InterMat Reads: A Century of Penn State Wrestling

How do you celebrate the one-hundredth year of a legendary college wrestling program?

In the early 1900s, the Penn State Wrestling Club practiced outdoors at Beaver Field (Photo/A Century of Penn State Wrestling)
Sure, you could bake a huge cake, decorate it with a hundred lit candles, wheel it out during a dual meet, and have the crowd sing "Happy Birthday."

Luckily, when the folks at the Penn State Wrestling Club realized that the Nittany Lions' wrestling program would reach its centennial year of existence, they chose to celebrate this incredible milestone in much bigger ways. Instead of hosting a single birthday bash, they created a series of special events during the 2007-2008 season … and, they created a series of commemorative items, including a 272-page book, A Century of Penn State Wrestling, now available from the PSU Wrestling Club.

How to mark a century of PSU wrestling

Penn State's first dual meet took place on March 27, 1909. Surprisingly, it wasn't on campus … or anywhere in State College. That first dual was an away meet, at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. As A Century of Penn State Wrestling explains,

We realized that the 100th anniversary of Penn State wrestling's beginning and the 100th year of Penn State wrestling were two related, but different concepts. Unlike the customary practice with birthdays and wedding anniversaries, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Penn State's first wrestling match would make little sense. By the end of March, the Nationals would be over, the wrestlers would all be 20 pounds heavier, and the sports world would either be in a March madness frenzy over NCAA basketball or looking forward to the start of major league baseball …

So Connie and her associates decided the best course to follow would be to celebrate the entire 100th season with a series of special events, all the home matches at the Nittany Lions' lair -- Rec Hall, of course -- along with the production and sale of a myriad of commemorative items … culminating in the publication of a book …

We knew this undertaking would not be easy, and we were right. It quickly snowballed into a flurry of meetings, conferences, trips, letters, emails, faxes, phone conversations, delving into dusty archives, sorting through old photos -- exhausting yet a labor of love …

How the book came about

"We found out six years ago that we were coming up on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Penn State wrestling program," says Connie Christiansen, member of the Penn State Wrestling Club. "We organized a committee -- the Centennial Committee -- that included four of us from the Club: Betty Arnold, who worked in the Penn State library at the time; Russ Ruhf, keeper of Penn State stats, who had started writing a Penn State wrestling history of his own; John Dalbor, who writes the "Looking Back" column for our Penn State Wrestling Club newsletter; and myself, to head up the committee, serve as the computer person and 'organizer' of information and photos."

"We met (as the Centennial Committee) for the first time in December 2004. We realized we had so much good stuff -- photos, information -- we thought there might be a book in all this."

"We met once a month for two years," Christiansen continues. "As the deadline drew nearer, we met more often -- sometimes once a week."

"We got along great. I can't remember ever having an argument."

The book takes shape

"One of the first things we did was to establish a table of contents, which served as a roadmap for gathering and organizing information and photos," says Christiansen, who, interestingly, is a native of Harlan, Iowa and a graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, but a long-time Pennsylvania resident and Penn State wrestling booster.

The book's first chapter is "How It All Started -- The Beginnings of Penn State Wrestling", then moves to a timeline that provides an encapsulated overview of the past century of Nittany Lion wrestling. This is followed by individual chapters on some of the highlights over the years -- such as the 1953 NCAA championship team -- presented in chronological order. The book also includes chapters on Penn State coaches, dual meet competition, conference competition, how Penn State has performed on the national stage, freestyle success, and honors on and off the mat.

When asked how the book's chapter outline came together, Connie Christiansen replies, "We discussed various options. We didn't want to focus just on the coaches, and we realized that we had competed in different conferences, so, presenting the information, say, organized by coach, or by conference, didn't seem to work."

Now that the outline for A Century of Penn State Wrestling was in place, Christiansen says, "Next was selecting the front cover photo … We discussed various options, and came across a photo from the 1930s of a match inside Rec Hall. We don't know the date of the photo, or who's wrestling, but we thought the image said, 'Penn State wrestling history' so we decided to use it."

"Once we had the front cover photo selected and the cover's design in place, we then could promote the book well in advance … We promoted the book in our club's printed newsletter and online, and at our events."

Photos tell stories of their own

The attention to detail in selecting a photo for the front cover extends throughout the book. A Century of Penn State Wrestling serves up an abundance of photos -- team photos, portraits of individual wrestlers and coaches, match action shots -- along with some priceless images from the earliest days, including photos of club wrestling on the grass at Beaver Stadium Field!

In the early 1900s, the Penn State wrestling club practiced outdoors at Beaver Field (Photo/A Century of Penn State Wrestling)
"I love wrestling photos," says Connie Christiansen. "Penn State's wrestling photographer Marshall Goldstein had given me slides and photos he had shot from 1964 to 1990 … In addition, our local printer who produces our club's Updates (newsletter), has a collection of photos, too. As soon as we'd have something written, we'd send the text over to them, and they'd start laying out the pages, thinking of how to incorporate the photos they had."

"We wanted to make sure photos were an important part of the book."

"We were especially thrilled to find team photos for just about every Penn State wrestling team over the years," Christiansen adds. "Past coaches helped us identify individuals … Now all those photos have been archived at the Penn State Library."

"We spent about $1,000 archiving photos, organizing and cataloging them."

Putting the Penn State story into words

In talking about putting together the text for A Century of Penn State Wrestling, Connie Christiansen says, "We went through eight drafts before the final print. It was truly a labor of love for everyone."

"Right from the start, we wanted to encompass readability for various audiences. We wanted it to have appeal beyond the Penn State wrestling program …We tried to avoid being 'booster-ish.'"

A Penn State dual meet at Rec Hall in the early 1950s (Photo/A Century of Penn State Wrestling)
"We asked (former Penn State coach) Rich Lorenzo to read the book, to make sure it was factually accurate, and true to the program. John Black, Penn State football writer, also read the book throughout, to provide a different perspective, that of someone familiar with Penn State and its traditions, but not necessarily immersed in the school's wrestling program."

In any kind of historical research, there are usually some incredible finds along the way.

When asked what the Centennial Committee came across in its research for the book that was surprising or unexpected, Connie Christiansen responds, "We were surprised to hear how the program started here, as a club sport. We also found it fascinating to learn about those who started the program."

"It was also surprising to realize, in the early days of the program, they wrestled only a few meets each year."

Another interesting discovery came from studying the vintage photos of Penn State wrestling meets from 50 or more years ago: "It was eye-opening to see the fans in the old photos. It was pretty much all men, all dressed in suits and ties. It's hard to imagine them being able yell or cheer much, dressed that way," says Christiansen, who quickly adds, "It's neat to see how interest in the sport has expanded over the years to include women and people of all ages."

Money matters

"When we started working on the book, we didn't know what it would cost to put it together," Connie Christiansen discloses. "We had $70,000 in memorabilia, celebration, and production costs. But we have wonderful people who supported us. We received grants from Penn State and the Alumni Association, as well as donations from individuals and businesses."

"We started a Century Club for people who wanted to support the book. For a gift of $100, we put their name in the book, and gave them a copy when it was published. We had 170 donors who participated in the Century Club."

"We advertised the book for three years, took advance orders. People placed orders right from the start."

Helping other schools commemorate their mat milestones

Penn State wrestling is one of the oldest major college mat programs in the United States. However, there are plenty of college programs that may be fast-approaching their centennial or other significant anniversaries.

"We think it's so important for individual programs to record their history and share it with others, and honor all those who have been involved in their program," says Connie Christiansen.

"We'd be willing to help other programs commemorate their milestones," says Connie Christiansen. "They can certainly learn from our experience. The one bit of advice I'd offer up front is -- start early. As you can see, it took us a number of years to put together a book, create other memorabilia, and arrange for commemorative events. It's not something where you can say, 'Next season is our anniversary' and expect to do a book."

Rec Hall has been the home to Penn State wrestling for nearly 80 years. Here's a photo of the Nittany Lions in action in the 1930s, in the first decade of the building's use (Photo/A Century of Penn State Wrestling)
As someone who writes about legendary wrestlers and historical wrestling events, it's great to see one of the all-time great college wrestling programs honored with a book of the quality of A Century of Penn State Wrestling. You don't have to "bleed blue and white" to enjoy this book, for it provides a fascinating look back at wrestling as it once was, that any participant or fan of the sport can appreciate.

To purchase a copy of A Century of Penn State Wrestling, visit the official Web site for the Penn State Wrestling Club


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