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January 30, 2013

Trail Blazers: How the West was won

* This story appears in the January issue of Blue White Illustrated's magazine.

To order a subscription to BWI magazine, click here.

By Lou Prato
Blue White Contributor


No matter how many NCAA wrestling championships Penn State wins under the coaching of Cael Sanderson and his successors, nothing will ever compare to the first one in 1953 when Charlie Speidel's Nittany Lions became the first Eastern team to win the title.

With Sanderson's back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2011, Penn State remains the only Eastern college to win the team crown in a sport dominated by schools from the heartland, particularly Oklahoma State and Iowa.

Yet 1953 will always stand out, primarily because of the unique circumstances involving Penn State's participation, but also because nearly everything in life was different then, including the collegiate wrestling world.

For starters, Penn State won the championship before the home crowd at Rec Hall, something only Indiana in 1932 had previously done since the NCAA tournament began in 1928. The Lions had not come close to the title except in 1951 when they finished third with 16 points behind champion Oklahoma (24) and Oklahoma State (23).

In fact, only once in that 25-year span had an Eastern team finished second. That was in 1938 when Lehigh was runner-up to Oklahoma State, 19-15. Ironically, that year also was the second time Penn State was the site of the NCAA event following the first in 1930. To fully appreciate what the championship meant to the Penn State community in 1953, one needs to go back to those earlier tournaments.

Except for his years in the Navy from 1942-46 (during which he saw combat as an officer in the Pacific), Speidel had been head coach of the wrestling team since 1927. His teams had won four Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association championships since 1936 but only two since he had returned from World War II: 1951 and '52.

So, in 1930, Speidel's team caused hardly a ripple in the collegiate wrestling universe. Lehigh was the Eastern power at the time, and the NCAA wanted to hold its third tournament there as a way of attracting more attention to the sport from the powerful and influential Eastern newspapers and magazines.

However, Leigh's gymnasium wasn't big enough in 1930. So Penn State was chosen as the host site because of its new gymnasium, named Recreation Hall, which had opened in January 1929. It had a seating capacity of 6,000, and the NCAA thought Eastern wrestling fans might fill the building.

Ninety-four wrestlers from 32 teams were entered, but on the day before it started, the NCAA tournament wasn't even the biggest sports story in the semi-weekly student newspaper, The Penn State Collegian. A seven-column headline across the top of page one proclaimed that former Nittany Lion All-American Bob Higgins had been promoted to succeed Hugo Bezdek as head football coach.

Just four Penn State wrestlers competed in the 1930 tournament and they didn't score a point, as Oklahoma State won with 27 points and Illinois finished a distant second with 14. The size of the crowd was not mentioned by the Collegian or the local State College weekly, The Times, perhaps because it was so small; even most of the 4,300 students on campus had stayed away. The most significant part of the tournament for Penn State occurred with the creation of the National Wrestling Coaches organization by 41 institutions. The personable and popular Speidel, who helped organize the group, was elected vice president.

When the tournament returned to Rec Hall in 1938, little had changed in the national media and sports cultures, although the local newspaper was now published Monday through Saturday and had been renamed the Centre Daily Times. Lehigh was still the dominant team in the East, but Penn State was coming on and had won the EIWA championships in 1936 and 1937. This time, 92 wrestlers from 29 colleges entered the NCAA competition. Only two schools had full eight-man teams - Penn State and Oklahoma State - and there was big disparity in talent between those squads. The Cowboys had three defending individual national champions and one runner-up, while the Lion wrestlers hadn't even won an EIWA title and only two had been runners-up. That fact caused the Penn State Collegian to note, "The Nittany chances for a sensational showing are slim. Attendance at the bouts, thus, may suffer."

The newspaper was right. None of the Penn State entrants made it to the semifinal round, and although student enrollment had increased to 6,345, only 2,000 fans turned out for the Saturday matches. Oklahoma State won again, its 10th championship in 11 years of the tournament, beating out Illinois again, 19-15. Indiana was third with eight points.

However, shortly after the end of the tournament, Speidel, now the president of the coaches association, made a prescient remark while speaking at a banquet honoring the nearby Clearfield High School wrestling team. "Speidel Predicts Rise of East in Wrestling," the Penn State Collegian headline stated. "Mounting interest in high school wrestling in Pennsylvania presages an end to the West's domination in that sport... Speidel told the Clearfield high school wrestling squad," the Collegian reporter wrote. "Speidel stressed the influence of high-school wrestling on the collegiate sport by pointing to the successes of Oklahoma's collegiate wrestlers. He said that Oklahoma had sponsored high school wrestling for 20 years."

At this juncture, Penn State had never finished in the top 10 in the team standings, and only one individual had reached the NCAA finals: Howard "Red" Johnston, who won the 165-pound title in 1935. Speidel was eventually proven right, but not until the early 1950s, when Penn State emerged as a serious national contender from the East, along with several other schools, including Navy and Pitt. That's also when Lion wrestlers began receiving limited financial aid, following the elimination in 1949 of a scholarship ban for all Penn State athletes.

In the early and mid-1950s, television was beginning to challenge radio, newspapers and magazines as a prime source of news and entertainment. But only one TV station in Altoona was available in State College, so the local newspapers and radio station WMAJ remained powerful influences on the public. However, television had helped enhance the popularity of professional wrestling nationwide, and collegiate wrestling was benefiting from the reverberation.

In 1951, when Penn State won its first EIWA team title since 1942, the Lions had a real shot at the NCAA championship. They got close in the tournament at Northern Iowa, advancing three wrestlers to the individual final. But all three lost, and Penn State finished with 15 points to place third behind Oklahoma (24) and Oklahoma State (23).

In 1952, after posting its second consecutive undefeated dual-meet season and winning the EIWA again, Penn State figured to have its best chance ever at the NCAA team title and a couple of individual championships. But a week after the EIWA event, The Daily Collegian startled the growing wrestling fan base with the revelation that the school's Faculty Senate Committee on Athletics had adopted a first-time policy restricting competition in the NCAA wrestling, boxing and gymnastic tournaments to individual Eastern champions. According to the Collegian's front-page story and accompanying editorial condemning the Senate rule, the policy had been passed seven days earlier and the coaches of the three sports had been notified. But none of the coaches had apparently told their teams, perhaps hoping the rule would be rescinded.

The Collegian called the rule "short-sighted," denying the athletes "something they have earned by virtue of their performances all season long."  The Senate committee claimed the rule was not instituted for financial reasons but then disingenuously cited the traveling distance to the tournaments as the main reason for the new policy. For wrestling, that meant about 1,555 miles to Fort Collins, Colo., home of Colorado State. "If we judge the temper of the [11,500] student body correctly," the Collegian editorial stated, "this decision does not sit well with them."

"Speidel has been pointing to that national title for a long time now and he feels that this could be the year," wrote Collegian sports editor Ernie Moore. "But now someone comes and knocks the props right out from under him."

The students had developed into the biggest fans of wrestling, and groups of students began soliciting money at spots on campus and downtown State College with signs saying "Money to Send Wrestlers to NCAA's." Delta Upsilon fraternity offered to pay travel expenses for two of the banned wrestlers who were fraternity brothers. Despite the uproar, only the Lemyre brothers - junior Joe at 167 pounds and sophomore Dick at 130 pounds - and freshman Bob Homan at 123 pounds made the trip to Colorado. Penn State left home 137-pound junior Jerry Maurey, who had lost only one of 24 matches in his career but had been upset that year in the EIWA final.

The depleted lineup had no chance at the team championship but still finished fifth with eight points thanks to the Lemyre brothers. Joe Lemyre shocked the tournament by winning all four of his matches by four points or better and brought home Penn State's second individual national championship. Dick Lemyre lost to eventual 130-pound champion Gene Lybbert of Iowa Teachers and finished third. Oklahoma again edged Oklahoma State for the title, 22-21.

There were two more surprises emanating from that tournament. Penn State was named host for the 1953 event, causing Speidel to use a twist on an old saying when he told sportswriters, "If Mohammed won't go to the mountain, they will bring the mountain to Mohammed." In addition, the NCAA rules committee issued a policy requiring helmets for all competitions beginning with the 1954 season.

So the mountain came to Mohammed, and Mohammed was primed, having extended its dual-meet undefeated streak to 29 and repeated as EIWA champion by edging Cornell, 31-25, with two individual titlists: Dick Leymre and Maurey. A record 167 wrestlers from 57 colleges and 25 states started NCAA competition in 10 weight classes on March 27, and as the Collegian's front-page story reported, Penn State was one of the favorites for the team title: "For the first time since the Nationals were organized in 1918 [before the NCAA tournament began], there is some optimism circling among the wrestling coaches that the East, led by Penn State, had a 'good chance' at winning."

Speidel sent nine men into the preliminaries, more than any other school, with two-time defending champion Oklahoma - undefeated in 25 consecutive dual meets - Pitt and Toledo entering eight. This was believed to be a "down year" for Oklahoma, because two of its standouts were injured, and also for perennial champion Oklahoma State, which entered just six wrestlers. Oklahoma State Publicist Otis Wile wrote in a news release, "This might be a good year for the East to break into the king row."

Speidel was hyped up, and he told Collegian sports editor Jake Highton that Eastern schools had always been "gracious hosts" but "from now on you can expect the East to be less gracious. ... If the [West] wins, they'll get a black eye doing so. ... They will know they are in a fight."

The best way to comprehend the mood on campus is through the Collegian and its all-out coverage before and after the tournament. Just as the preliminaries were under way that Friday, the Collegian, which published Tuesday through Saturday, announced it would publish a special four-page Sunday edition, unprecedented since the student newspaper started in 1887.

Fans filled Rec Hall each day. Penn State took a 2-1 lead over Michigan in the morning preliminary round, but by the end of the afternoon session, the Lions were tied with Oklahoma State, 3-3, and had four finalists in Saturday's semifinals: the Leymre brothers, Don Frey at 147 pounds and Hud Samson at 191 pounds.

Dick Leymre and Samson reached the evening finals, with Penn State battling Oklahoma for the lead. As Jake Highton reported, some 6,000 fans "made a solid mass from the balcony track all the way down to the mat side. Grizzled Nittany habitués of Rec Hall said it was the largest [crowd] ever."

"LIONS WIN NCAA CROWN" proclaimed the large, two-tiered headline in the Collegian's special Sunday edition.

Penn State actually clinched the match Saturday night when Oklahoma's 123-pound favorite, Don Reece, was pinned by Minnesota's Dick Mueller. By that time, Dick Leymre had lost a 7-5 decision to Michigan's Norvard Nalan, but his brother Joe and Maurey had finished third earlier in the consolations.

Sampson, the popular 191-pound senior, punctuated the historic night with a dramatic pin of West Chester's Chuck Weber 4:15 into the match. That gave Penn State 21 points to Oklahoma's 15. Cornell had 13, Northwestern 12 and Oklahoma State 11. Samson's victory also made it a record five individual champions for Eastern schools.

"The East is risen. Hallelujah!" wrote Highton in a front-page column.

Charlie Speidel's prediction 15 years earlier had come to fruition; Mohammed had conquered the mountain. But it would take 57 years for Penn State to scale that mountain again.


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