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InterMat Rewind: Cresco, Iowa

Mark Palmer

10/6/2008
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Some places have a knack for turning out great athletes in a particular sport -- for example, Western Pennsylvania as a launch pad for legendary football players like Joe Namath and Joe Montana.

The same can be said for wrestling. Across the United States, there are small towns that have produced more than their fair share of accomplished wrestlers -- athletes who have earned state titles, NCAA championships, even Olympic medals. Some go on to even greater accomplishments.

What's the explanation? In some places, it was one great high school coach -- or a succession of top-notch coaches. Sometimes, it's a family or group of families where wrestling success seems to be in the genes. In other communities, it might be a matter of success breeding success -- natural athletes are drawn to a high school sport where their friends and families became stars. Other times, the answer may be more elusive; perhaps it's just something in the water!

From time to time, InterMat Rewind plans to visit these wrestling hotbeds, sharing the stories of the great coaches and wrestlers who call that community their own. First stop: Cresco, Iowa.


In the state of Iowa, wrestling is about as close to a religion as it is anywhere. And, in this wrestling hotbed state, Cresco was one of its hottest incubators for the sport -- a place where mat champions were born and made.

If Cresco were any further north, it would be in Minnesota. This community of approximately 4,000 residents is located in the rolling farm country of northeastern Iowa, about halfway between Waterloo, Iowa and Rochester, Minnesota. From the 1920s into the 1960s, Cresco launched more than its share of wrestling success stories … with names likely to be familiar to even to today's fans, including Nichols, Kurdelmeier, Peckham and Borlaug.

If these names weren't enough of an indication of Cresco's status as a wrestling hotbed, consider these additional factors. The Cresco High School wrestling program was the subject of its own book, "The History of Wrestling in Cresco," published in 1984. What's more, Cresco is home to the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame. Located in the Chamber of Commerce in downtown Cresco, this museum honors all-time great Iowa-born amateur wrestlers, including a number of hometown heroes.

First seeds planted in 1921

According to "The History of Wrestling in Cresco," the wrestling program at Cresco High was launched by Superintendent of Schools A.R. Tiffany in 1921. The district had just completed a new building which included a gymnasium and locker rooms.

In 1921, only a few high schools in Iowa had wrestling programs. In fact, throughout the U.S., organized amateur wrestling at colleges and high schools was a fairly new activity. The first college programs were established in the East in the first decade of the 1900s. Of the three major state universities in the state of Iowa, only two had intercollegiate wrestling programs in 1921: the University of Iowa (whose program started in 1911), and Iowa State (which established its program in 1916). The University of Northern Iowa's program came about in 1923. To provide some additional historical perspective: the birth of the Cresco program preceded the NCAA championships by seven years, and came just four years after the death of Frank Gotch, the world champion professional wrestler originally from Humboldt, Iowa whose superstar popularity helped fuel organized amateur wrestling throughout the U.S.

A cavalcade of coaches

Cresco High School's first wrestling coach was John Wheeler, an agriculture instructor from Iowa State. Twenty young men came out for the first season, competing in just dual meets, winning one (against Oelwein), and losing the other (to Mason City). That first year, the wrestling uniforms were actually long underwear, with leather patches sewn into the knees … and the wrestling surface was a twelve-foot-square horsehair mat, covered with canvas.

In 1922, James Morrison took the helm. In both 1923 and 1924, Cresco had entries at the Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament (which also launched in 1921).

David Bartelma became head coach in 1925, and really put Cresco wrestling on the map. In his first three seasons at Cresco, the Jasper County, Iowa native's teams were undefeated in dual-meet competition … and the school claimed its first state champ: Blair Thomas at 115 pounds in 1926.

In 1927, Henry Pillard took the head coaching position at Cresco. The following year, his wrestlers won their first team title on the strength of three individual champs -- Paul Thomas at 85 pounds, Dick Jones at 115, and Wally Kent at 125 -- along with two other placewinners.

Dave Bartelma returned to Cresco in 1931, building an even stronger Spartan wrestling program while also serving as the high school principal. His teams tallied up a record 29 straight dual-meet wins, claiming two state team titles in 1933 and 1935. Overall, his teams compiled a 45-5 dual meet record with seventeen individual state champs. "Bart" left Cresco in 1936 to coach the University of Minnesota wrestling program, where he remained into the early 1950s. He is referred to as "the father of wrestling in Minnesota" for his tireless efforts to encourage high schools in the Land of 10,000 Lakes to set up wrestling programs. Key to this effort was his hosting of the very first Minnesota High School State Tournament in 1937. He also recruited Iowa wrestlers to come north to become high school coaches. For his contributions to the sport, Dave Bartelma's name is on the Minnesota Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame, established in 1969 … and he was welcomed into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1973.

After Bartelma left for Minnesota, assistant coach Henry Schroder filled in as head coach at Cresco for one year. In 1937, George "Chris" Flanagan came to Cresco to write more wrestling history. A native of Williamsburg, Iowa (which did not have a wrestling program at the time), Flanagan took up wrestling at Iowa State Teachers College (now Northern Iowa), where he was a 1934 Midwest Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) champ. During his more than 30 years at Cresco, he coached four teams to state titles and six runner-up honors, crowned 34 individual state champs, and compiled a powerful 317-89-5 dual-meet record.

As of 1984, Cresco could claim seven Iowa state team titles, more than 60 individual state champions, and hundreds of placewinners. The Spartans' overall dual-meet record was 482-154-11, for a .680 winning percentage.

In the early 1960s, Cresco High School was replaced by Crestwood High, a new facility that served a wider area of northeastern Iowa. In 1964, the school won the state small-school title; later in the decade, Crestwood moved into the larger-school division, placing as high as fifth in the team standings at the 1968 Iowa state tournament, and second in 1969, the year Iowa went to three divisions based on school enrollment. A couple years later, Cresco/Crestwood found a home among mid-size schools, more than once placing in the top ten in team standings, with a number of individual state champs.

All-Time Cresco Mat Greats

Now let's look at just some of the all-time greats who once wrestled at Cresco:

Bob Hess: Cresco's First Mat Olympian

Bob Hess wrestled at Cresco in the late 1920s for coach Henry Pillard. He was a 135-pound Iowa state champ in 1927. After graduating from Cresco, Hess went to Iowa State, where he compiled a 33-4 record. Hess was a 1932 Big Six champ at 175 pounds, and a two-time NCAA champ at 175 in 1932 and 1933. He just missed earning a medal at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics, placing fourth in freestyle middleweight (174-pound) competition. Bob Hess was a member of the initial class welcomed into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1970.

Norman Borlaug: Nobel Peace Prize Winner

He didn't win any Iowa high school state titles (though he placed third at 145 pounds in 1932), nor did he earn a Big Ten or NCAA title as a wrestler at the University of Minnesota. Yet, Norman Borlaug is arguably the world's best-known wrestler to come out of Cresco … as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 for his lifelong work as an agricultural scientist whose Green Revolution breakthroughs in developing high yields of wheat saved millions -- if not billions -- of lives from starvation throughout the world.

Norman Borlaug
Borlaug, who grew up on a farm outside Cresco, wrestled for coach Dave Bartelma at Cresco High School in the early 1930s … then headed north to the University of Minnesota. While at Minnesota, Borlaug usually wrestled at 145 pounds. Perhaps even more significant, he helped lure "Bart" to the "U", which only had a part-time coach at the time. He earned his bachelors in forestry from Minnesota, then stayed at the Twin Cities school for his masters and doctorate … also serving as the Gophers' freshmen wrestling coach.

Borlaug started his lifelong work in wheat improvement in 1944, culminating in his serving as director of the Wheat Research and Production program at the International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in the 1960s and 1970s. Even now at age 94, he continues to serve as a consultant to CIMMYT, and raise awareness of ongoing hunger issues.

In addition to his honors regarding his lifesaving agricultural work, Norman Borlaug has been acknowledged by the wrestling community as well. He was honored with the National Wrestling Hall of Fame's "Outstanding American" award in 1992, and the University of Minnesota's National M Club Lifetime Achievement Hall of Fame in 1994. Borlaug was inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in his hometown in 2004.

"Wrestling taught me some valuable lessons," Borlaug told the University of Minnesota in 2005. "I always figured I could hold my own against the best in the world. It made me tough. Many times, I drew on that strength. It's an inappropriate crutch perhaps, but that's the way I'm made."

"Bo" Cecil Cameron: Cedar Rapids Coach

An undefeated wrestler while competing for Dave Bartelma at Cresco, "Bo" Cameron built a 33-0 record. He was a two-time Iowa high school state champ -- 95 pounds in 1931, 115 pounds in 1933. Cameron headed east from Cresco to the University of Michigan, where he was 25-5, placing third at the Big Ten championships in 1936 and 1937, and second in 1938.

After a one-year stint as an assistant coach to Dave McCuskey at Iowa State Teachers College in the 1949-50 season -- the year the program won the NCAA team title in its home gym -- Cameron headed south from Cedar Falls to Cedar Rapids, where he coached wrestling for 27 years, 17 as a head coach. His high school wrestlers earned an Iowa state team title and eight individual championships. Cameron was inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1976.

Donald Maland: Hometown Doctor

Donald Maland
Don Maland had success written all over his career on and off the mat. According to his senior bio in the 1934 Spartan yearbook, he was a class officer all four years of high school, culminating in being elected class president senior year. He was in orchestra and wrestled throughout high school. Competing for Dave Bartelma at Cresco, Maland won 38 straight bouts for a perfect prep record. He was the school's first three-time Iowa state champion (and only the fourth in the entire state), winning the 95-pound crown in 1932, the 105-pound title in 1933, and the 125-pound championship in 1934. After graduation, Maland went to the University of Iowa, where he wrestled for the Hawkeyes and coach Mike Howard. He earned his undergraduate and medical degrees at Iowa, and, after serving in World War II, came home to Cresco to practice medicine for over thirty years.

Dale Hanson: World War II Hero

Dale Hanson has the distinction of having wrestled for Dave Bartelma both at Cresco High and at the University of Minnesota. According to his plaque at the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame, Hanson earned the nickname Pee Wee as a high school freshman because he was too small to compete, even in the lowest weight class, 85 pounds. As a sophomore, he grew a bit in size and was able to wrestle, losing a few matches.

However, in his last two years at Cresco, Dale Hanson really came into his own on the mat. He was a two-time Iowa high school state champ, winning the 85-pound crown in 1934, then moving up to 105 in 1935.

At Minnesota, Dale Hanson was a three-time letterman (1938-1940). He won two Big Ten titles at 128 pounds in 1939 and 1940. Henson was a two-time NCAA finalist, winning the 128-pound title -- and Outstanding Wrestler honors -- at the 1939 NCAAs, becoming only the second Golden Gopher to win the national wrestling title. While at Minnesota, he won 43 straight dual-meet matches. In fact, Hanson was undefeated in six years of wrestling his last two years in high school, and all four years in college.

"Dale Hanson, pound for pound, was the greatest wrestler, amateur or professional, in mat annuls," says his only wrestling coach, Dave Bartelma. "He weighed only 128 at his peak but he was stronger than most heavyweights. He was the absolute master of wrestling techniques, and the greatest competitor I have ever known."

According to the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame, Dale Henson enlisted in the U.S. Air Force while still a senior at Minnesota. He was at Pearl Harbor during the attack on December 7, 1941, and at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. He was co-pilot of a B-17 bomber that was shot down over Rabaul, New Britain, Papua New Guinea in the south Pacific in October 1942. He was just 24 years old. Henson was inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1980, and into the Bartelma Hall of Fame in Minnesota in 1994.

Harold Nichols: All-Time Great Iowa State Coach

Harold Nichols -- affectionately known as "Nick" to wrestling fans in the state of Iowa -- never won an Iowa high school state wrestling title while at Cresco. He claimed his Spartan teammates were so talented, his first chance to wrestle varsity was as a senior. However, that didn't stop him from becoming one of the giants of college wrestling, being named one of the three all-time great coaches -- along with Ed Gallagher, Oklahoma State coach from 1917-1940, and Dan Gable, head coach at University of Iowa from 1976-1997 -- in the NCAA 75th Anniversary commemoration.

According to Mike Chapman's book "Nick and the Cyclones," Harold Nichols only started wrestling as a high school freshman … but quit the team because of the five-mile walk home from school after practice. He came back to wrestling when the family moved closer to town, and his younger brother Don started high school. Despite being a middleweight, he often had to move up to heavyweight, giving up considerable poundage on his opponents … but usually found a way to win. As a senior, he placed third at 145 pounds in the Iowa state tournament.

After graduation, Harold worked for a year at the Farmers Cooperative Creamery in Cresco, earning money for college. He ended up at the University of Michigan, who, at the time, already had a number of Cresco grads on the roster, and were actively recruiting Harold's brother Don. He and Don both wrestled for Cliff Keen, who coached the Wolverines from 1925 to 1970.

As a sophomore, Harold Nichols placed third at the Big Ten championships. The following year, he lost in the finals to the University of Chicago's Art Finwald. However, his senior year, "Nick" truly made a name for himself, being named the wrestling team captain. He compiled a 13-0 dual-meet record, won a 1939 Big Ten championship, and the 145-pound title at the 1939 NCAAs, becoming only the third Wolverine to win a national title.

After graduation, "Nick" served as an Air Force pilot in World War II, then launched his coaching career at Arkansas State, where he was responsible for a number of sports. As wrestling coach, he built a 37-18-3 record over five seasons.

In 1954, Harold Nichols took the head coaching position at Iowa State, and revitalized the Cyclone wrestling program, making it a contender in a field that had been long dominated by the Oklahoma Sooners and the Oklahoma State Cowboys. In 32 years at Ames, he compiled a 456-75-11 record for an impressive .851 winning percentage. In the Nichols era, the Cyclones won six NCAA team titles, placed second eleven times, and third eight times. Iowa State had 91 Big Eight conference individual champs, with 25 wrestlers winning 38 NCAA titles. Two of his Cyclones became Olympic gold medallists: Dan Gable, and Ben Peterson. Harold Nichols was twice named NCAA Coach of the Year before retiring in 1985. In 1970, he was part of the initial class inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame. Eight years later, he was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Don Nichols: Flying the Friendly Skies

Don Nichols
Younger brother of Harold, Don Nichols was coached by Dave Bartelma and Harry Schroder while at Cresco. Don apparently had a considerable growth spurt in high school, competing from 85 pounds up to 155. He was a two-time Iowa state champ, winning the 85-pound title in 1933, and the 135-pound crown in 1935. At the University of Michigan, Don wrestled at 175 for Cliff Keen, where he was a two-time Big Ten champ (1938 and 1940). At the 1940 NCAAs, Don snared the 175-pound title and Outstanding Wrestler honors. Incredibly, he lost only three matches in high school and college! After stepping off the mat, Don Nichols had a long career as a captain for United Airlines. He was installed into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1990.

Gene Lybbert: Spartan to Panther to Buccaneer

Gene Lybbert was the very picture of the active student at Cresco High, involved in band, marching band, swing band, and orchestra … as well as football, baseball and wrestling. He was a two-time Iowa high school state runner-up for the Cresco Spartans (at 105 pounds in 1947, and at 112 in 1948), wrestling for Chris Flanagan. After graduating from Cresco, Lybbert stayed in state for college, going to Iowa State Teachers where he was a two-time national AAU champ, two-time NCAA All-American (1951 and 1952), and the 130-pound champ at the 1952 NCAAs during the program's glory days, when the Panther roster included all-time greats such as Bill Nelson, Bill Smith, and Keith Young. Lybbert headed north to Minnesota, where he coached the Blue Earth High School Buccaneers for a number of years. He was inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1987.


Gary Kurdelmeier: Building the Hawkeye Dynasty

Gary Kurdelmeier (Photo/Cresco Yearbook)
A four-sport star at Cresco, Gary Kurdelmeier was on the track and baseball teams, and was an all-state guard on the Spartan football team. However, he found his greatest success on the wrestling mat in both high school and college … and beyond.

Wrestling for coach Chris Flanagan, Kurdelmeier was at two-time heavyweight state champ (1953, 1954), ending his prep career with a perfect 23-0 record.

Upon graduating from Cresco in 1954, Gary Kurdelmeier headed south to the University of Iowa. After playing one season as tackle for the Hawkeye football team, he hung up the helmet and pads, and concentrated on wrestling. For three years, he was Iowa's 177-pound starter, winning the Big Ten title in 1957, and the NCAA championship the following year.

After a high school coaching career in the first years of the 1960s, Gary Kurdelmeier returned to the University of Iowa in 1967, as an assistant coach to Dave McCuskey. Upon McCuskey's retirement in 1972, he became the head coach. In just four seasons at the Hawkeyes' helm, Kurdelmeier turned the program around; Iowa went from a decade of doldrums, to grabbing three Big Ten and two NCAA team titles, and five individuals claiming a total of seven national championships. Kurdelmeier's hand-picked assistant, Dan Gable, became head coach in 1977, building a 20-year dynasty upon his former boss' strong foundation that dominated the Big Ten and national competition. Gary Kurdelmeier was welcomed into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1978.

Joe Frank: Coaching Success in Oregon and Minnesota

Joe Frank wrestled for Chris Flanagan at Cresco in the late 1950s, winning the 127-pound Iowa state title in 1959. For college, Frank competed for another Cresco High graduate, Harold Nichols, at Iowa State. As a Cyclone, Frank compiled a 29-11 record. However, Joe Frank's greatest wrestling accomplishments were as a coach. In three seasons at Readsburg (Oregon) High, his teams won three state titles. He then came back to the Midwest, where he coached wrestling at Fridley High in Minnesota. In 17 seasons at Fridley, Frank's teams won three state team titles, earned five individual state championships, and built an incredible 227-31-1 record. The Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame welcomed Joe Frank in 2005.

Tom Peckham: State Champ, NCAA Champ, Olympian

Nowadays, it's typical for amateur wrestlers to take up the sport in grade school or even earlier. Forty or fifty years ago, most wrestlers first stepped onto a mat no earlier than junior high or high school. Tom Peckham, wrestling star of the 1960s, was ahead of his time; he began wrestling as a fourth grader, working out with the Cresco Junior High team. Competing for Chris Flanagan at Cresco High, as a freshman, Peckham qualified for the Iowa state tournament, but lost his opening-round match on a referee's decision… and it was his last loss in his high school mat career.

Winning most of his bouts by pin, Tom Peckham compiled a 49-3 record at Cresco, bringing home three Iowa state titles: 127 pounds in 1960, 154 pounds in 1961, and 165 pounds in 1962.

Peckham was recruited by fellow Cresco grad Harold Nichols to wrestle for his Iowa State Cyclones. He was a three-time finalist at the Big Eight conference championships, winning the 177-pound title on his third try, in 1966. At the 1964 NCAAs, Peckham placed fifth in the 167-pound weight class. In 1965, he avenged his Big Eight finals loss to Oklahoma State's Bill Harlow with a 5-3 win over the Cowboy to claim the 177-pound national title. In his senior year at the 1966 NCAAs in his home gym, in the 177 finals, Tom Peckham pinned the man he had defeated in the Big Eight finals a couple weeks earlier, Fred Fozzard of Oklahoma State, for his second NCAA title. After college, Peckham wrestled for the U.S. at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, placing fourth in freestyle competition in the 191.5 weight class (barely missing a medal). Peckham was inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1985.

For more photos of these all-time great wrestlers from this wrestling hotbed in northeastern Iowa, check out the "Cresco HS" photo album at VintageAmateurWrestlingPhotoAnnex.

Here's a link to a History of Wrestling in Cresco Web site:
http://www.angelfire.com/hi3/crestwoodwrestling/history.html.


Fun Fact

Spartans Take Over The Wolverines

In 1937, five of the eight starters for the University of Michigan Wolverines were once Cresco High Spartans: "Bo" Cecil Cameron, Don Nichols, Harold Nichols, Earl Thomas, and Frank Morgan. That year, Michigan placed second in the team standings at the Big Ten championships, and eleventh at the 1937 NCAAs.

Fun Fact

Cresco vs. Cresco: Dual Meet Battle

In the late 1930s, former Cresco teammates Norman Borlaug and Harold Nichols both ended up wrestling at Big Ten schools: Borlaug headed north to the University of Minnesota, while Nichols went east to the University of Michigan. Both wrestled at 145 pounds… so it was inevitable that the two former teammates would end up facing each other on the mat in college. According to the 1937 Michiganesian (Michigan's yearbook), Nichols pinned Borlaug in a Michigan vs. Minnesota dual meet.

Fun Fact

Cresco vs. Cresco: College Coaching Battle

In the early 1970s, the head coaches at two of the top college wrestling programs in the nation -- Iowa State, and the University of Iowa -- were both Cresco High mat alumni. After the 1972 NCAAs, Gary Kurdelmeier, Cresco class of 1954, took the helm of the Iowa Hawkeye wrestling program … while, across the state, Harold Nichols, Cresco class of 1934, had been coach of the Iowa State Cyclones for nearly two decades.

With two former Cresco Spartans in charge, the Iowa vs. Iowa State rivalry really intensified. At the 1972 NCAAs - before Kurdelmeier vs. Nichols -- Iowa State easily won the team title… while Iowa placed twelfth. The following year, Iowa State again claimed the team title, while Iowa moved up to a tie for seventh under new head coach Kurdelmeier. In 1974, the team race tightened further: Iowa State placed fourth, with Iowa right behind at fifth. By 1975, the team fortunes were reversed; the Hawkeyes won the NCAA team title, while the Cyclones placed fourth. The following season -- Kurdelmeier's last -- Iowa held on to the team title, with Iowa State coming in second.

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