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Palmer: History repeats

Mark Palmer

3/20/2011
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Penn State won the team title at the 2011 NCAA Division I Championships this weekend ... making history in the process.

The Nittany Lions became the first school east of the Mississippi River to win the national mat title since 1967, when Michigan State won the championship, and only the second Eastern program to grab the team crown, the first being ... Penn State, in 1953.

What's more, this year's title was won within Penn State's home state, specifically, Philadelphia. The 1953 NCAAs were even closer to home, specifically, at Rec Hall on the Penn State campus, still the home gym for head coach Cael Sanderson and his wrestlers today.

With the 2011 team title, Penn State becomes the only school to own two NCAA championships. A handful of programs have won just one title -- Indiana (unofficially) in 1932, Cornell College of Iowa in 1947, University of Northern Iowa in 1950, and Arizona State in 1988. Another handful has more than one title -- Oklahoma State has 34, Iowa won 23, Iowa State has eight, University of Oklahoma has seven, and Minnesota, three. Penn State now joins that elite club of multi-time team champs.

A very brief history of Penn State wrestling

Penn State has one of the oldest major college wrestling programs in the nation. The Nittany Lions first took to the mat in 1909; that year, they had just one dual meet, losing to, of all schools, Cornell University (the program that placed second at the 2011 NCAAs).

In 1927 -- one year before the first NCAA wrestling championships were held -- Penn State made a significant hiring decision that would set the stage for the first national mat title. The school welcomed Charlie "Doc" Speidel as head coach. He was the sixth coach in two decades ... but unlike the others, Speidel stuck around for more than a couple years (34 to be exact), and made a positive difference in the program.

Speidel, originally from New Jersey, cultivated relationships with some key high school coaches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, encouraging their wrestlers to continue their educational and wrestling careers at Penn State. As part of this strategy, sets of brothers would also find their way to State College -- in other words, the school got two or three talented matmen with a single recruitment effort.

Another aspect that helped Penn State's mat program take off was school's explosive growth immediately after World War II, thanks to the G.I. Bill which made a college education accessible to military veterans. Together, all these elements worked together to help set the foundation for the Nittany Lions' mat success in the early 1950s ... which was instrumental in helping the school lure the NCAAs to State College.

Bringing The Big Show to State College

Starting in 1950, Penn State launched an incredible win streak that carried into the 1953 season. However, in 1952, because of budget problems, the school had placed strict travel restrictions on the wrestling program, severely limiting how many wrestlers could go to the 1952 NCAAs at Colorado State. So, immediately after the nationals that year, Charlie Speidel lobbied the NCAA to bring the national mat championships to Penn State. As coach put it, if Mohammed won't go to the mountain, the mountain will come to Mohammed. It worked; Penn State got the 1953 NCAAs.

The NCAAs of six decades ago were much smaller events compared to what just concluded in Philadelphia. For starters, the 1953 NCAAs lasted just two days, not three. According to Jay Hammond's The History of Collegiate Wrestling, 166 wrestlers from 53 schools came to State College, "shattering the records set in 1951." (By contrast, 330 athletes competed at the 2011 NCAAs.) The venue was much smaller, too. At the time, Rec Hall had a seating capacity of approximately 6,000; Wells Fargo Center, site of the 2011 NCAAs, accommodated about 19,000 fans.

The Nittany Lions of 60 years ago

Penn State had a wrestler in each weight class at the 1953 NCAAs except heavyweight; Hudson "Hud" Samson, who usually wrestled what was called "unlimited" back then, dropped down to the 191-pound class, which was special for the NCAAs, and not usually wrestled.

True to Speidel's "family philosophy," the Penn State starting lineup had two sets of brothers, the Dick and Joe Lemyre (wrestling at 130 and 167 pounds, respectively) from Mepham High in New York, and, from Newton, New Jersey, Don and Doug Frey, who wrestled at 147 and 157. Rounding out the roster: William Cramp at 115 (like 191, a weight class unique to the NCAAs); Bobby Homan, 1952 EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) champ at 123 pounds; Gerry Maurey, 1953 EIWA titleholder at 137; and George Dvorozniak at 177.

Showtime!

How did the Penn State matmen do in their home gym at the 1953 NCAAs? Cramp, Homan, Dvorozniak and Doug Frey did not place. Gerry Maurey, Don Frey and Joe Lemyre each placed third, earning All-American honors. Dick Lemyre made it to the finals, where he lost to Michigan's Norvand "Snip" Nalan. The Lion who came through was Samson. The 6'3" wrestler/varsity golf team member pinned his finals opponent, Charles Weber of West Chester State Teachers College, at 4:15 to win the 191-pound title.

Other wrestlers who earned titles at the 1953 NCAAs included 115-pound champ Hugh Peery of Pittsburgh (son of Pitt coach Rex, older brother of Ed -- each of them three-time NCAA champs), University of Minnesota's Dick Mueller at 123 pounds, Lock Haven's Gus DeAugustino at 137, Cornell University's Frank Bettucci at 147, Jim Harmon of Northern Iowa (then called Iowa State Teachers College) at 157, Don Dickason of Cornell University at 167, Oklahoma State's Ned Blass at 177, and Dan McNair of Auburn at heavyweight.

When the last match had been wrestled, Penn State had put 21 points on the board, putting the host school in first place ... and making them the 1953 NCAA team champions. The Nittany Lions had defeated 1952 team titlewinners, the Oklahoma Sooners, who placed second with 15 points. In third was Cornell University, with 13 points. Tying for fourth place with 11 points each was Oklahoma State, and Iowa State Teachers College.

Penn State also led in terms of the number of All-Americans, with five earning that honor (by placing in the top four), out of ten weight classes.

The Nittany Lions had a number of successful seasons after that championship season up through 1957, placing either second or third in the team standings in the mid-1950s, and crowning individual champs Larry Fornicola (137 pounds) and Bill Oberly (heavyweight) at the 1955 NCAAs, and 130-pound champ John Johnston at the 1957 NCAAs.

Charles "Doc" Speidel retired in 1964, replaced by Bill Koll (father of current Cornell coach Rob Koll) and a succession of other head coaches, most recently, Cael Sanderson. During the years since the 1953 NCAAs, there were no more national team titles ... until now.

There are a couple significant aspects that link Penn State's two national team titles. In both 1953 and 2011, the Nittany Lions had just one individual champ -- Hud Samson 58 years ago, and Quentin Wright this year. What's more, Cael and Company could claim five NCAA All-Americans ... the same number as in 1953.

What are the prospects for Penn State adding to its collection of NCAA championships? Some college wrestling fans are already using the word "dynasty," anticipating more team titles from Sanderson, his current roster, and already-committed recruits. Only time will tell.

Two books were instrumental in the writing of this story: Jay Hammond's The History of Collegiate Wrestling, and a book specifically about the 1953 NCAAs, A Turning Point by Jamie Moffatt and Roger Olesen.

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@intermatwrestle.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.

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