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Olympic gold medalist, NCAA champ Bill Smith passes

Bill Smith with UNI wrestling coach Dave McCuskey (Photo/NWHOF)

Olympic gold medalist. Two-time NCAA champ. Successful wrestling coach at all levels. National Wrestling Hall of Fame honoree.

All these describe Bill Smith, who died Tuesday in a nursing home in Humboldt, Iowa at age 89.

Smith won the gold medal in freestyle at 160.5 pounds at the 1952 Olympics, the only U.S. wrestler to have won a championship at the Games in Helsinki, Finland. Four years later he won the U.S. Olympic trials at 174 pounds -- pinning Oklahoma Sooner superstar Dan Hodge in the finals -- but later was declared ineligible for the Games because he already had worked as a coach, breaking the rules defining "amateur athletics" of that era. (Hodge went on to wrestle in Smith's place at the '56 Melbourne Olympics, winning a silver medal.)

Bill Smith (Photo/NWHOF)
Prior to competing in the Olympics, Bill Smith made a name for himself at what was then called Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Smith won back-to-back NCAA Division I championships for ISTC at 165 pounds in 1949 and 1950, compiling a near-perfect 52-0-1 collegiate career record. He was a key ingredient in the Tutors winning the NCAA team title in 1950 after placing second the previous year. Smith was also a three-time National AAU Freestyle champion at 165 pounds from 1949-51.

Born in Portland, Oregon in September 1928, William Thomas Smith launched his wrestling career at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs, Iowa where he placed twice at the Iowa state wrestling championships, once as runner-up and another year in third place. The wrestling room at his high school alma mater is named in his honor.

It was at Thomas Jefferson where Bill Smith met his college coach Dave McCuskey, who was seeking a lighter-weight wrestler (Dick Lewis), and ended up also recruiting Smith, who had already accepted a scholarship to wrestle at the University of Nebraska which had been arranged by his father.

Years later, when asked to name his fiercest on-the-mat opponent, Bill Smith was quick to name some of his college teammates. "Bill Koll (three-time NCAA champ for UNI, 1946-1948) was the toughest person I ever wrestled. He would just chew you up," Smith said in the book "Tutors to Panthers: A Brief History of UNI Athletics." "Bill Nelson would also crunch you on the mat. It was either toughen up or get killed in that room. The room made me a collegiate champion, working every day with people like Nelson, Keith Young, and Fred Stoeker, our heavyweight."

After graduating from ISTC/UNI, Bill Smith launched his successful coaching career that spanned many levels of competition. He started at Rock Island High School on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River in the Quad Cities, where, in four seasons, he produced a state high school team championship and a 57-5 record. Smith then headed north to coach at Ann Arbor High School in Michigan ... then west to serve at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Smith later moved to California where he coached and served as athletic director at the Olympic Club of San Francisco for nearly a decade. Smith led the powerhouse of open competition to three national team titles in freestyle and four national team titles in Greco-Roman wrestling.

After serving as Canadian Olympic coach in 1968, Smith returned to the high school ranks in California. In 1976, his Clayton Valley team from Concord won the California high school championship, marking Smith as one of the few coaches to guide prep teams to state titles in more than one state. While in California, Smith also coached at Pacific High School, as well as at San Jose State and San Francisco State universities.

Bill Smith at the Olympics (Photo/NWHOF)
For all his accomplishments as a wrestler and coach, William T. Smith was welcomed into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 1978. Prior to that, Smith was inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame on 1972, and the Iowa High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977.

"We are saddened to hear of the passing of Bill Smith, who will always be remembered as one of the sport's greatest wrestlers and coaches," said National Wrestling Hall of Fame Executive Director Lee Roy Smith. "His legendary career as a student athlete, as an Olympian, and as a coach leaves a legacy of inspiration. On behalf of the Hall of Fame, we extend our deepest sympathies and our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends, former wrestlers and students."

Wrestling historian Arno Niemand -- author of "Dream Team '47" about Cornell College of Iowa's winning the team title at the 1947 NCAA Wrestling Championships -- identified Bill Smith as having been the oldest living U.S. Olympic gold medalist at the time of his passing.

"Smith was the last of the great ISTC wrestling champs that included Bill Koll, Gerry Leeman, and Bill Nelson," Niemand told InterMat.

"He was one of the giants of U.S. wrestling in the post-World War II era."

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