In 1963, a small tournament called the West Suburban YMCA Open Championship was held in La Grange, Ill. Only 132 wrestlers entered the tournament, which was won by powerhouse Michigan.
There were three mats.
“I don’t think after that first one we would have imagined 50,” tournament founder Ken Kraft said.
|COMING DEC. 27|
Be sure and check back with NCAA.com on Thursday, Dec. 27, when we will present a special photo essay commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Midlands Championships.
In the meantime, take a look at the tournament’s complete bracket history.
The status of a tournament, still in search of a name and a home, grew quickly when a freshman from Iowa State named Dan Gable knocked off a pair of collegiate stars and Olympians in the 1966 event, an event that would come to be known as the Midlands Championships held annually in Evanston, Ill.
This December tournament has become part of the progression of many of the sport’s stars. The list of champions leads right to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. Eighty NCAA champions who competed at the Midlands did not win Midlands titles.
The 2012 tournament marks the 50th anniversary. Since 1966, the two-day tournament has been held between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
“The Midlands is in the right place at the right time,” former Arizona State and Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas said.
“The Midlands has always been considered a tough tournament,” two-time Midlands champion Kenny Monday, who also won NCAA and Olympic titles said. “It marks that time when it is time to get serious heading into January. And what always made it tough was that guys who were not in college anymore might show up in your bracket. Not so much anymore but there were years when there were two or three NCAA champions and a couple of 30-year-olds in one weight class.”
Phil Rembert entered the tournament 18 times, the first in 1982, the last in 2000. Joe Williams won 10 Midlands titles; Bruce Baumgartner won eight.
The United States’ two most recent Olympic gold medalists -– Jordan Burroughs and Jake Varner -– claimed Midlands titles.
Without Ken Kraft there would be no Midlands.
From 1957-79, Kraft was head wrestling coach at Northwestern. He served in an administrative capacity at his alma mater for an additional 24 years. In 1997 he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. In 2004, after 51 years of service to NU, Kraft retired. On Wednesday, he was doing has he usually does this time of year -– prepare for the Midlands. Current Wildcat head coach Drew Pariano and staff handle the lion’s share of the tournament responsibilities, but Kraft still plays a part.
It was a student-athlete, however, who may be responsible for planting the original seed.
Rory Weber, Northwestern’s heavyweight in 1961, was looking for some wrestling over the holidays. He went to Wilkes-Barre, Pa. for the Wilkes Open, where he earned first-place honors. He returned to Evanston and told his coach it was a great tournament and that the whole team should go in 1962.
He took that advice and loaded a handful of Wildcats into three station wagons and drove to Wilkes-Barre. On the return trip, conversation bounced around about the possibility of hosting a tournament over the holiday break.
“We got back and I went to our athletic director and he said there was no way we were going to do anything during Christmas break,” Kraft said. “We were able to go to La Grange for that first one and it was actually ‘standing room only.’ It was a small gymnasium but it was packed.
“The key was getting Michigan.”
Cliff Keen coached Wolverine wrestlers from 1925-70.
“[Michigan] had always gone to Wilkes-Barre,” Keen said. “But his daughter had had a baby and Mrs. Keen convinced [Cliff] to bring the team to Chicago for our tournament and they could visit there granddaughter at the same time. It worked out pretty well for us.
“I think most of us who were involved early on are surprised it has turned out the way that it has.”
Along the way there have been a few experiments, but at the end of the day it is about the competition.
“We have been able to attract the best wrestlers in the country for a long time,” Kraft said. “Having those post-graduate athletes in the tournament certainly had an impact. Our goal has always been to have a national-level tournament.
“We kind of set things in motion. There were not a large number of tournaments this time of year. That has changed, which, I think is healthy for the sport.”
Iowa won the 2011 team trophy, the 22nd time the Hawkeyes have claimed the title. Only a skeleton crew of Iowa wrestlers will be in the tournament field in 2012. This season’s tournament includes 30 Division I programs, led by Illinois, Northwestern, Michigan, Lehigh, Oklahoma, Oregon State, and Maryland. And who knows? Maybe an Olympian or two.
“We had to change some things over the years, limit the entries,” Kraft said. “There have been a few who paid the entry fee and probably shouldn’t have wrestled in the tournament. Once you have almost 500 wrestlers and you are going until midnight, there have to be some shall changes.”
Fast becoming another holiday tradition is the Southern Scuffle in Chattanooga, Tenn. Held Jan. 1-2, the 2013 tournament includes defending NCAA champion Penn State, Minnesota, Oklahoma State and a Missouri squad coming off a dual win against Cornell. Less than a decade old, the Southern Scuffle itself has gone through growing pains, moving from UNC-Greensboro’s campus to Tennessee-Chattanooga after Greensboro dropped its wrestling program in March of 2011.
The Reno Tournament of Champions in Nevada completed its 18th annual event Dec. 14-16. The first Grapple at the Garden was held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden on Dec. 16.
The granddaddy of them all, however, is the Wilkes Open, a tournament that opened for business in 1932 at the Wilkes-Barre YMCA in Pennsylvania. Collegians joined what was mainly high school and local athletes around 1950 during their holiday breaks from school. In 1960, Sports Illustrated dubbed the Wilkes Open “the Rose Bowl of wrestling.”