Allie Morrison: Golden boy of 1928 Olympics

In honor of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials being held in Iowa City, it only makes sense to honor the first wrestler originally from the state of Iowa to win an Olympic gold medal.

No, it wasn't Tom Brands. Nor was it Dan Gable. Some of you might be thinking, "It's gotta be Terry McCann!" who wrestled for the University of Iowa, and, yes, won the gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome ... but was a native of Chicago.

And, to the guy in the back of the room, frantically waving his upstretched hand, so sure he'll win the prize by naming Glen Brand, the graduate of Iowa State did win the gold medal at the 1948 London Olympics. But Brand was hardly the first. Another Iowan won his gold twenty years earlier.

Allie Morrison
The first native son of Iowa to win an Olympic gold medal in wrestling -- or, actually, in any sport -- was Marshalltown's own Allie Morrison, who earned his gold at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.

For those of you who are alums of one of the wrestling powers located in the state of Iowa, you're probably wondering where Morrison wrestled in college. No, it wasn't University of Iowa ... nor was it Iowa State ... nor what was known as Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa). Nor was it Cornell College or Wartburg or any of the current Division III programs.

Iowa-born Allie Morrison wrestled for the Fighting Illini at the University of Illinois.

Morrison's path intersected with some true sports legends. In his senior year, his high school wrestling coach later became a legendary college basketball coach ... at Illinois, he played football with one of the all-time gridiron greats ... at the Olympics, he became friends with another gold medalist who went on to fame and fortune playing Tarzan in the movies ... and indirectly inspired a kid in Chicago to pursue his own Olympic wrestling dream.

So ... why haven't you heard of Morrison? For starters, his gold medal was won 84 years ago. It doesn't help that he wrestled at an out-of-state college ... and that he was left off the Sports Illustrated magazine's100 Greatest Athletes of Iowa list.

All the more reasons to get to know Morrison.

The Marshalltown mat Bobcat

Allie Roy Morrison was born June 29, 1904 in Marshalltown, in the central part of Iowa. According to his only daughter, Bessie Morrison Svehla, Allie was the son of Ethan Allen Morrison, a railroad man, and Sarah Jean Morrison. Bessie described her father Allie as "a shorter version of his father," standing about 5 feet, 5 inches tall.

Allie Morrison was a multi-sport athlete at Marshalltown High School, involved in track, football and wrestling. Morrison was undefeated in regular competition as a wrestler, competing at 135 pounds. He was a two-time Iowa high school state champ as a sophomore and junior in the years immediately before the Iowa High School Athletic Association sanctioned the state championships, starting in 1926. Morrison's only loss was as a sophomore, attempting to make the U.S. Olympic wrestling team to compete at the 1924 Olympics in Antwerp.

As a high school senior, Morrison was declared ineligible to wrestle because of his age (21). However, that didn't stop him from continuing his involvement with the Marshalltown Bobcat mat program. A young teacher who had just arrived at Marshalltown High from Kansas was given the assignment of coaching the wrestling program. The teacher, Adolph Rupp, had been a basketball star in high school and at the University of Kansas, and knew nothing about wrestling ... so he asked Morrison to coach his former teammates, while Rupp served as the adult advisor to the program and Morrison.

The arrangement between Rupp and Morrison worked; the Bobcats won the first-ever official Iowa high school state title in 1926. Rupp -- who went on to fame as head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky from 1930 to 1972, leading the Wildcats to four NCAA titles -- gave full credit to Morrison. At the team's end-of-season awards banquet, Rupp said, "Yes, I was the coach of this team, but I was not the man responsible for our state championship. That man is sitting right over there ..." -- pointing to Allie Morrison.

Allie Morrison competed in at least one event as a high school senior -- the 1926 AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) national championships -- where he won his first major title outside his native Iowa.

The Iowan becomes a Fighting Illini

As expected, Allie Morrison was recruited by the University of Iowa to wrestle for the Hawkeyes ... and there was considerable pressure from his hometown fans to continue his mat career in-state. However, Morrison opted to go to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Why did Morrison choose to be a Fighting Illini instead of a Hawkeye? His only daughter, Bessie, weighed in: "Iowa really wanted him, but Adolph Rupp told him that he had friends at Illinois ... I also think he may have wanted to get away from the state of Iowa."

Paul Prehn
Another possible reason: University of Illinois was one of the leading powers in college wrestling at the time, having won the majority of Big Ten team titles in the 1920s. Illini head wrestling coach Paul Prehn was a significant figure in the sport of that era, having authored the 1925 classic how-to-wrestle book, Scientific Methods of Wrestling (which is available for reading online). As head coach, Prehn guided the Fighting Illini to a 47-3 record from 1920-1928. (In 1928, Prehn left his coaching job at U of I to become chairman of the Illinois State Athletic Commission.)

At Illinois, Morrison crafted a successful wrestling career, compiling a perfect 22-0 record, and winning the 1928 Big Ten title at 135 pounds at Indiana University in Bloomington. A few weeks later, Morrison chose not to compete in the first-ever NCAA wrestling championships, held at Iowa State in March 1928, instead, choosing to focus on the AAU national championships, where he won his third title.

In addition to wrestling at the University of Illinois, Allie Morrison played football for the Fighting Illini. One of his gridiron teammates was yet another sports legend, Red Grange, who was named greatest college football player of all time by ESPN in 2008, and, in 2011, selected Greatest Big Ten Icon by the Big Ten Network.

Wedding bells ... then traveling to the 1928 Olympics

Weeks after winning his third AAU mat title, Allie Morrison competed at the 1928 U.S. Olympic Trials in Grand Rapids, Mich., winning the event ... and earned a place on the U.S. freestyle Olympic team that would compete at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Before heading to Europe, Morrison and the other Olympic wrestlers trained at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

On July 11, 1928, the U.S. Olympic athletes boarded the U.S.S. Roosevelt in New York City for the trip to the Netherlands. Allie Morrison was joined by his new bride, the former Ora Bass, his hometown sweetheart who he met at a Halloween costume party their sophomore year. The popular Marshalltown mat star was immediately drawn to the-then 17-year-old who was dressed as a ballerina.

Allie Morrison at the 1928 Olympics
Early in their relationship, Ora's father wasn't impressed with Morrison. John V. Bass, a wealthy local mill owner who founded what is now ConAgra Foods, didn't want his daughter and Morrison to attend the same college ... so he paid for Ora to go to Drake University, knowing the private college in Des Moines was not on the list of schools actively recruiting Morrison. Despite this forced separation, Ora and Allie stayed in touch, and, after one year, Ora left Drake, heading east to Champaign-Urbana to be with her matman boyfriend and encourage him to pursue his dream to wrestle at the 1928 Olympics. (As Bessie Morrison Svehla said in the interview for this article, "Mom said to dad, 'You've got to win the Olympics because I've never been out of Iowa!'")

By the time Ora and Allie became husband and wife in 1927, John Bass agreed to treat the young couple to a honeymoon tour of Europe ... with her parents joining them on the adventure. According to grandson Jeff Svehla, Allie's parents were not able to go to Amsterdam because they could not afford the trip.

On the mat in Amsterdam

Allie Morrison competed in the featherweight bracket at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam in late July and early August. According to the Marshall Times, the Olympic Games used a conventional bracket system, except that wrestlebacks were limited to consolation matches to determine second and third place. A wrestler had to win two of three bouts with an opponent to advance to the next round. And, for the first time, a country could have only one wrestler in each weight class.

Kustaa Pihlajamaki
On July 30, Morrison drew a bye in the first round ... then, later that day, in the quarterfinals, the Marshalltown native defeated Pierre Bressnick of Belgium to stay in the hunt for gold.

The next day, Morrison encountered his first potential roadblock: Kustaa Pihlajamaki of Finland, the prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal in this weight class. After all, Pihlajamaki had won the gold medal at bantamweight at the 1924 Paris Olympics (and go on to win gold at the 1936 Berlin Games). The National Wrestling Hall of Fame describes the Finn as "one of the best European wrestlers of all time." However, as the Marshall Times reported in its 1995 profile of Morrison, "Allie whipped him soundly in two straight matches" in the semifinals.

Now the Iowan was to face Hans Minder of Switzerland for the gold medal. In the match on August 1, Morrison defeated Minder to win the gold medal. (Pihlajamaki and Minder wrestled each other to determine their medal status; Pihlajamaki won the match, and the silver medal; Minder got bronze.)

1928 U.S. Olympic Team
Allie Roy Morrison was the only U.S. wrestler to be awarded gold at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. What's more, he was the first American wrestler to earn that honor since the modern Olympics were established in 1896.

While in Amsterdam, Morrison met fellow Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller. According to Morrison's grandson Jeff Svehla, Morrison became friends with the famed swimmer who went on to fame and fortune playing Tarzan in a series of movies in the 1930s.

Celebration ... then a career cut short

Following his triumph at the 1924 Olympics, Allie Morrison was among the U.S. athletes honored with the tradition of a tickertape parade in New York City. There were additional parades across the nation for the Olympic heroes ... and one for Morrison in his hometown of Marshalltown.

Morrison returned to University of Illinois to resume his education ... and his wrestling career. However, on March 2, 1929, in a dual meet with the University of Chicago, Morrison broke some of the vertebrae in his neck. According to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Morrison completed the match -- and the rest of his junior year. However, fearing paralysis, doctors urged Morrison to stop wrestling ... so he retired from the mat, but not from the sport.

After graduating from Illinois in 1930 with a degree in English and physical education, Morrison moved into coaching, starting his career at Penn State (where daughter Bessie Jane was born, Ora and Allie's only child). However, according to Bessie, the young couple missed their families back in Iowa, so they returned to the Midwest ... specifically, the Omaha area, where they spent the rest of their lives.

A coaching career, interrupted by war

Allie Morrison coached football and wrestling at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, just outside Omaha. As a coach, Morrison developed a reputation as a tough disciplinarian. In a 1996 interview with the Marshall Times, Bessie shared a story of how her father, thinking that his wrestlers were getting too cocky during an undefeated season, took his team to a nearby supper club for a celebratory steak dinner. As they finished their meal, coach Morrison delivered a speech: "You guys are far too confident, and you're all going to get beat if you don't get back down to earth right away." Morrison promised more strenuous workouts, then delivered the punchline: "Oh, yeah, we're starting tonight. You guys will have to walk back to town because I sent the bus back an hour ago!" The coach then left with his wife in her car.

Morrison later left college coaching for the prep ranks, taking a job teaching English at Omaha Central High School ... and taking the reins of the Eagles wrestling program for a decade. In his last four seasons at Central, his wrestlers won four consecutive state team titles from 1939 through 1942.

Joe Scarpello
One of Morrison's most accomplished wrestlers at Central was Joe Scarpello, a three-time Nebraska state champ (1940-1942) who owns the distinction of never having been taken down in high school. Morrison encouraged Scarpello to follow in his own footsteps by participating in the national AAU competition as a senior. However, the coach sent his wrestler to New Orleans with this message: "If you don't win, don't come back." Not a problem; Scarpello won the AAU heavyweight title in 1942. After service in World War II, Scarpello went on to wrestle at University of Iowa, where he became the school's first four-time Big Ten champ (1947-1950), and a three-time NCAA finalist, winning the 175-pound crown in 1947 and 1950.

Morrison served in World War II, in the U.S. Navy as a petty officer. According to his daughter, the 5'5" Morrison "had to stand on his tippy-toes to get in."

After his military service, Morrison returned to Omaha, where he launched the new wrestling program at what was then called Omaha University -- now University of Nebraska-Omaha, which was an NCAA Division II powerhouse until the program was eliminated at the end of the 2010-2011 season. Morrison coached at Omaha University from 1949-1952.

Later, Allie Morrison left coaching to run a tavern. His grandson Jeff Svehla says that Morrison would offer free drinks to anyone who could beat him in arm wrestling ... but no one ever did. Svehla also reported that his grandfather soaked his hands in vinegar to make them tougher.

In 1960, Allie Morrison lost the love of his life when his wife Ora passed away unexpectedly in her 50s. Six years later -- on April 18, 1966 -- Morrison died at age 62. His past wrestlers served as his funeral pallbearers.

Allie Roy Morrison's legacy lives on. He was welcomed into the Iowa High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977, the Nebraska Scholastic Wrestling Coaches Association in 1982, the University of Nebraska-Omaha Athletics Hall of Fame inaugural class in 1996, the Des Moines Register Sports Hall of Fame in 2008, and as a Distinguished Member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1993. A high school tournament in his hometown of Marshalltown bears his name, the Allie Morrison Duals.

Morrison was also credited as being the inspiration for another gold-medal-winning wrestler with Iowa connections: Terry McCann, Big Ten and NCAA champ at the University of Iowa in the mid-1950s who went on to win the gold medal in freestyle at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

McCann, a Chicagoan, claimed he had been inspired to get into wrestling by seeing a photo of Morrison in a magazine. "I was at a candy store and saw a picture of this little guy, Allie Morrison, getting a gold medal for wrestling," McCann told wrestling writer/historian Mike Chapman for his 2006 book, Legends of the Mat. "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."

A proud daughter fondly remembers her gold-medal dad

As the only daughter of Ora and Allie Morrison, Bessie Jane Morrison Svehla has strong memories of her father. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1931, when her father was a coach at Penn State.

"He was a very, very strict father," said Morrison Svehla in an interview for this profile. "I couldn't date 'til I was 16."

That didn't stop her from fantasizing about the young men who wrestled for her dad. "I went to as many wrestling matches as I could, to see which boys were the cutest," said Morrison Svehla. "I had crushes on some of them. However, dad told me, 'You can't go out with any of them.'" In the 1995 Marshall Times article, Morrison Svehla said, "He said that he knew far too much about each athlete on the squad to let any of them take me out!"

That said, Morrison Svehla told InterMat, "I'm very thankful he was strict with me."

"I was strong-headed like my dad. I even look like him."

"I was like him because of his determined-ness. I think that's why he won the Olympics."

When asked if her dad talked about his gold medal, Morrison Svehla said that the Olympic gold medal was on display in a big frame in the dining room ... then, later, when he owned the tavern, he put an Olympic plaque -- but not the gold medal -- on display behind the bar.

His daughter told a rather poignant tale of one situation where dad got involved in a presentation of his pinnacle athletic accomplishment: "I was in high school," Morrison Svehla told InterMat. "I mentioned dad was in the Olympics. Some students were doubters. He stood outside the door of a classroom while I showed my class the Olympic medal, as well as his football and track medals, too."

Bessie Morrison Svehla isn't the only person to think highly of Allie Morrison. No less a wrestling authority than Cliff Keen weighed in with his assessment of the 1928 Olympic gold medalist. Keen, who wrestled at Oklahoma State in the early 1920s, then served as head wrestling coach at University of Michigan from 1925 to 1970, told Jeff Svehla, "Your grandfather was the most dominant wrestler in the U.S. at the time."


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morrisjohnson (1) about 10 and a half years ago
(sorry, I accidently hit the submit button)
As I was saying I went to D.III Stanislaus St.for one reason - to wrestle for/with head coach Buck Deadrich. Buck was on the 1972 Olympic Greco Team and won several national titles in Greco, Freestyle and Sombo @ 220 lbs and Hwt. While he was from Ca., he wrestled for the great Larry Kristoff of SIU- Carbonodale, so he must have picked up some of that mid-western meanness! Anyhow, Buck strongly encouraged me to go compete in the AAU Jr. World (20-under) Nationals/Team trials in Lincoln NE. The World University Games Team Trial were also being held t here along with a month long training camp. Buck said it was a great opportunity for me prior to my Jr. year. I was pretty excited about the opportunity, but I told him that I didn't have the $$ to fly out to Lincoln. He said to let him worry abou