Roger Moore, NCAA.com
Iowa State University’s wrestling tradition ranks second to none.
The names are legendary – Hugo Otopalik, Dr. Harold Nichols, Cael Sanderson, Dan Gable.
Associate Athletics Director Tom Kroeschell hasn’t seen every great Cyclone wrestling moment, but over the last quarter of a century he’s been mat-side for most of them.
“I first experienced wrestling at Drake, but I really didn’t get addicted until I came to Iowa State,” said Kroeschell, an Illinois native who graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1982.
A chance discovery in the Drake library changed Kroeschell’s career course. Thinking about transferring while a student he came across an old New Mexico State basketball media guide and decided that working in sports information was something he’d like to try.
Twenty eight years later Kroeschell, whose parents and sister graduated from ISU, can tell stories for hours on end, the ups and downs of Iowa State wrestling since his first day on the job, Aug. 12, 1985.
Legendary head coach Dr. Harold Nichols led the Cyclones to 456 dual wins from 1953-85.
“I was hired right after he retired but I was lucky enough to get to know him,” said Kroeschell of the Hall of Famer. “(Nichols) was a very interesting person, someone with interests far beyond wrestling. He had a very extensive pottery collection that he actually took on the David Letterman Show one time.
“If he didn’t like something that was going on during a match he’d go to the scorer’s table and hit the buzzer to stop the match and explain why something was wrong to the officials. Can you imagine somebody doing that these days?”
Kroeschell’s first dual meet was in November of 1985 with first-year coach Jim Gibbons leading the program. Two years later, in 1987, Iowa State won the Big Eight and NCAA Championships.
“1987 is probably the top memory I have,” Kroeschell said. “We went into that (NCAA) tournament in Maryland with not a lot of people thinking we were much of a threat. We won like 36 matches and lost something like seven. We had Eric Voelker, Tim Krieger and Kevin Jackson, a very good team that year.”
Two weeks earlier in Stillwater also seems like it was yesterday.
“We didn’t have the Internet, all this media technology,” he remembers. “The (Big 8) tournament came down to the last match and (OSU’s) Tom Erikson pinned Andy Cope to tie for the team title. I had Jim Gibbons and (assistant coach) Ed Banach (an Olympic champion) in the car and we were driving pretty fast to get back to the hotel to call the results in back to Iowa. We got pulled over and explained to the policeman what had happened and how much of a hurry we were in. We showed him the trophy and he was pretty excited that Erikson had pinned Cope to help OSU tie for the team title. He actually let us go, told us to hurry up and get those results called in.”
Gibbons would coach the Cyclones until 1992. Bobby Douglas, who coached Arizona State to a national title in 1988, then took over in Ames.
Douglas is the subject of a recently published book authored by Craig Sesker. Kroeschell penned the forward.
“He is a good man,” says Kroeschell of Douglas. “I think more than anything he just really cared about his wrestlers. He took the time to make sure the support personnel were taken care of, everybody involved.
“I’ll never forget one of the trips we took to the Midlands (Championships) on the bus. We got home on a New Year’s Eve morning pretty early. It’s cold as heck. (Coach Douglas) picked up my bags and carried them to the car for me. I don’t know of too many coaches who would take the time to do that at 4 in the morning after a long bus ride. But that’s just the kind of man he is. We all know people who in public are the nicest guys in the world but behind the scenes they treat people badly or in a different manner. Bobby was genuine no matter what the situation.”
The legend of Douglas’ ‘fanny pack’ remains a secret, however.
“I will admit I never found out what was in there,” he smiles. “That is one of the greatest mysteries of all time. A lot of time the graduating seniors would buy him a new one, so he’s got a ton of them somewhere.”
Kroeschell received a gift from Gibbons, the infamous robe warm-ups the Cyclones wore for decades.
“It’s in my closet at home. For whatever reason, it wasn’t a big thing and nobody really went crazy when they went away. It’s probably just a generational thing.”
Only two Division I wrestlers have won four NCAA titles. Only one went undefeated.
Kroeschell was there for every moment of Cael Sanderson’s 159-0 career.
“I was fortunate enough to be here during that run,” Kroeschell said. “And I was very lucky that (Sanderson) was such a good person, able to handle all the demands on him. It could have been really difficult, but he was special.”
Sanderson would go on to win Olympic gold in 2004 and replace Douglas as head coach in Ames in 2007. When Sanderson left for Penn State last season, Jackson, a 1992 Olympic gold medalist, was hired.
Things have certainly changed in Ames since the mid-1980s. But one thing has remained – Kroeschell, who also handled public address at the Drake Relays from 1989-06.
“I love the sport,” he said. “The NCAA Wrestling Championships is one event I’m going to go to long after I’m done doing this. What I love about wrestling is that the people you meet, you see them every year at certain events. It’s not always about the wins and losses. The relationships, the friends I’ve made around wrestling, that’s something you can’t put a price on.”