Of the first 16 NCAA Wrestling Championships, Oklahoma State won 13 team titles. If you were to ask which Iowa school was the first to win NCAA gold, most would think Iowa, Iowa State or even Northern Iowa.
But Cornell (Iowa)? A private school with an enrollment of 650 in 1947?
Two years after the conclusion of World War II, 32 schools competed in Champaign, Ill. Cornell, coached by Paul Scott, shocked the Division I establishment, outdistancing Northern Iowa for top honors.
A half century later, small schools in Iowa are still competing for championships.
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The Jan. 3 NWCA Division III rankings show five Iowa schools inside the top 16, led by No. 1 Wartburg. The Knights have won eight DIII titles since 1996, including three of the past four.
Coe College (5), Cornell (6), Luther (11), and Dubuque (16) also are among the nation’s top DIII programs currently.
Division II’s rankings show Upper Iowa currently ranked second behind Newberry. The Peacocks may get a shot at No. 1 this weekend at the NWCA/Cliff Keen National Duals in Springfield, Ill. If Upper Iowa were to win a Duals title, and the Hawkeyes beat the Cowboys on Saturday night, next week’s rankings would show an Iowa school ranked No. 1 in all three divisions.
“There really is a sense of pride in the state,” said Upper Iowa head coach Heath Grimm, a two-time All-American for Luther College and native of Osage County. “We all grow up wanting to be a part of it. Dan Gable was a big part of it and guys at Iowa State and Northern Iowa before him.
“Coaches have a big responsibility to continue with that tradition.”
Osage County is also home to Dave Malacek, head coach at Wisconsin-LaCrosse, and the Schwabs. On Dec. 30, Phil Schwab, the father of Mark and Doug, passed away. Doug was a national champion in 1999 for Iowa.
“Somebody that I really looked up to, watched work out, was Mark Schwab,” Grimm said. “I was a little young to work out with him, but I watched him quite a bit. Everybody got together [Tuesday night] and there was a bunch of cauliflower ears and stories. [Wartburg head coach] Jim Miller was there. It’s a pretty tight fraternity.”
The formula for winning, on paper at least, is simple. And it goes back far beyond the 1970s when legendary coach Dan Gable, and Gary Kurdelmeier before him, brought the Hawkeyes to national prominence.
“The culture really changed in the state after Cornell [Iowa] won in 1947,” said current Cornell coach Mike Duroe, a graduate of Drake in Des Moines. “They broke that barrier that the Oklahoma schools had established. And back in those days the AAU was as big or bigger than the NCAA and [Iowa] Teacher’s College [now Northern Iowa] and Cornell were winning at that level as well.
“Wrestling is part of the culture. In just about every small town in the state wrestling is the top program. A lot of the sport’s icons have come from Iowa, just like Oklahoma.”
The list is long, including Bob Siddens, a member of Northern Iowa’s national championship squad and longtime coach at West Waterloo High School. His teams won 11 Iowa state titles from 1965 to 1972. Siddens was Gable’s high school coach.
“It goes back further than Gable and [Coach Harold] Nichols,” Wartburg head coach Jim Miller said. “Frank Gotch, from Humboldt, won a heavyweight championship in the 1920s in front of one of the biggest sports crowds at that time in Chicago. It was set in stone, that tradition of excellence, a long time ago.
“The high school state tournament is always voted the top sports event in the state every year. It’s hard to compare it to anything, probably basketball in Indiana.”
Gable won two NCAA titles for Iowa State, an Olympic gold medal in 1972 and coached Iowa to 15 team championships. From 1978 to 1986 Iowa won every team trophy.
One of Miller’s pupils is Byron Tate, a DIII national champion in 2011 who calls Clinton home.
“If you wrestle in Iowa you better take it seriously,” Tate said. “There are so many good wrestlers in the state every year and there are a lot of schools who support the sport.”
“I think the state of Iowa has always taken pride in college athletics,” Miller added. “You can drive across the state and see school emblems on barns, see the schools they are supporting. It really blew up with Gable. He raised the awareness of the non-wrestling fans and made them acknowledge that we weren’t just seeing the best in the country but the best in the world.”
That competitiveness is nowhere more evident than the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Wartburg has won an amazing 19 consecutive IIAC titles and will look for No. 20 next month when Coe hosts the NCAA-qualifying event. Wartburg also won the first four IIAC tournaments from 1948 to 1951.
“I don’t think there are many Division III events that are shown on statewide television,” Miller said. “It’s always been a big tournament and you could make a case that this might be the best it’s been.
“There is a reason the schools in the conference are so tough. Getting through that tournament prepares you for the [DIII] Championships.”
Five of the top 10 wrestlers at 125 and 197 pounds in DIII represent Iowa schools. Twenty-five percent of those ranked in DIII wear Iowa school colors.
It doesn’t take a math expert to see the state of Iowa takes its wrestling very seriously.
• No. 2 Oklahoma State visits No. 1 Iowa on Saturday night.
• In Division II this weekend, No. 2 Upper Iowa will try and unseat No. 1 Newberry at the National Duals.
• And in DIII, No. 1 Wartburg will have to get by Dubuque, among other squads, to keep the top spot.
“It’s probably never happened,” Duroe said. “But it’s not a surprise. There are a lot of programs in the state who have really committed themselves to winning. But it’s been like that for a long time.”