The U.S. Olympic hockey team upsetting the Russians at the 1980 Winter Olympics is a classic ... as is the Miracle on the Mat, when Rulon Gardner defeated the unbeaten Alexander Karelin to win the gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
There's another David-upsets-Goliath incident from the world of amateur wrestling that most fans don't know: the wrestling team from tiny Cornell College of Iowa, winning the team title at the 1947 NCAAs, defeating all the major mat superpowers of the era.
Arno Niemand describes it as "the remarkable, untold story of the greatest team you've never heard of." Now, thanks to Niemand's new book, The Dream Team of 1947, sports fans will come to know -- and love -- this incredible group of wrestlers and their coach ... and the college and the community that supported them.
The other Cornell
This season, Cornell University is the college wrestling team to watch, with most magazines and websites ranking them as the top program in NCAA Division I, and, as of this writing, the odds-on favorite to win the team title at the 2011 NCAA Championships in Philadelphia. However, that Cornell is not the subject of The Dream Team of 1947. The Cornell of Niemand's book is located in Mount Vernon, Iowa, about a half-hour's drive north of Iowa City and the University of Iowa.
Cornell College is a small Methodist school, founded in 1853 ... a dozen years before the Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York was chartered. (The Iowa school was named in honor of tycoon William Wesley Cornell, a distant relative of Ezra Cornell, who founded Cornell University.) Current enrollment at Cornell of Iowa is about 1,200 students; sixty years ago, enrollment was half that.
How a Cornell University wrestler came to write about Cornell College
You may already know author Arno Niemand as the founder of Body Bar Systems, and a as a long-time supporter of amateur wrestling. Interestingly, he is a graduate of Cornell University, and was on the wrestling squad that placed third at the 1953 NCAAs at Penn State. So how did he come to write about the wrestling team of Cornell College from six decades ago?
Niemand was introduced to wrestling at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. It was there that the then-14-year-old Niemand was first introduced to the Cinderella story that would be the subject of his new book. Sitting in his coach's office was a well-worn copy of the February 23, 1948 issue of Life magazine which told the story in words and black-and-white photos of the Cornell College "dream team" that won the 1947 NCAA title.
Arno NiemandNiemand continued his wrestling career at Cornell University, where his coach, Jimmy Miller, had wrestled for Lehigh University against Cornell College in the winter of 1947. (Niemand did not know this until researching his book.)
If that weren't enough to point Niemand toward writing The Dream Team of 1947 ... in 2003, he read an article in Sports Illustrated about the death of Herb Brooks, the coach of the U.S. hockey Cinderella squad that won the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, NY. "What caught my eye was a letter in the next issue, saying �What about the Cornell College team of 1947?' I figured all these connections were too important to ignore," said Niemand.
"My take on all this was �This is a great David and Goliath story,'" Niemand continued. "To think Cornell went from nothing to national champs in one year is mind-boggling."
The great Scott
"I wanted to tell the story of Paul Scott, the coach who built the team from nothing immediately after World War II, to winning the title in 1947," according to Niemand. "He drove 5,000 miles the year before, recruiting that team."
In fact, The Dream Team of 1947 starts with a biography of Paul Scott, who grew up in eastern Iowa, about 30 miles from Cornell. Although just 5'4", Scott was a natural athlete. Based on his accomplishments playing basketball and baseball in high school, Scott was awarded a half-scholarship to Cornell ... where he started playing football, and was introduced to wrestling, and served as captain of both sports his senior year.
Scott graduated from Cornell in 1929, and coached at high schools in the Midwest during the Great Depression, and earned a masters in sociology from Columbia University in New York. He returned to his Iowa alma mater with his wife and baby son in 1941 to take the reins of the Purple wrestling program.
In addition to his duties at Cornell, Scott worked as a high school wrestling referee. Through that job, he came to know the top prep matmen of eastern Iowa, which gave him a leg up in his recruiting efforts. "Scott had a great presence about him," according to Niemand. "He was like a walking Rolodex file. He never forgot a face. Wrestlers instantly took to him."
The Dream Team becomes reality
The pivotal event that helped Scott put together the Dream Team was the 1946 AAU (American Athletic Union) national Championships. That year, he took three seniors from Waterloo West High School (Dan Gable's prep alma mater) -- Dick Hauser, Leo Thomson, and Lowell Lange. At the nationals in New York, Scott reconnected with Rodger Snook, a World War II veteran -- and, prior to that, a three-time New Jersey high school wrestling champ -- who he had first met at the 1943 NAAUs. Scott also met Al Partin, a Chicagoan fresh from service in the Navy. These wrestlers served as the nucleus for the Cornell College wrestling program for the next four years.
"This entire team wrestled together as a team," said Niemand. "Scott didn't believe in wrestle-offs."
"Scott was able to meld the three freshmen from Waterloo, along with the freshmen who were military veterans, into a successful team," according to Niemand. "The Waterloo freshmen were so disciplined. They got serious coaching from Finn Eriksen and Ray Jarrard."
Photo/The Dream Team of 1947The 1946-1947 season was magical for Cornell College wrestlers, compiling a near-perfect 12-0-1 record going up against the top teams in the nation at the time, including Iowa State (Big Six -- now Big 12 -- champs), Illinois (Big Ten champs), and Lehigh. The tie came against Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa), one of the top programs of the era, stocked with all-time greats such as Gerry Leeman, Bill Nelson, and Bill Koll.
"The first golden age of wrestling in Iowa was 1947-1952," said Niemand. "ISTC almost won the 1946 NCAA team title. It was a time of giants in wrestling, most of them from ISTC and Cornell College."
Cornell wins the mat "grand slam"
Paul Scott and his Cornell College matmen traveled to the University of Illinois to compete at the 1947 NCAAs in late March. Before the championships, the two teams favored to take the team title: ISTC, and Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State).
However, after two days of wrestling, Cornell left Champaign-Urbana with two individual champions (Dick Hauser at 121, and Lowell Lange at 136) and a total of six All-Americans out of eight weight classes. What's more, the Purple ran away with the team title, becoming the first school outside the state of Oklahoma to win an official team title, and first private college to claim that honor. (Note: Back then, there was only one NCAA tournament, where schools of all sizes competed.)
A couple weeks later, thanks to the fundraising efforts of the college community and residents of Mount Vernon, the Cornell wrestling team traveled by train to San Francisco, and won the 1947 AAU national team title. Only one other college has won the "grand slam" of NCAA and AAU team titles in the same year -- ISTC, in 1950.
What made it possible for Cornell to assemble a great team, and accomplish so much for a small school with only about 600 students? Niemand cited three factors: "The G.I. Bill, which made it possible for servicemen returning home from the war to get a college education, the NCAA's temporary adjustment of the freshman rule which allowed first-year students to wrestle varsity, and a liberal transfer rule." (Note: Freshmen wrestlers were not allowed to compete on varsity teams from 1928 to about 40 years ago, except from 1943-1947.)
All of these factors helped coach Paul Scott put together his Dream Team, and guide them to the NCAA and NAAU team titles. However, as Niemand said in the interview for this article, "When the G.I. Bill waned, the fortunes of schools like Cornell and ISTC waned, too. It became harder for them to compete against larger schools in terms of luring top wrestlers and being able to offer scholarships."
Sadly, Cornell College's Cinderella story ended in a 1948 automobile accident that injured some of the key members of the wrestling squad, and prevented the team from competing at the 1948 NCAAs. "If it hadn't been for the car wreck, Lowell Lange would've been the first four-time NCAA champ," asserted Niemand.
The Dream Team of 1947 brings the story of the Cornell College wrestling squad of sixty years ago to life. Niemand's narrative takes the reader step-by-step through the formation of the team, the 1947 Cinderella season, and subsequent years the team's wrestlers continued their careers at Cornell, along with "where are they now" updates. (As Niemand points out, all the members of that 1947 team completed their educations at Cornell on time.) Along the way, Niemand skillfully weaves in historical background information about the rules, uniforms, travel arrangements and competitive landscape, helping readers of all ages understand and appreciate just how special the accomplishments of those wrestlers of Cornell College were.
For more information on The Dream Team of 1947, visit the book's official website. To purchase the book, visit Amazon.com after January 1, 2011; the book is also available at the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Oklahoma and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Iowa, as well as the bookstore at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa.