InterMat Rewind: Major Changes

Climb into the Wayback Machine and take a trip back in time… back to a college wrestling event in the 1920s or 30s. The sport you know and love will have some new wrinkles in its old-school form. Sitting in the stands, you'd probably find yourself blurting out immediate reactions such as, "Why are those guys dressed like professional wrestlers?" "What's with the boxing ring?" and "Did you see what that guy did to his opponent -- and he wasn't disqualified or penalized? The ref didn't even say anything!"

In the more than a century of intercollegiate wrestling -- and nearly 80 years of NCAA-sanctioned competition -- the sport has undergone significant changes. Not just in the fine points of how matches were scored, but also in "big picture" aspects like what wrestlers wore into competition … the wrestling surface itself … what now-banned holds were once legal … and how wrestlers trained and got into "fighting shape."


Uniform standards

Today's one-piece singlets have been standard equipment in amateur wrestling events for over thirty years … so it's difficult for many wrestlers or fans to imagine any other type of wrestling gear. Yet, before the early 1970s, there were no singlets in high school and college wrestling … and, in fact, in much of the country, before the mid 1960s, it was common for wrestlers to compete bare-chested.

In the late 1930's Stan Hansen of Oklahoma State wears wool trunks in wrestling ring
In the 1920s and 30s, most amateur wrestlers in the US wore full-length tights, often with what was called an outside supporter (also referred to as a "black Tom") worn OVER the tights. Shirts were optional. A bit later -- the mid 1930s up to World War II -- most schools replaced the outside supporter with close-fitting trunks over the tights. Some programs such as Oklahoma State and Kent State wrestled in wool trunks -- styled very much like those we associate with professional wrestling -- without tights, and without shirts.

The idea of amateur wrestlers competing without shirts is very surprising to many fans too young to have seen it for themselves. There was some geography to the whole shirt-or-no-shirt thing: Schools in the eastern US usually had their wrestlers wear sleeveless jerseys, while most schools in the Midwest and west wrestled stripped to the waist. For example, if you were transported back in time to a Lehigh vs. Penn State dual, the wrestlers would be wearing shirts; however, if you found yourself in Gallagher Hall for an Oklahoma State-Oklahoma Bedlam Series dual any time from the 1920s up to the early 1960s, the Cowboys and the Sooners would most likely be shirtless.

Shirts and skins

There were NCAA rules governing shirts vs. skins, which can be basically boiled down to this: It was up to the host school to determine the uniform requirements, to a point. For example, if Penn State hosted a dual meet or a tournament, they could require all wrestlers to wear shirts … even teams like Iowa, Iowa State or Oklahoma State that normally wrestled shirtless. However, if Oklahoma State hosted an event, they could not require the Nittany Lions or other eastern wrestlers to strip off their jerseys. To prevent any surprises, the NCAA rules at the time dictated that home teams notify visiting teams of the shirt requirements at least ten days in advance of the event.

The 1970 NCAA 142-pound finals match shows Washington's Larry Owings (left) in one-piece singlet, while Iowa State's Dan Gable wears the separate shirt and trunks uniform. Both are wearing tights.
As for the sleeveless shirts … wrestlers usually didn't wear "wife-beaters" from their underwear drawer onto the mat. There were special jerseys that had long tails that extended below the waist; the front and back tails snapped together at the crotch, covered by the wrestlers' trunks and tights, to stay in place in the heat of battle.

The trunks-and-tights, shirt-or-no-shirt "costume" (the word used by the NCAA in its rules until the early 1970s) prevailed in collegiate competition well into the 1960s, with minor exceptions. However, by 1966, the NCAA required a three-piece uniform for all college wrestlers: trunks, tights, and shirt … putting an official end to shirtless wrestling in collegiate dual-meet and tournament competition.

Singlet sensation

Ad Sand Knit 3-piece Uniform
Even well into the 1960s, the one-piece singlet of today was still an unfamiliar sight on wrestling mats in high school and college gyms. In fact, according to the NCAA rules published in the 1963 edition of the Official Collegiate-Scholastic Wrestling Guide, "The one-piece uniform is illegal for interscholastic, intercollegiate and NCAA competition." However, around 1970, the one-piece singlet -- which had been in use in international competition since about the time of the 1960 Rome Olympics -- started to make its appearance in college wrestling. By the late 1970s, the tide had turned; singlets became the standard uniform. A decade or so later, tights pretty much disappeared from sight.

Over the years, some schools issued some exceptions to the standard-issue uniforms. For instance, in the mid 1950s, the University of Illinois wore jerseys with side cutaways. In the late 1950s and early 60s, the Iowa Hawkeyes took to the mats sometimes wearing jerseys that revealed more of the chest and back, much like those worn in international competition at the time. More recently, some colleges have worn two-piece, body-hugging uniforms perhaps best known by the brand name DoubleSport.

Headgear to footwear

Protective headgear (referred to as "earguards" in current NCAA rules) is mandatory for scholastic and collegiate competition in the US … but it hasn't always been so. Headgear was a very rare sight up into the 1950s and early 60s, though it was "highly recommended" in the 1963 Wrestling Guide. Headgear started to make headway as wrestlers and their families became more concerned about cauliflower ears and other injuries. By the early 1970s, headgear became required equipment for amateur wrestlers.

Shoes have undergone tremendous changes over the years, in terms of design, construction, features … and price. However, the rules have remained pretty much the same -- wrestling shoes must be light in weight, heelless in design, cover the ankles, and not have any metal eyelets or other sharp parts to potentially injure an opponent. A few years ago, NCAA rules were implemented to require shoelaces to be taped before the start of a match, to prevent potential injury from tripping on an untied shoelace, yes… but, more likely, to prevent unnecessary match delays from wrestlers hoping to catch a break -- and their breath -- with a "my shoe's untied' time-outs.


Mat's all, folks!

Today's foam-core mats with a bonded, non-porous cover first made their appearance about fifty years ago … and were a giant leap forward in terms of wrestler health and safety. The foam-core construction absorbed shock better than previous materials, reducing wrestler injuries … while the smooth, bonded surface helped prevent mat burns, and could be easily cleaned with disinfectant, reducing rashes and mat-borne infections that were all too common in the "good old days."

Before the mid-1950s, mats usually had a canvas surface, sometimes covered with plastic or rubber, but oftentimes with a fabric such as moleskin or canton flannel which could not be easily wiped clean, and, in fact, might be washed only a couple times a year. As to what was underneath the surface … anything from horsehair to shredded newspapers to straw to wood shavings was the stuff inside mats of the past. These materials did not provide the level of shock absorption -- and safety to wrestlers -- that today's foam-filled mats do.

The dimensions of the wrestling area have also changed over the years. In the 1920s and 30s, the standard mat size was 20-feet square. The NCAA rules published in the 1947 edition of The Official Wrestling Guide stated, "The area of the mat shall not be less than 20 feet by 20 feet, and a 24-foot by 24-foot mat shall be considered standard." Fifteen years later, the 1963 edition of The Official Wrestling Guide had illustrations of minimum mat sizes, including a 34-foot square mat with a 24-foot square wrestling surface marked on it, as well as a round mat with a circular wrestling area of 28 feet in diameter, with a five-foot safety zone extending beyond that. The latest rules mandate a clearly-marked circular wrestling surface of 32-42 feet in diameter, with a minimum of five feet of mat beyond the wrestling surface.

The ring's the thing

Walk into a wrestling meet at Oklahoma State, University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, Northwestern or some other colleges back in the 1920s or 30s, and, most likely, at the center of the gym you'd find a roped-off wrestling ring. At some schools -- most notably Oklahoma State -- the ring was raised up off the gym floor, much like we associate with professional wrestling or boxing events today.

Wrestling ring at the University of Northern Iowa (Called Iowa State Teachers College at the time)
The wrestling area inside the ring was the same as on the open mats of other colleges -- 20 feet square, with an apron at the edge of the mat. Rules dictated that there be no less than three parallel ropes on each side of the ring, and that the ring posts be padded and set back from the edge of the corners. Unlike professional wrestling, the ropes could not be used in any way during the match; a wrestler could not gain leverage from the ropes, "rebound" off them, or duck through them to take a break.

According to Cowboys Ride Again! -- Bob and Doris Dellinger's book on the history Oklahoma State's wrestling program -- ropes and rings became illegal in 1942, the last full season of college wrestling before a three-year hiatus for World War II. In the 1947 Official Wrestling Guide, in the rules section titled "Mats, Ropes and Costumes" it states in large, bold type: "Ropes and Raised Platforms are Illegal."


To chart every rule change that has occurred over the three-quarters century of NCAA competition would require a book. This presentation is intended merely to show the major highlights (and lowlights) of rule changes affecting scoring of individual matches over the years … and provide some perspective on how things were done in the past compared to today.

How to win a match

In the early days of NCAA-sanctioned competition, there was no point scoring system like we have today. The outcome of a match was determined one of two ways: by a pin, or by what was called time advantage. Each wrestler had a timekeeper assigned to him to record the length of time that particular wrestler was in control -- akin to today's riding time. The wrestler who had accumulated the most time was awarded the match, reported in results as "Smith 1:10 time advantage over Jones."

In 1938, the "time advantage" scoring method to determine a winner was thrown out; outcomes of all matches that did not end in a fall were now in the hands of the officials -- a "referee's decision." This potentially partisan way didn't last too long; by 1941, a point system was introduced for the first time, with a takedown or reversal each worth two points, one point for an escape, and four points for a near fall. A wrestler scored one point for each minute of time advantage, up to two points. (The following season, the near-fall lost half its value, becoming worth two points.)

For a time in the early 1960s, takedowns lost some of their value … perhaps in response to Oklahoma State's "take 'em down and let 'em up" aggressive takedown scoring style that helped make the Cowboys the dominant college program in the late 1950s and early 60s. According to the rules installed in 1962, the first takedown in a match was still worth two points, but each subsequent one was worth only one point. By 1966, every takedown was restored to its full two-point value.

Even the rules regarding falls have been fiddled with over the years. Until 1931, to score a fall, the opponent's shoulders had to be on the mat for three full seconds. From 1931 to 1964, it took two seconds to score a pin. Now it's just one second.

How do you untie a tie score?

Once a point system was in place, it was inevitable that matches would end with a tie score. Over the years, there have been various ways to settle a tie.

One of the most surprising attempts to solve tied matches arrived in 1949: Overtime periods were abandoned in favor of having the referee determine the winner in a match that ended in regulation knotted up. The "referee decision" rule lasted well into the 1950s; for the 1957 NCAAs, overtime was reinstated, with two two-minute periods, each wrestler starting one period on top. Nearly two decades later (1976), the rules regarding overtime changed again, with a list of criteria being used to determine the winner of match that was still tied even after overtime.

That wasn't the end of the overtime dilemma. In 1991, sudden-death overtime was introduced for tournaments, with one two-minute overtime period. The first wrestler to score won the match; if no one scored, the winner was determined in an additional 30-second ride-out period. This procedure was tweaked in 2001 to reduce the overtime period to one minute. In 2004, the present system for handling tie bouts was introduced (and the phrase "sudden death" was killed): first wrestler to score in sudden-victory overtime won the match. If no points were scored, then there were two 30-second periods with each wrestler taking top once. Still tied up? Repeat the overtime sequence, starting with the one-minute sudden-victory period.

Match length

As you sit in the stands having been transported to that old-school college dual, hope you brought a cushion: In the 1920s and through most of the 1930s, each individual college wrestling bout lasted ten minutes, with two three-minute overtime periods if no winner was determined in regulation. If no takedowns were scored in the first two minutes, the ten-minute match was wrestled non-stop; if there was a takedown, the time remaining after the initial two minutes would be divided into two four-minute periods, with each man having the opportunity to start the period in the top position.

In 1938, matches were shortened to nine minutes, with three three-minute periods. In 1967, bout length went down to eight minutes, with the first period being two minutes, followed by two three-minute periods. Today's seven-minute matches debuted in 1982. That year, matches got one minute shorter, with the first period lasting three minutes, followed by two two-minute periods.

Weight-y matters

At the very first NCAA championships in 1928, there were seven weight classes: 115, 125, 135, 145, 158. 175, and unlimited (heavyweight). The following year, a new weight class was added -- 165 -- and 158 became 155, for a total of eight weights. For the 1932, 1936 and 1948 NCAAs, Olympic weight classes were used; the years immediately after those Olympic qualifier/college championship events, the NCAA reverted back to the pre-Olympic weight classes.

Chris Taylor
The weight-class situation remained pretty much the same from the late 1930s through the 1960s, with some additions and adjustments along the way. In 1970, ten weight classes became the norm for the NCAAs and all college duals. The ten weight classes currently in use in college -- 125, 133, 141, 149, 157, 165, 177, 184, 197, and 285 -- were implemented in 1999.

In 1987, one huge change was made: After 50 years, the "unlimited" weight class was limited to wrestlers 275 lbs and under. (The top weight limit has since been raised to 285.). If this rule had always been in place before 1987, at least four NCAA heavyweight champs would have been to too hefty to compete. Ohio State's George Bollas (1946), Iowa State's Chris Taylor (1971-72), Oklahoma State's Jimmy Jackson (1976-78), and North Carolina State's Tab Thacker (1984) each tipped the scales at more than 300 pounds.

If it's "dangerous", ban it!

Wrestling has always been a rugged, demanding sport … but today's fans might be surprised to see just how tough it was in the past, with legal use of some submission-style holds and punishing moves. Over the years, the rules have been modified to ban some dangerous holds or moves, all with an eye to making the sport safer and reduce the potential for broken bones and other serious injuries.

In the early 1930s, two-time NCAA heavyweight champ Jack Riley of the Northwestern Wildcats ruled the mats with his double wristlock. This painful hold -- also known as the keylock or hammerlock -- used leverage to force opponents onto their backs for the pin, or got them to submit in agony. Not long after Riley graduated, rules were implemented to prevent forcing the opponent's arm above a right angle to his back, or twisting his arm away from his body.

Another rule that's often tied to a specific wrestler is what some call the "Koll rule." Bill Koll, a three-time NCAA middleweight champ for Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) was a tough wrestler known for lifting opponents up over his head and slamming them to the mat. On one occasion, one of Koll's opponents was knocked out cold, according to college teammate Bob Siddens, a long-time referee and high school coach (now retired). Both Siddens and Koll have said that the present-day rule requiring a wrestler to go down to one knee before bringing an opponent held over the shoulder or above the head to the mat was implemented after Koll's last NCAA appearance in 1948, where he body-slammed a number of opponents. (To read more about Bill Koll and his son Rob, head coach at Cornell University, Click Here.)


Put down those weights!

College wrestlers have always been among the best-built, best-conditioned athletes of any sport. However, up until about 35-40 years ago, the weight room was NOT part of most college mat men's workouts.

Generally, most college and high school wrestling coaches believed that weightlifting -- or even working out with light weights -- would make their wrestlers "muscle-bound." In addition to wrestling drill sessions and practice matches, most wrestling workouts included activities such as calisthenics, running, stair climbing, rope climbing, and pull-ups/chin-ups.

Myron Roderick
According to legendary Oklahoma State wrestler and coach Myron Roderick, quoted in the book Cowboys Ride Again!, attitudes about weight training started to change in the mid-1950s. "The 1956 Olympic team -- mainly divers and track and field -- were the first to really get into weightlifting. Wrestlers didn't do any of it."

"We started a little bit when I was coaching, probably '58 or '59. Went through a phase of all kinds of things, isometrics, free weights. Then the machines came in. The philosophy when I was wrestling that if you lifted weights, you'd be muscle-bound, couldn't move."

"During my time, a lot more kids came off farms," Roderick continued. "They'd worked and were naturally stronger than a lot of kids today. I never did weights, but I threw a lot of bales. It's just a different form of exercise."

Tommy Chesbro, who wrestled for Roderick at Oklahoma State in the late 1950s and then became head coach of the Cowboys after Roderick retired, told Cowboys Ride Again! "The machines and weights… it must have been the mid-70s before we saw them."

Joe James
To provide further perspective, two other Cowboys of coach Roderick's era weighed in with comments regarding their weight-less workout routines. In a 2007 interview for, Oklahoma State All-American -- and 1960 Olympic gold medallist -- Shelby Wilson said, "I lived on the chinning bar … During the summer in high school I did 200 chin-ups each day on my mom's clothesline pole. My arms would never tire out during a match." (To read the Shelby Wilson profile, click here.) According to Cowboys Ride Again!, 1964 NCAA heavyweight champ -- and physical specimen -- Joe James was interviewed by ABC-TV after winning his title. When asked if he lifted weights to get his impressive physique, the Chicago native said, "I just do push-ups and one-hand chin-ups." Asked how many, James replied, "Just 50-100 to get loosened up."

On-the-job workouts

These days, most top-shelf amateur wrestlers compete pretty much year-around in their sport. When it's not wrestling season at their school, they're competing in freestyle or Greco-Roman events, or independent folkstyle tournaments.

However, 30+ years ago, most wrestlers competed only during the "traditional" season, and were free to participate in other activities in the off-season. For some, this meant competing in other sports, such as football or baseball, which provided all-year conditioning. For others, when not on the mats, they were on the job. For instance, Stanley Henson, a three-time NCAA middleweight champ for Oklahoma State in the late 1930s, worked summers building oil derricks. "It was very difficult work… Putting this steel together, up high, walking on scaffolds with all the steel you could carry," Henson is quoted in Mike Chapman's 2007 book Legends of the Mat. "This, I think, gave me the strength, which was much more than people thought I had." 1960 Olympic gold medallist and two-time NCAA champ for the University of Iowa, Terry McCann, worked in at an oil refinery. (Click Here to learn more about Terry McCann and his brother Fran.) Oklahoma State's 191-pound NCAA champ in 1965, Jack Brisco, held a variety of demanding summer jobs, once working in a mine. Countless others who lived on farms built up muscle and strength by hoisting hay bales and feed sacks, herding cattle, and doing other demanding chores.

Shake hands and … do-si-do?

Today's mat aficionados taking in college wrestling event of 50+ years ago would be taken aback by the ritual at the beginning of each match. The two wrestlers stood at opposite sides of the mat, with the referee standing in the middle. The ref signaled to the scorers' table to make sure they were ready, then directed the wrestlers to shake hands, pass by each other to the other side of the mat (in what almost looked like a something from a square dance), then turn around to face each other, and be ready to wrestle when he blew his whistle. Now, in today's hurry-up world, "shake hands and wrestle" is the rule, with no square dance moves before coming to grips.

Calm conclusions

Modern-day fans traveling back in time to an old-time college wrestling event would probably find the level of combat intensity during each match to be pretty much like they enjoy today. But they might be thrown by the high level of sportsmanship usually on display at the end of each match. The reactions of the winners tended to be much more muted. No fists raised defiantly into the air. No double-bicep poses. No gymnastic back-flips. Instead, there were genuine handshakes between the wrestlers, and sometimes, warm embraces. Wrestlers who had been pinned were helped to their corner by the winner. While during the match it might have been all-out war, the end of the bout seemed to be a "kinder, gentler" time.

Hope you enjoyed this trip back in time to see an "old-school" college wrestling event. You might not want to wrestle a ten-minute match… or trade in your high-tech fabric singlet for wool trunks … or say goodbye to wrestling on Resilite mats. However, you now have a sense of college wrestling as it once was … and, hopefully, have gained a new appreciation for generations of wrestlers who wrestled this way every day.

Now that wrestling season is about to start again, this is our last InterMat Rewind feature for a while. We hope you've enjoyed this look back at the sport as it once was and the legends who have contributed so much to its history. Watch for more InterMat Rewind "old-school" articles from time-to-time.


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