired from the Penn State program. Taking the helm of the Nittany Lions was another wrestling/coaching legend, Bill Koll, who had been a three-time NCAA champ at Iowa State Teachers College in the late 1940s, then became their head coach. (To read more about Bill and his son Rob Koll, head coach at Cornell University, click HERE.)
In the years since Charlie Speidel left State College, Penn State has had twelve individuals win NCAA championships, including three two-time titlewinners: Andy Matter, 1971-72 … Jeff Prescott, 1991-92 … and Kerry McCoy, 1994 and 1997. Most recently, at the 2008 NCAAs, Penn State added yet another individual champ to its record books -- Phil Davis at 197 pounds -- and placed third in the team standings.
Based on current in-house talent and recent recruiting, the Penn State program is expected to contend for individual and team titles for some time to come … all built on the foundation laid by Charlie Speidel and his Nittany Lions of more than a half-century ago.
Two books were instrumental in the writing of this story: Jay Hammond's The History of Collegiate Wrestling (available for purchase at www.wrestlingstats.com), and the 2003 book specifically about the 1953 NCAAs, A Turning Point by Jamie Moffatt and Roger Olesen, which is available by contacting email@example.com.
Special thanks to Paul Karwacki , assistant sports archivist in Special Collections at Penn State University Library for providing a wealth of original source materials. DVD copies of the original black-and-white, silent films of the 1953 NCAA finals are available for purchase direct from the host school. For contact information for the Penn State University archives, email mark@RevWrestling.com
To see more images from the 1953 NCAAs, including photos of all the finalists, visit the Yahoo group Vintage Amateur Wrestling Photo Annex 3 by clicking HERE.