1947 Cornell College Wrestling TeamEven for the programs that are loaded with talent, the odds of claiming the national team title are very long. In the nearly 80 years of NCAA wrestling championships, the vast majority of team titles have been won by just five teams: Iowa, Iowa State, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State. Of course, there have been exceptions, including Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) in 1950 … Penn State in 1953 … Michigan State in 1967 … and Arizona State in 1988.
Arguably the biggest "exception" involved the smallest school ever to win a team title at the NCAAs: Cornell College in 1947. That year, the school with just 650 students located in eastern Iowa snatched the team crown from the mat powerhouses of the post-World War II era, Oklahoma State and Iowa State Teachers … becoming the smallest school to ever win the team title, and the only private college to do so. (This was before today's three-division system.) What's more, Cornell became the first Iowa-based school to win the NCAA team title … earning that distinction ahead of the much larger state schools that are home to the Hawkeyes, Cyclones and Panthers.
How did Cornell do it? With two individual champions, and a total of six All-Americans (the top four placers in 1947) out of eight weight classes. But there's so much more to the story…
We're not in New York
Just to be clear from the start… the Cornell that won the NCAA wrestling team title sixty years ago is not Cornell University, the Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York. In fact, at its website, Cornell College lets it be known that it's actually older than the university of similar name in upstate New York, and claims to have more alums listed in Who's Who of America. While Cornell University's sports teams are known as the Big Red, back in the 1940s, Cornell College's teams were called the Purple. (They are now the Rams … but the school colors remain royal purple and white.)
Cornell College was founded by the Methodists in 1853, and is located in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, a prosperous, picturesque town of about 4,000 residents situated about a half-hour north of Iowa City, and an equal distance east of Cedar Rapids. Walk around the rolling, leafy-green campus -- one of only two to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- and it's easy to imagine the place as it was sixty years ago, when the Purple ruled the college wrestling scene. Although Cornell's current total enrollment of approximately 1,200 students is about double what it was in 1947, many of the buildings on the Hilltop -- the main part of the campus -- are from the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Meet Coach Paul Scott
Paul Scott was a long-time fixture on the Cornell College campus, starting as a college student in the late 1920s. Born in 1905 in West Liberty, Iowa -- about 40 miles southeast of Mt. Vernon -- "Scotty" was a natural athlete, playing basketball and baseball in high school. Coming to Cornell to play those sports, the 5'4", 125-pound Scott's dreams of being a college cager and star of the diamond were derailed by some unusual circumstances. However, according to an unpublished interview with the late writer Robert Hilton, Scott said he "kind of lied" about his football experience when he registered at Cornell (he had been on the bench in high school, quitting in disgust when not put into a football game when his team was being trounced). Despite that lack of experience, Scott apparently impressed head coach Dick Barker, who made him quarterback by the end of his freshman season.
Paul ScottThe football coach also saw potential for Paul Scott beyond the gridiron. Scott, quoted in a profile written by Robert Hilton for Jay Hammond's book The History of Collegiate Wrestling, says that coach Barker told the quarterback to "get my ass out for wrestling." (It so happens that Dick Barker was also the wrestling coach at Cornell.) Scott didn't disappoint his coach. He was a conference champ at 121 pounds, invited to try out for the 1928 Olympic team, and was captain of both the wrestling and football teams his senior year.
After graduating from Cornell College in 1929, Paul Scott was unable to afford graduate school to pursue his dream of being a sociologist, so he went into teaching and coaching in high schools and small colleges in Iowa and Missouri. During his summers off, he earned a master's degree in physical education health at Columbia University.
In the spring of 1941, Paul Scott was invited back to his college alma mater, inheriting the head wrestling coaching position from his college mentor, Dick Barker. In his first season as coach in 1942, Scott's Purple wrestlers compiled an 8-2 record in a schedule loaded with Big Ten opponents. In a war-shortened 1943 season, Cornell had a perfect 8-0 record, and placed second in the team standings at the national AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) meet.
While the wrestling program was suspended during World War II, Scott worked in Cornell's admissions office, and as a referee in high school wrestling matches, where he got a firsthand look at potential Purple grapplers.
The war and wrestling
World War II had a profound affect on college wrestling. There were no NCAA championships from 1942 to 1945; most able-bodied, college-age men went off to serve in the military, so most collegiate wrestling programs were suspended. Although the war ended in the summer of 1945, it took a while for most programs to get back to pre-war strength as wrestlers slowly found their way back to campus. Most programs competed in fewer events in the 1945-46 season than they had before the war. In fact, according to The History of Collegiate Wrestling, the NCAA had not planned to have a college wrestling championship in 1946, but Oklahoma State offered to host the event… and, in fact, orchestrated a letter-writing campaign. The NCAA relented, and 1946 NCAAs took place at Gallagher Hall in Stillwater.
Because of the last-minute scheduling of the championships, participation was pretty much limited to Midwestern schools. In fact, only fifty-four wrestlers from seventeen schools found their way to the 1946 NCAAs … the smallest turnout since the first NCAAs in 1928. (By comparison, the 1941 NCAAs at Lehigh welcomed 129 wrestlers from thirty-six schools. The 1942 NCAAs - which occurred after the US had entered the war -- saw 79 wrestlers from twenty-three schools compete.)
In the years immediately after the war, college campuses experienced an influx of students, fueled by war veterans taking advantage of the G.I. Bill that paid college tuition for those who served in the military. By the 1946-47 season, college wrestling was as strong as ever, with these vets -- as well as kids straight out of high school - flocking to the sport in record numbers.
Cornell College was no exception. According to wrestling historian Arno Niemand -- who's writing a book about the 1947 Cornell team -- "Coach Paul Scott had lost eight of his eleven starters to the war in 1943."
After the war, Cornell's wrestling program was forced to start fresh.
"Two-thirds of the guys on that team had never seen a wrestling mat," Richard Small, one of the 1947 Cornell team members honored at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Honors Weekend in June 2007, told Roger Moore of the Stillwater NewsPress. "We had the nucleus of three guys who came from Waterloo West, but most of us were just hard-nosed country boys." (Small, originally from Olmsted Falls in Ohio, was one of those who had not wrestled in high school.)
The three that Small is referring to -- Dick Hauser, Leo Thomsen, and Lowell Lange -- were all 1946 Iowa state champs who came out of Waterloo West, a high school with five straight team titles from 1941-1946, and an enduring tradition of turning out great grapplers over the years, including Dan Gable in the 1960s.
Lowell Lange, Leo Thomsen, and Dick HauserThe Wahawk trio of Hauser, Thomsen and Lange probably could have wrestled at any college anywhere in the country. Many in the wrestling world would have bet on Iowa State Teachers College (ISTC) for three basic reasons: it was one of the top wrestling programs in the country, with all-time greats such as Bill Nelson, Gerry Leeman and Bill Koll in the starting lineup … it was coached by the highly respected Dave McCuskey … and, being in Cedar Falls, it was close to their hometown of Waterloo.
Here's how Paul Scott described the wooing process to bring the talented threesome to Cornell College: "I refereed the state meet and knew how good they were," Scott told wrestling writer/historian Mike Chapman in a 1997 interview for a cover story in the Cornell Report alumni magazine to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Purple winning the NCAA team title. "I also knew they came from solid families and I tried to convince their parents that Cornell would be a good place for them. Dick Hauser's dad ran a restaurant in Waterloo, and I would stop there from time to time. Dick was the key, I felt, sort of the leader of the three. Dick's father had confidence in me."
"One of the boys' fathers asked Dave (McCuskey) if these kids were able to beat a senior, would they make the team at ISTC. Dave apparently said no, not if the other boy was a senior. And that did it, I think," according to coach Scott.
"I was out for track and didn't get down there (for a visit to Cornell)," recalls Lowell Lange, quoted in the 1997 alumni magazine article. "Dave McCuskey was really after me and I was planning on going there. But when Hauser and Thomsen said they were going to Cornell, I decided to go too. The three of us wanted to go somewhere together."
A road trip with "Scotty" may have also clinched the deal. In 1946, Paul Scott invited the three Waterloo West wrestlers to go with him to the national AAU championships at the New York Athletic Club. (High school wrestlers were eligible to compete in the event.) Hauser and Lange won national titles… while Scott won over the Wahawk trio. "On the trip to New York City I got to know Scott," Lowell Lange told Robert Hilton in his unpublished profile of the Cornell coach. "He was a guy you couldn't help but like. He had an uncanny memory for names, and no one could tell a story better."
A solid lineup at every weight
The fab freshmen from Waterloo West wrestled as starters at the lighter end of the Cornell College lineup, with Dick Hauser at 121 pounds (who teammate Richard Small considered to be "the most dominant wrestler at that immediate time"), Leo Thomsen at 128, and Lowell Lange at 136.
The Purple were blessed with a balance of mat talent in the middle and upper weights as well. Most of them were veterans of the military … and the wrestling mat. Among the starters who coach Scott had seen in AAU action before they went off to war: Rodger Snook, Fred Dexter, and Al Partin. Kent Lange -- Lowell's older brother -- had served in the Air Force in World War II.
Nicknamed the Milkman, Rodger Snook, a native of Newton, New Jersey, and a three-time state champ, wrestled primarily in the 145-pound weight class for Cornell. Waterloo's Kent Lange wrestled at 155, while the 165-pound starting slot was usually held by "blond bomber" Fred Dexter of Davenport, Iowa. Stepping up to wrestle heavyweight was Al Partin of Maywood, Illinois, who, according to the The Cornellian student newspaper, was lighter in weight than most big men he battled.
Dale ThomasRounding out the starting line-up (usually competing at 175 pounds) was Dale "Whitey" Thomas, a native of nearby Marion, Iowa, who brought a wealth of experience to the Cornell wrestling team when he came on board in the middle of the 1947 season. A 1943 AAU national champ who never wrestled in high school, Thomas served in the Navy, then coached at an Iowa high school for one year before pursuing his dream of playing football in the Big Ten. While at Purdue, he told coach Scott that he would rather be back at Cornell. R.K. Scott, son of coach Scott, said, "He convinced Tug Wilson, Big Ten commissioner, to let Thomas transfer to Cornell."
According to Richard Small, Dale Thomas wrestled in the Purdue vs. Michigan dual, then joined the Cornell wrestlers as they headed east to battle Lehigh. To his fellow Purple wrestlers, "Whitey" was good as gold; he was elected team captain.
Insights into Paul Scott as coach
"Paul Scott was the first modern college wrestling coach," asserts Richard Small. "At the time, most coaches waited for wrestlers to come to them. (Scott) went out and actively looked for talent. For instance, he saw Snook in action at the AAUs. He also saw Al Partin working out with Henry Wittenberg in New York."
"(Scott) had a team that was well experienced," Lowell Lange told Robert Hilton in 2003. "He wasn't a teacher of wrestling. His influence was in fortitude and conditioning. He was an incredible person who made you naturally feel wanted."
In that Hilton profile, Dale Thomas is quoted as saying, "(Scott) had not kept up with all the latest moves in wrestling. But he loved the sport and he was a salesman. He put a spirit into you that you never wanted to stop. Every time you stepped out on to the mat, you knew he was right there with you."
"He was like a second father to me."
R.K. Scott, who was seven years old when his father coached the Cornell team to its national titles, said, "As the only child, I had more access to what was going on. I was able to travel with the team. I went to the gym to watch (the wrestlers) work out every day."
Paul Scott's only son shared a story that provides a multi-faceted look into how the coach interacted with his wrestlers: "Dad would give each wrestler a rubdown before each match, and give specific instructions to each man. Then, once that was done, he'd raise hell to get them fired up."
"In coaching, you learn a lot as you go along," Paul Scott told Robert Hilton. "It's an awful power you have over kids. You work on attitude, positive thinking, motivation. I never had a guy who didn't give me his best effort."
Cornell's Cinderella season
During the 1946-47 regular season, the Cornell wrestlers took on some of the top teams in the country at the time, including Iowa State (champs of the Big Six -- predecessor to the Big Twelve of today), Illinois (team champs of the Big Nine, now known as the Big Ten), Wisconsin, and Nebraska.
R.K. Scott remembers accompanying his dad and the wrestling team to away meets. "Travel conditions were rugged. No fancy hotels for the team; dad knew every YMCA in the country. The guys never complained."
Look through the Cornell College archives about the 1947 wrestling team, and there are many mentions of the old International Harvester truck/station wagon with serious engine problems … and no heater. According to R.K. Scott, that was just one of the vehicles that formed the caravan that took the Purple wrestlers to out-of-town events. "We would ride in our family's '43 Mercury four-door, and then there was the Salisbury's new Dodge wagon. There were two brothers on the team (John and James Salisbury) whose dad was the Dodge dealer in Waterloo, and let them use the wagon."
"There would sometimes be fights along the way, arguing who got to ride in which car."
This caravan took the Cornell matmen on a big road trip to the east in early February, where they topped Army 27-2… bested McBurney Athletic Club in New York City 24-7 … and got a 23-13 win over the Ithaca, New York Athletic Club.
Arguably the biggest dual of the trip was taking on Lehigh in their home gym. According to Cornell wrestler Richard Small: "Two Cornell guys had ear problems, so Scott asked (Lehigh coach Billy) Sheridan if they could wear headgear. Sheridan said no. Scott then said, 'We'll show those sons of bitches!'" (Back then, headgear was not mandatory, and, in fact, was a rather rare sight in college wrestling.)
Show them they did. The Purple wrestlers were not cowed by Lehigh's reputation -- or their 3,000 fans. In fact, Cornell handed Sheridan his worst defeat in 36 years of coaching with a 36-0 shut-out, with pins scored by Hauser, Thomsen, Lowell Lange, Snook, Dexter and Partin. (Listening to an audio recording of the Lehigh radio broadcast of the dual captured by Gordon "Rick" Meredith, Cornell's student manager, it's incredible to hear the Lehigh crowd grow progressively quieter as their men fell one-by-one to the visitors from Mt. Vernon, Iowa.)
In their wake, the Cornell team left some believers back east. Fred Nonnemacher, sports editor of the Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) Globe-Times said, "The best team in my 26 years of watching the man top teams of the east and west, and every NCAA meet but one during that time. One Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) team of the mid-thirties might compare but Cornell has more finesse than any I recall, and there is not a weak link in the entire outfit." West Point coach Lloyd Appleton -- a wrestling teammate of Scott's at Cornell College -- declared, "Probably the greatest team ever to hit the east."
Fans and the media back in Mt. Vernon were also believers in the power of the Purple. The Cornellian provided extensive coverage of each dual meet (rivaling that of other winter sports), and of the wrestlers themselves. All that ink helped fuel fan interest, too. According to coach Paul Scott, "Students would start camping out in front of the gym at noon and build fires on the sidewalk to keep warm. The gym seated about 1,000 but it would be packed all the way to the very top. They hung from the rafters, literally."
On the road or at home, the Cornell wrestlers must have been an impressive sight even before they stepped out onto the mat. They entered the gym in what The Cornellian described as "purple boxing robes." For their wrestling matches, they wore purple tights with a white stripe on the side of each leg, running from waist to foot, with white shorts that fit snugly over the tights. Normally, the Purple grapplers wrestled stripped to the waist, as wrestlers at many college programs in the Midwest did in the 1940s. (Shirtless wrestling was legal under NCAA rules up to the mid 1960s; today's singlets did not become common in college wrestling until the 1970s.)
Tying up with the Tutors
At the end of the 1946-47 dual-meet season, tiny Cornell College had racked up an incredible 12-0-1 record. The one blemish on an otherwise perfect season: a 12-12 dual with Iowa State Teachers College Panthers -- also known as the Tutors -- in late January at the Men's Gym at Cedar Falls. "It was as fine a dual meet as you'd ever want to see," coach Scott told Mike Chapman for the 1997 Cornell Report. "Two great teams giving it all they had."
Together, the two teams had among the very best collegiate wrestlers of the era -- a wealth of defending and future NCAA champs, as well as two Tutors who would go on to compete one year later at the 1948 Olympics in London: Bill Nelson, and Gerry Leeman (who earned a silver medal in freestyle).
Paul Scott's son R.K. recalls overhearing his dad's instructions to his men before the dual: "Don't get pinned or I'll kill you!"
"The meet opened up with a battle of two Waterloo West alums -- (Dick) Hauser and (James) Stoyanhoff, with Hauser winning 4-0," according to Arno Niemand. "Then, the tide shifted with (Gerry) Leeman beating (Leo) Thomsen 10-2. Next, Lowell Lange -- arguably the greatest control wrestler -- shut out Russ Bush, a 1946 NCAA finalist, 3-0 … The momentum stayed with Cornell as Snook beat Neil Johnson 6-0."
Bill Koll, defending NCAA champ at 145 pounds, moved up one weight class to 155. Niemand says, "When Scott sent out (Wallace) Littell, he said, 'Don't try to stand up on him, and don't get pinned.' Littell got slammed to the mat by Koll, and was knocked out for a time, but he was revived, and managed not to get pinned." Koll got the 8-1 victory, and started a bit of a streak for the hometown heroes, with Bill Nelson getting a 7-2 decision over Al Partin at 165, and ISTC's 175-pounder LeRoy Alitz defeating Charlie Voyce 10-4. In the last match of the evening, Cornell's Fred Dexter -- normally the Purple's man at 165 -- moved up to heavyweight, where he held Jim Jenson scoreless 4-0. Final score: 12-12. Perhaps an indicator of just how evenly matched these two teams were, none of the matches ended in a pin!
The 1947 NCAAs
The 1947 NCAA college wrestling championships were held at Huff Hall at the University of Illinois in Champaign on March 28-29. (Back then, the NCAAs were a two-day event.) According to The History of Collegiate Wrestling, thirty-two schools brought 101 wrestlers to the tournament. To put those numbers in perspective, that's slightly fewer schools and participants than at the 1941 NCAAs, but a significant increase over the 1946 championships … and about one-third the number of wrestlers at the 2007 NCAA Division I championships.
In its in-depth, pre-event analysis, The Cornellian openly wondered if Oklahoma State would win its eighth straight official team title; those with doubts about the Cowboys seemed to lean towards either Cornell College or Iowa State Teachers as having the mat talent to take the crown. As Cornell's student paper pointed out, two of the three top team title contenders had serious gaps in their line-ups. Oklahoma State was missing its defending champ at 175 pounds, George Dorsch, who had been defeated in wrestle-offs by freshman Jim Gregson … while ISTC was missing its 128-pound titlewinner Gerry Leeman, who suffered torn rib cartilage before the tournament. By contrast, Cornell's entire starting lineup was ready to wrestle for the title.
Let's take a look at how the Cornell wrestlers performed at the 1947 NCAAs, weight-by-weight:
• 121 pounds -- Dick Hauser -- the lightest of the Waterloo West trio -- made some history by being the first freshman ever to win an NCAA title. Seeded second in the bracket behind Oklahoma State's Bill Jernigan, Hauser got a pin in two out of three of his matches before the finals. The Waterloo West alum continued his role as the fall guy, putting Jernigan's shoulders to the mat at 3:34 to claim the crown. Hauser had entered the NCAAs with an 88-match winning streak going back to Waterloo West.
• 128 pounds -- Leo Thomsen -- who had lost only two matches during the regular season -- fell to top-seeded Lou Kachiroubas of Illinois in his first match… but battled back in the consolation bracket to eventually place third, earning All-American honors. In the finals, Kachiroubas lost to Russell Bush of Iowa State Teachers.
• 136 pounds -- Lowell Lange, the top seed, pinned his first opponent (Calderaro of Rutgers), then shut out his next two (Waynesburg's Fuller, Oklahoma's Watson) to find himself in the finals vs. Nathan Bauer, the third-seeded wrestler from Oklahoma State. Lange got a convincing 6-3 win over the Cowboy to win the second individual title for Cornell. Nicknamed "Tiger", Lowell Lange had scored 70 straight victories going back to high school before coming to the NCAAs.
• 145 pounds -- Rodger Snook: The top seed in this tough weight class was defending champ Bill Koll of Iowa State Teachers… with Cornell's Snook seeded second. "The Milkman" - unbeaten in the regular season -- pinned his way through his side of the bracket, getting falls against wrestlers from Penn State, Wheaton and Navy before facing Koll in the title bout. The Panther got a 7-2 win over Snook, earning his second straight title… and won Outstanding Wrestler honors to boot. By placing second, Snook claimed All-American status.
• 155 pounds -- Kent Lange, Lowell's older brother, lost in his opening-round match to Oklahoma's Ledger Stecker, and did not place. In the finals, unseeded Gale Mikles of Michigan State scored a 2-0 upset over top-seeded Bill Courtright of cross-state rival Michigan.
• 165 pounds -- Fred Dexter: David Shapiro of host school Illinois was the top seed; Oklahoma's Jim Eagleton was seeded second, and Cornell's Dexter third. Dexter, who had thirteen wins in fifteen matches before the NCAAs, got a 6-2 win over Indiana's Conklin, but was defeated by Eagleton in the semifinals. Dexter came back in the consolations to claim third place, and All-American status. In the finals, fourth-seeded Bill Nelson of Iowa State Teachers pinned Eagleton at 7:36 to win the title.
• 175 pounds -- Dale Thomas: Cornell's team captain - and only starting senior -- was unseeded. In his first match, he pinned Ed Ahrens of Iowa State Teachers at 4:01. However, in the quarterfinals, "Whitey" lost to the top-seeded Glen Brand of Iowa State 9-2. Brand then succumbed to Iowa's second-seeded Joe Scarpello 10-6 in the finals. Thomas scored two falls in the consolation bracket to place third, and become the sixth Cornell wrestler to be an All-American.
• Heavyweight -- Al Partin -- was unseeded. Freshman Dick Hutton of Oklahoma State was the top seed, with Nebraska's Mike DiBiase seeded second. Partin lost his first match to Purdue's third-seeded Ray Gunkel, 7-2. In the conseys, Partin fell to Iowa State Teachers College's LeRoy Alitz 8-4, failing to place. In the finals, Hutton got a 5-3 overtime victory over Gunkel.
When the cheering was over and the mats cleared, Cornell College had two individual champions - Dick Hauser at 121, and Lowell Lange at 136, both freshmen -- and a total of six All-Americans. In addition to Hauser and Lange, Cornell's placers included Leo Thomsen (third place at 128) … Rodger Snook (second at 145) … Fred Dexter (third at 165) … and Dale Thomas (third at 175).
Cornell College president Russell Cole, Dale Thomas, and Paul Scott with the trophyThe individual performances by the Purple's starters helped Cornell clinch the team title before the finals matches, scoring a total of 32 team points. In second place was its in-state rival to the north, Iowa State Teachers College, with 19 points and a total of three individual champs. Finding itself in third place was perennial team champs, Oklahoma State, with 16 points and just one individual champ. With eleven points and an individual titlewinner, Michigan State placed fourth in the team standings.
Key to Cornell winning the team title was its pinning prowess. At the time, a win by decision counted for one team point, while a pin was worth two. Of the 128 matches at the 1947 NCAAs, eighteen ended in pins … with Cornell wrestlers accounting for ten of those.
In addition to its pinning power, Arno Niemand believes there were three other factors that made it possible for Cornell to become team champs in 1947: the G.I. Bill which, by paying tuition, made it possible for veterans of any income level to go to a private college like Cornell … the liberal transfer policies that made it easy for students to switch colleges … and that freshmen were eligible to compete in the NCAAs that year. (Most of Cornell's starting lineup would not have been able to compete under traditional NCAA rules.) It's as if all the planets aligned to make it possible for Cornell to win the team title.
First again, two weeks later
Not content to rest on their laurels, a couple weeks after winning the 1947 NCAA team title, the Cornell wrestlers headed west by train to San Francisco, to compete at the 1947 AAU national tournament. The team proved that the NCAA title was no fluke, winning the NAAU team title with 17 points; Oklahoma State placed second with 12 points. Lowell Lange and Dale Thomas claimed individual titles, while Rodger Snook and Dick Hauser placed second.
According to Arno Niemand, the trip was made possible thanks to $1,500 raised by the community, and a $500 gift from the college. On the front page of The Cornellian of April 18, 1947, a thank-you note attributed to "Paul K. Scott and the Champions" said, "All of us who were privileged to make the trip to San Francisco are deeply appreciative of the many who made it possible through their generous financial contributions. Thanks!"
That front-page story in The Cornellian describes the scene as the wrestling team stepped off the streamliner back home: "They received a welcome Tuesday that would have honored returning conqueror-heroes. Bands, cars, horns, signs, cheering throngs, radio interviews, pictures for Life magazine, parades, more cheering throngs, and finally a gigantic pep rally in the chapel filled out the celebration welcoming them …"
"All of downtown Mt. Vernon was decorated with colorful signs and purple and white bunting. The town fire truck helped out by carrying a load of cheering students in the parade and tooting its siren. The parade contained hundreds of cars, most of them decorated colorfully, and the champs rode from the (train) station through town to the college chapel in regal splendor, the beautiful gold trophy in plain view."
The celebration of Cornell's doubly-sweet season continued far beyond eastern Iowa. The story captured the imagination of sportswriters across the country. Some of the wrestlers appeared on a TV game show … and Paul Scott and his grapplers were showcased in a three-page photo essay in Life magazine in early 1948, featuring some action images from a Cornell vs. Illinois dual, and demonstration photos to illustrate the difference between college wrestling and the showbiz shenanigans of the pro ring.
Behind the scenes, things were not all sweetness and light, as Paul Scott's son R.K recalls: "In 1947, (Cornell College) President (Russell) Cole was concerned that the school be a place to get a good liberal arts education and a strong dose of Methodism. He thought the wrestling program was getting too much attention. Cole threw out a wrestler -- not one of the starters -- because of some infraction … (Scott) and Cole didn't get along too well. He got only a $300 raise for winning the NCAA title."
Hopes of a second NCAA championship crashed
Sadly, Cornell College's Cinderella story was truly an once-in-a-lifetime event. The opening paragraphs on the first page devoted to wrestling in the 1948 edition of the Royal Purple student yearbook set the stage: "The season 1947-48 will be long remembered by followers of the Cornell College wrestling team as 'the year of the auto accident.' Undefeated in 24 straight dual grappling meets and defending National Collegiate and AAU champions, the Purple matmen ran the streak to 32 in a row before disaster struck in the form of a head-on collision on the Lincoln Highway."
"National titleholders Dick Hauser and Lowell Lange and team manager 'Jug' Beck, along with three other Cornellians … were injured in the crash, miraculously none of them fatally, and the Hilltop hopes for another double win went glimmering."
The accident on US 30 just outside Mt. Vernon in early 1948 seriously injured Cornell's two NCAA champs. Coupled with the graduation of Dale Thomas, and the loss of Fred Dexter -- "who fell victim to the high Cornell academic standards" according to the Royal Purple -- the wrestling team lost three straight duals at the end of the season to top-name opponents, including a shut-out at the hands of in-state rival Iowa State Teachers College with whom they had tied just one year earlier. Quoting the yearbook, "Trying to strike back, the Scottmen, with the 'B' team dominating the lineup, annexed the Midwest Conference title for the umpteenth time, then passed up defense of the their national collegiate title in order to have a full team for the AAU tourney."
In other words, Cornell College did not wrestle at the 1948 NCAAs at Lehigh University; last year's individual champs Dick Hauser and Lowell Lange were not there to defend their titles. However, the team traveled to the 1948 NAAU championships, where they tied for third place, behind Navy and Oklahoma State. Leo Thomsen was the only individual champ, winning the 136.5 pound crown. In what must have been a bittersweet moment, Thomsen qualified for the finals by defeating his teammate Lowell Lange in the semifinals. Kent Lange was a runner-up at 147.5, with Rodger Snook placing fourth in the same weight class.
For the 1948-49 wrestling season, the Cornell wrestlers won all but two of their dual meets (losing to Iowa State Teachers, and Michigan State) … claimed the Midwest Conference team title … and placed third in the team standings at the 1949 NCAAs. Lowell Lange won his second NCAA title at 136 pounds, holding defending champ Richard Dickensen of Michigan State scoreless in the finals 6-0. (Some believe Lowell Lange would have been the first four-time NCAA champ if not for the car accident.) Other Cornell All-Americans include Dick Hauser, placing third at 121 pounds … Leo Thomsen, losing in the 128-pound finals to Charles Hetrick of Oklahoma State … Kent Lange, placing third at 145 … and Rodger Snook, earning fourth place at 155. Lowell Lange was the only individual champ from Cornell at the national AAU championships, winning the 135-pound crown.
The next season was the swansong for the Cornell wrestlers who had been freshmen in 1947; now they were seniors. During the 1949-50 season, the Purple won all but one dual meet, and swept the Midwest Conference championships, according to the 1950 Royal Purple yearbook. At the 1950 NCAAs up the road at Iowa State Teachers College, Cornell placed third in the team standings for the second straight year. Lowell Lange won his third NCAA title, beating home-crowd favorite Fred Oglesby of ISTC in the finals. Earning All-American honors: Walt Romanowski, runner-up at 128 pounds (losing to Joe Patacsil of Purdue in the finals) … Rodger Snook, placing fourth at 145 …and Bill Nardini, fourth place at 165. At the AAU nationals, Dick Hauser and Lowell Lange won individual titles at 125.5 and 135, respectively.
The 1950-51 season signaled a changing of the guard … and the final curtain coming down on the 1947 Cinderella season. After compiling a stunning 56-8-1 dual meet record, coach Paul Scott left Cornell to pursue new challenges as athletic director at Davidson College in North Carolina. Taking the reins as head coach when the original candidate to succeed "Scotty" -- Ed Hitchcock -- died of a heart attack: Lowell Lange. That year, the Purple compiled a 6-3-1 record, placing ninth in the team standings at the 1951 NCAAs … with Walt Romanowski winning the 130-pound title over Bill Borders of Oklahoma.
It was impossible to keep Paul Scott away. After a few years at Davidson, he came back to Cornell College in 1954, this time as alumni director. He officially retired in 1976, but continued to serve in an unofficial capacity as a "goodwill ambassador" for the school, hosting alumni trips.
Reliving the magic decades later
In 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of tiny Cornell College winning the 1947 NCAA and NAAU team titles was marked in a big way. The story got plenty of news coverage, and a number of sports columnists weighed in on the significance of the eventIn 1997, the fiftieth anniversary of tiny Cornell College winning the 1947 NCAA and NAAU team titles was marked in a big way. In addition to the multi-page cover story written by Mike Chapman in the Cornell Report alumni newsmagazine, the story got plenty of news coverage, and a number of sports columnists weighed in on the significance of the event. Cornell College hosted a "1947 Dream Team" luncheon at the Small Life Sports Center on campus, with long-time NCAA announcer Ed Aliverti serving as master of ceremonies, and Myron Roderick, then president of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, making a special presentation. According to the beautifully-produced program for the event, the luncheon concluded with the introduction of a 91-year-old Paul Scott and "The Purple Gang."
In June 2007, members of the Cornell team that won the two national team titles in 1947 were honored in a special ceremony at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, which included a PowerPoint presentation produced by Arno Niemand. The 1947 team was inducted into the Hall of Fame -- the first team to be so honored in the 30+ year history of the facility.
"This is a great story to tell," said Lee Roy Smith, executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. "This really demonstrated what a great coach Paul Scott was. He knew how to recruit the type of student-athlete he needed to achieve such a feat. The 1947 championship truly was a milestone. It is one of the greatest feats in college wrestling history."
The 1947 championship team produced some lasting legacies. Two of the wrestlers from the starting lineup became college wrestling coaches: Lowell Lange, who, after one year at the helm at Cornell, then service in the Army as a military intelligence officer, and helping his father with the family farm for a number of years, eventually found his way to Atlanta, where in the 1960s he launched then coached the wrestling program at Georgia Tech until retiring in 1993 … and Dale "Whitey" Thomas, head coach at Oregon State from 1957 through 1990, compiling an incredible 616-168-13 record that made him the winningest coach in college wrestling. Others also had careers in education. Dick Hauser was a high school math instructor … Fred Dexter taught physical education, science and math in West Chicago, Illinois … and Al Partin was director of physical education at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
As of this writing, most of the major players involved in the 1947 Cornell College team title win are still alive, according to Arno Niemand. Two died in the prime of life: Rodger Snook in 1956, and Leo Thomsen in 1974. Coach Paul Scott died in August 2003, just shy of his 98th birthday; Dale Thomas passed away in March 2004 at the age of 81. Wallace Littell died just before the 2007 Stillwater hall of fame ceremony.
Because of major structural changes in the national wrestling championships, Cornell College's Cinderella story will never be repeated. In 1963, the NCAA introduced a second division for smaller schools … followed in 1974 with the formation of the NCAA's Division III, where Cornell now competes under the direction of coaching veteran Mike Duroe, head coach of the 2005 and 2006 US Freestyle World Team, and one of the US coaches for the 2007 Pan American Games.
However, the story of tiny Cornell College winning both the 1947 NCAA and national AAU team titles is a classic David-beats-the-Goliaths tale that still resonates with today's wrestling fans six decades later.
In addition to those quoted in this article, special thanks to Bob Majors, who provided fundamental information for the story, and to Jen Rouse of the Russell D. Cole Library at Cornell College for graciously assisting with on-campus research. All photos in this story courtesy of the archives at the Cole Library at Cornell College.