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Legendary wrestler-coach Bill Koll helped lead the way at D-Day

D-Day survivor Bill Koll as a wrestler (left) and coach
D-Day survivor Bill Koll as a wrestler (left) and coach
Both images courtesy of Jay Hammond, used with permission

On June 6, 1944 – seventy years ago today – thousands of U.S. and Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, France during World War II’s D-Day to take back western Europe from the Nazis. One of those who lived nearly 60 years beyond that harrowing event to become a legendary wrestling and coaching career was none other than Bill Koll.

William Koll is now considered to be one of the all-time great college wrestlers of the past, a three-time NCAA champ for Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) who went on to coaching success at his college alma mater and Penn State. Even today’s college wrestling fans most likely recognize the Koll name, as Bill was the father of Rob Koll, long-time head wrestling coach at Cornell University. The elder Koll was also the impetus for what has become known as the Koll rule regarding overhead body slams.

Koll, an Iowa state champ for Fort Dodge High School in 1941, enrolled at ISTC but was inducted into the U.S. Army in February 1943 as a freshman, serving in the 149th Combat Engineers Battalion in Europe.

"As a combat engineer, I spent 24 months in Europe, where our unit of amphibious engineers landed at Omaha Beach at 6:15 a.m. on June 6," Bill Koll told Mike Chapman for the historian’s 1981 book, “From Gotch to Gable: A History of Wrestling in Iowa.”

"He was one of the first at the Normandy beach invasion on D-Day,” Bill Koll’s son Rob told InterMat in a 2007 interview. “He was among those who had to clear the beach of the dead and wounded before the generals arrived"

“People were falling on either side of you,” Bill Koll said in the 2003 book “Duty, Honor, Victory: America’s Athletes in World War II” by Gary Bloomfield. “It was the most frightening experience of my life.”

In a 1985 profile for the Des Moines Register Sports Hall of Fame, the elder Koll said, "There were 35 percent casualties, and in looking back, I know I was pretty lucky."

Here’s how the official U.S. Army D-Day website describes the invasion which included Bill Koll and his fellow heroes. “On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline, to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which, ‘we will accept nothing less than full victory.’ More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foothold in Continental Europe. The cost in lives on D-Day was high. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, but their sacrifice allowed more than 100,000 soldiers to begin the slow, hard slog across Europe, to defeat Adolf Hitler’s crack troops.”

Koll’s service wasn’t limited to the Normandy Invasion. He also participated in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded with a Bronze Star, and discharged from the Army in December 1945. He immediately made tracks back to Cedar Falls, and the wrestling room at ISTC, to resume his mat career.

Despite not having wrestled in 34 months, Koll returned to the college mats with full force. Just months after his discharge, he won his first national title at the 1946 NCAAs, at 145 pounds, and took home the award for most falls. The following year, Koll won his second NCAA title at 145, and Outstanding Wrestler honors. At the 1948 NCAAs, Koll claimed his third NCAA title (this time at 147.5 pounds), his second Outstanding Wrestler award, and a place on the U.S. Olympic freestyle squad. That summer, he placed fifth in his weight class at the 1948 London Games.

After concluding his 37-0 collegiate career, Koll began his coaching career. He returned to ISTC as head coach in the early 1950s, compiling a 71-42-6 record. In 1965, Koll took the helm of the Penn State program, where he built an impressive 127-22-7 record for a .852 winning percentage before retiring in 1978. Koll passed away at age 80 in 2003.

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