2016 NCAAs: Best finals ever?

"Best NCAA finals ever!"

That phrase -- or words to that effect -- were used by wrestling writers, commentators and fans after the conclusion of the finals of the 2016 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Madison Square Garden in New York City Saturday night.

The attendance for the 2016 NCAA finals at Madison Square Garden in NYC was 19,270 (Photo/John Sachs,
In terms of action and outcomes, it's hard to argue that the 2016 NCAA finals were right up there. After too many years of NCAA finals where wrestlers were extremely cautious -- seemingly focused on not losing, rather than going out and putting points on the board -- just about every match at The Garden Saturday night had plenty of scoring and scoring attempts, concluding with the highly anticipated marquee match-up between defending heavyweight champ Nick Gwiazdowski of North Carolina State and eventual winner Kyle Snyder of Ohio State, whose come-from-behind scoring knotted up the bout in the closing seconds of regulation, then wrapped up the title in sudden victory. (Even the big Buckeye -- named the tournament's Outstanding Wrestler -- said afterwards, "I think it will go down as one of the most exciting heavyweight matches in NCAA history.")

Whether you think the just-completed finals rank as the "best" (or "among the best"), overall, the 2016 NCAAs will be one of the history books, as the first national college wrestling championships to be ever held in the nearly century-and-a-half history of Madison Square Garden (a venue most folks think of for pro rasslin', not amateur wrestling) ... and one of the best-attended in the 86-year history of the NCAA wrestling championships.

With an eye towards history, this writer thought it might be fun to mention some other examples of NCAA final rounds that might not necessarily rank as "most exciting" or "best" ... but are truly significant for various reasons, and are definitely worth remembering. (Sadly, there is no film or video for most of these events ... so we can't necessarily judge the quality of the wrestling. Unless of course you were there.)

1928 NCAAs

Most of us have strong memories about our first kiss ... first car... first job. Very few of us were at the very first NCAA Wrestling Championships, held at the Iowa State Armory in Ames in March 1928 ... but that inaugural event has significance beyond its "first-ever" aspect. By today's standards, the 1928 NCAAs was tiny: just 15 schools sent a total of 40 wrestlers, competing in only seven weight classes. (For the past decade or so, the NCAA championships have welcomed 330 wrestlers in ten weight classes.) Oklahoma State was the dominant program back then ... with Cowboy wrestlers claiming titles in four of the seven classes at the 1928 NCAAs.

One champ who would have been fun to see in action in Ames nearly 90 years ago was Earl McCready, Oklahoma State heavyweight. Affectionately nicknamed "Moose", the 5'11", 218-pound McCready claimed the first championship in the "unlimited" weight class (back then, there was no top weight limit) by pinning his finals rival, Ralph Freese of the University of Kansas, in just nineteen seconds -- still one of the fastest pins in an NCAA finals bout. (This was back when a wrestler had to hold his opponent's shoulders to the mat for a full three seconds, not one second as today.)

McCready was first ... in a number of ways. The first undefeated wrestler (25-0) to win three NCAA titles. The first foreign-born NCAA champ (born and raised in Canada). The first three-time NCAA champ in any weight class. And the first to win all three title matches by pin ... a distinction shared with only one other three-time NCAA champ in the long history of the championships: Dan Hodge of the University of Oklahoma, 177-pound champ, 1955-57.

1947 NCAAs

Hosted by the University of Illinois in Champaign, the 1947 NCAAs were notable for the success of tiny Cornell College. Located in Mt. Vernon, Iowa -- equidistant from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids -- the private Methodist college with fewer than 1,000 students became the smallest school to ever win an NCAA wrestling team title. (Realize this was back before today's Division II and Division III championships for colleges with lower enrollments).

Composed of a mix of World War II veterans and three "fab" freshmen from Waterloo West High School (Dan Gable's alma mater) -- and coached by Paul Scott -- the Cornell "Dream Team" traveled the country during the regular season, easily handling teams from much larger schools such as Illinois and Lehigh. By the end of the season at the NCAAs, Cornell could claim two individual champs -- freshman Dick Hauser at 121 pounds, and fellow first-year student Lowell Lange at 136 -- a total of three finalists, and six All-Americans. (You can read more about the '47 Cornell wrestling team in a 2007 InterMat feature; for a more detailed account, check out Arno Niemand's excellent book, "Dream Team of '47".

1957 NCAAs

The University of Pittsburgh welcomed the 1957 NCAA Wrestling Championships, which featured 213 wrestlers from 63 schools. The NCAA finals proved to be exciting -- and historically significant -- because of at least three title matches.

In the 123-pound finals, Pitt's Ed Peery must have felt the weight of the world on his shoulders. If the two-time defending champ were to win the title, he would join his father Rex Peery and older brother Hugh who already had three national titles (Rex, for Oklahoma State in the 1930s; Hugh Peery, at Pitt, 1952-54). If that weren't enough pressure, Ed was being coached by his dad ... in his home gym. Ed Peery fell behind Oklahoma State's Harmon Leslie, 7-4, in the third period ... but managed to tie it up in regulation. The match went into overtime, with each wrestler scoring two points. It came down to the officials, who declared Ed Peery the winner. The three Peerys still own the distinction of being the only family to have won every one of their title matches (back when freshmen were not eligible to wrestle varsity).

In the championship match at 147, Simon Roberts of the University of Iowa wrestled familiar foe Ron Gray of Iowa State to a 2-2 tie in regulation. Roberts rode Gray out in the first overtime period, then scored an escape in the second to win 2-0 to win the title ... becoming the first African-American to win an NCAA wrestling championship. (Four years earlier, Roberts made history as the first black champ at the Iowa state championships ... defeating Ron Gray in the finals then, too.) Interestingly, most newspaper stories about the '57 NCAAs did not mention Roberts or his skin color ... but one African-American who made note of it was a young wrestler named Bobby Douglas about an hour away from Pittsburgh in eastern Ohio, who became the first two-time high school champ of color in the Buckeye State (1959, 1961).

At 177, Dan Hodge was competing in his last college match. The University of Oklahoma wrestler known as "Dangerous Dan" and "Homicide Hodge" was undefeated in collegiate action, having pinned 80% of his opponents. Ron Flemming of Franklin & Marshall joined that group of fall guys, having his shoulders put to the mat by Hodge in the third period. Hodge was named Outstanding Wrestler of the tournament for the second straight year ... then, a couple weeks later, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the only time an amateur wrestler has been featured on the cover of the iconic sports weekly as a wrestler in its more than 60-year history. (And, yes, this is the same Dan Hodge whose name graces the Hodge Trophy given each year to the nation's most dominant college wrestler.)

1970 NCAAs

Held at McGaw Hall (now Welsh-Ryan Arena) on the campus of Northwestern University outside Chicago, the 1970 NCAAs held the record for the most wrestlers participating -- a whopping 394 ... 64 more than today's top limit. However, after three days of sorting through all those participants on the way to the championship round on Saturday, all attention came down on just two of those wrestlers -- Dan Gable of Iowa State, and Larry Owings of the University of Washington -- in the 142-pound finals.

Gable, a senior, had been undefeated at Waterloo West High and as a Cyclone. Prior to the NCAAs, he had been presented with a number of awards ... and, just hours before the finals, was asked to record a TV commercial for ABC-TV's "Wide World of Sports" (which would show an edited version of the finals a couple weeks later) where he was to say, "Hi, I'm Dan Gable. Come watch me finish my career 182-0" -- a line he had trouble delivering.

Meanwhile, Owings was an audacious sophomore with a set purpose at the 1970 NCAAs: Beat Dan Gable. He dropped down two weight classes, and let the media know who was in his line of sights. Gable saw one of those newspaper stories with Owings' statements ... and, in a 1999 interview, admitted the UW Husky's comments rattled him.

The match itself was action-packed, a seesaw scoring battle that went the distance -- a rare situation for Gable, who was accustomed to ending a high percentage of his bouts with a pin. With just three seconds left, Gable realized he needed a takedown to tie up the score. That didn't happen. Larry Owings was crowned the champ at 142, and Gable left the arena with a 181-1 overall prep-college record. (For details on the match itself, check out a 2010 InterMat account of the match ... as well as video online.)

More than 45 years later, this single match remains one of the most talked-about within the U.S. amateur wrestling community. It was named the "Best Match" by wrestling historians and fans in online balloting for the 75th anniversary of NCAA wrestling in 2005.

Other contenders

Last year, the NCAA asked wrestling fans to weigh in with their vote for "most epic" college finals of all time from eight candidates selected by the collegiate sports organization. The 2003 NCAA 197-pound finals (where Minnesota's Damion Hahn scored a takedown on Lehigh's Jon Trenge in the final three seconds in a thrilling come-from-behind win) earned the most votes over other modern-day classics such as Kyle Dake vs. David Taylor at the 2013 NCAAs, Darrion Caldwell upsetting Brent Metcalf at the 2009 NCAAs, and the 2007 NCAA finals match featuring Iowa's Mark Perry vs. Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks among the choices.

You probably have additional finals matches in mind that you'd rank as "all-time greatest." Your list may include incredible upsets ... or action-packed bouts where the score went back-and-forth between the two finalists ... or matches with poignant, emotional back stories (one last chance at a title; competing for a dying relative or friend). It's easy to imagine that the finals at the 2016 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships will withstand the test of time and still be thought of as "best ever" and "epic" a decade or more from now.


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