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2015 NCAA finals could feature 1928-era wrestling ring, uniforms, rules

Indiana University was one of the schools which conducted wrestling matches in rings in the 1920s and 30s, as seen in this 1932 photo
Indiana University was one of the schools which conducted wrestling matches in rings in the 1920s and 30s, as seen in this 1932 photo
Indiana University photo archives

Today’s college fans attending the 2015 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in St. Louis may think they’ve traveled back in time, if proposals to commemorate the 85th edition of the national collegiate wrestling championships are implemented.

Among the possible changes which may be featured at next year’s NCAA finals: a roped-off wrestling ring, wool tights or trunks instead of today’s synthetic singlets, and reinstatement of many of the rules which governed college wrestling at the very first NCAA championships in 1928.

“The idea is to provide wrestlers, coaches and fans with a sense of what wrestling was like at those very first NCAAs, 85 years ago at Iowa State,” said one source, who spoke off the record to College Wrestling Examiner. “Some of us feel it would give today’s athletes and fans a new appreciation and respect for the challenges wrestlers of a bygone era faced.”

Another individual who took part in ongoing discussions on possible retro-style wrestling next year said, “A number of us believe these changes would be truly attention-getting, thus generating additional media coverage, along with higher TV ratings, for college wrestling’s premiere event.”

Initially, the idea was floated that all Division I college wrestling events – dual meets, independent tournaments, conference championships, and the three-day NCAA tournament – would all be required to incorporate these turn-back-the-clock changes throughout the 2014-15 season, but a number of meeting participants were concerned about issues such as cost of implementation for each school, as well as difficulty in sourcing wrestling rings and old-time gear before this fall, not to mention instructing wrestlers, coaches and officials on 1920s rules.

Instead, the proposal now being discussed would be to have these changes instituted only for the finals matches at the 2015 NCAAs at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.

A familiar ring

Perhaps the most attention-getting proposal would be to conduct the ten championship matches not on a foam-core mat on a raised platform, but in a raised, roped-off wrestling ring with horsehair mat, somewhat similar to what present-day sports fans might associate with boxing or professional wrestling. A number of major college programs in the 1920s and 1930s used 20-foot-square wrestling rings, including Oklahoma State, University of Iowa, Indiana University, and Northwestern. Most of these schools had mats on the floor, surrounded by ropes on the edge of the mat. However, wrestlers at least one school -- Oklahoma State – along with their opponents climbed into a ring that was 3-4 feet up off the ground. (Wrestling rings were banned by the NCAA during World War II.)

“A number of participants in these discussions felt that, in addition to providing today’s wrestlers and fans with a first-hand appreciation of the challenge of wrestling in a confined space, that the raised ring would force the action to the center of the mat, eliminating ongoing issues with wrestlers fleeing the mat,” said one historian. “No wrestler is going to want to risk ring-rope burns, let alone potential career-ending injury from falling off the raised platform.”

Uniform standards

In keeping with the attempt to make the 2015 NCAA finals resemble the 1928 NCAA championships at the Iowa State Armory, all wrestlers would be required to wear uniforms appropriate to the era: a choice of full-length tights or trunks, of wool fabric, shirts optional. Back then, most wrestlers from Midwestern and Western colleges wrestled bare-chested; shirts were more common on wrestlers from Eastern schools such as Penn State and Lehigh.

“Ohio State, with its tradition of having its finalists spend time in the tanning bed, may have an unfair advantage in preparing for wearing this old-style gear,” joked one historian. “We also want to discourage manscaping. The only thing champs of the past like Dick Hutton, Gary Kurdelmeier and Phil Kinyon waxed were their cars.” (See photos of these wrestlers below.)

Retro rules?

One aspect that has yet to be pinned down is rules. While some participants involved in planning an old-school 2015 NCAA finals have insisted on slavish adoption of the 1928 rulebook, others believe that only the basics should be incorporated, such as nine-minute matches (instead of today’s seven), and the full three-second pin instead of one-second falls nowadays. As one participant in these planning meetings told College Wrestling Examiner, “If three-time NCAA heavyweight champ Earl McCready could hold all three of his finals rivals’ shoulders to the mat for three seconds, surely today’s studs can do the same.” (See photo below.)

Another issue is whether modern-day technology might be banished from the retro-style 2015 NCAA finals. Some planners would like to see elimination of matside video review and electronic scoreboards just this once. However, sources indicate that there is close to universal agreement that the championships would continue to be shown live on ESPN and online, and that photographers and journalists would still be allowed to use present-day technology tools, all to help promote this uniquely historic event.

More than one source indicated that all these proposals are not set in stone; one went so far as to state he thought the chances of any of these changes being implemented were about as likely as “Logan Stieber moving up to 285 in pursuit of his fourth NCAA title.” In other words, not very likely.

That said, a special commemoration of the 85th anniversary of NCAA mat championships has some precedence. For the 75th anniversary of the NCAA wrestling championships in St. Louis in 2005, the NCAA conducted an online poll to ask fans to select the fifteen greatest college wrestlers of all time. Among the honorees: Dan Hodge, Dan Gable, John Smith, and Cael Sanderson.

About the photo: Indiana University was one of the schools that wrestled in a raised, roped-off ring, as seen in this IU Archives photo from 1932.

Get a good look at what we could be seeing at the 2015 NCAA finals... along with photos of some of the wrestlers mentioned in this story by looking at the photo-list below...

Wrestling rings in college
Wrestling rings in college 1939 Redskin (Oklahoma State yearbook)

Wrestling rings in college

A number of colleges, mostly in the heartland, used wrestling rings for their matches. The NCAA mandated the wrestling surface be 20-24 feet square, and had specific requirements about the number and type of ropes and other design features, all with an eye to wrestler safety. WWE-style theatrics such as jumping off the top rope – or throwing an opponent out of the ring – were automatic disqualifications back in the day.

Is it possible we could see this kind of ring in the middle of the floor at Scottrade Center in St. Louis for the 2015 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships finals?

About the photo: From the ring and the old-school gear worn by the wrestler, you might think it's a vintage pro wrestling image. Actually, it shows Oklahoma State's legendary coach Ed Gallagher instructing one of his Cowboy wrestlers in the ring at then-new Gallagher Hall (now Gallagher-Iba Arena). From the 1939 Redskin (Oklahoma State) yearbook.

Iowa State’s Holding: One of the first NCAA champs
Iowa State’s Holding: One of the first NCAA champs Iowa State photo archives

Iowa State’s Holding: One of the first NCAA champs

Arthur Holding was crowned the 135-pound champ at the very first NCAA wrestling championships, in his home gym, the Iowa State Armory, in March 1928.

About the photo: In this photo from the ISU Archives, Holding is shown here wearing the typical gear of the era: wool trunks over wool tights (with leather knee pads), stripped to waist. Is it possible we might see, say, Ohio State's Logan Stieber, go for his fourth title dressed this way at the 2015 NCAAs in St. Louis?

1928 NCAA heavyweight champ Earl McCready
1928 NCAA heavyweight champ Earl McCready 1929 Redskin (Oklahoma State yearbook)

1928 NCAA heavyweight champ Earl McCready

Born in Canada, Oklahoma State’s Earl Grey McCready owns the distinction of being the first NCAA heavyweight champ (called “unlimited” back then)… the first three-time NCAA champ at any weight (1928-30)… and one of only three, three-time NCAA heavyweight champs (the others being Dick Hutton in the late 1940s, and Jimmy Jackson in the late 1970s. All three wrestled for Oklahoma State.)

What's more, McCready is one of only two three-time champs to have pinned all three of his finals opponents. (The other: Oklahoma’s Dan Hodge in the mid-1950s.)

Nicknamed "Moose", McCready stood 5'11" and tipped the scales at a trim 218 pounds. He sported a perfect 25-0 record in three seasons, winning 20 of those matches by fall. Realize that back then, McCready had to hold his opponent's shoulders to the mat for a full three seconds, not one second like today.

About the photo: Head-and-shoulders shot of a bare-chested Earl McCready in his team captain portrait in the 1929 Redskin yearbook.

Oklahoma State heavyweight Dick Hutton
Oklahoma State heavyweight Dick Hutton 1950 Redskin (Oklahoma State)

Oklahoma State heavyweight Dick Hutton

Despite never having claimed an Oklahoma high school state title, Dick Hutton won the NCAA heavyweight title in 1947, 1948 and 1950… but was denied the championship at the 1949 NCAAs in a controversial referee call in the closing seconds of his title match (sound familiar?), missing out on the opportunity to become the first four-time NCAA champ decades before Pat Smith, Cael Sanderson or Kyle Dake.

A World War II veteran who competed all four years at Oklahoma State*, Hutton was well into his 20s when he wrestled for the Cowboys. Hutton stood 5'10" and weighed in at 245 pounds. In four seasons, Hutton compiled a near-perfect 42-1-1 record (the one loss was the 1949 NCAA finals), scoring 13 falls.

About the photo: Although Dick Hutton later became a pro wrestling champ, this image is from his senior year at Oklahoma State. Here he's shown conferring with his college coach, Art Griffith, in the gear of his era, trunks over tights, no shirt. (Chest hair optional.)

Any chance we'll see a photo like this of 2014 NCAA heavyweight champ Nick Gwiazdowski standing with his North Carolina State head coach Pat Popolizio at the 2015 NCAAs?

* From the 1920s until the late 1960s, freshmen were not eligible to wrestle at the NCAAs. However, there was a brief time period immediately after World War II where freshmen like Hutton could compete.

Iowa mat champ, future coach Gary Kurdelmeier
Iowa mat champ, future coach Gary Kurdelmeier Dan Gable's book "Coaching Wrestling Successfully"

Iowa mat champ, future coach Gary Kurdelmeier

Gary Kurdelmeier was not only a wrestler at the University of Iowa, but also as the school's head coach, set the foundation for the program that still ranks as one of the all-time best in college wrestling.

This hairy-chested Hawkeye was a two-time Iowa state champ from Cresco High School (1953-54) who then headed south to the University of Iowa, where he was a two-time NCAA All-American and Big Ten finalist. Kurdelmeier won the 1957 Big Ten title and 1958 NCAA championship at 177 pounds.

Kurdelmeier lost only a handful of matches at Iowa, two when he moved up a couple weight classes to take on NCAA heavyweight champs... and at least twice to Dan Hodge of the Oklahoma Sooners.

After graduation, Kurdelmeier launched his coaching career, eventually returning to Iowa, where he became head coach in 1972. In four short years, Kurdelmeier transformed the program into a winner... hiring Dan Gable from Iowa State as his assistant before Gable took the reins in 1977.

About the photo: Gary Kurdelmeier in the referee position as a Hawkeye wrestler in the late 1950s, stripped to the waist. From Dan Gable’s “Coaching Wrestling Successfully” book.

Oklahoma State champ Phil Kinyon
Oklahoma State champ Phil Kinyon 1963 Epitome (Lehigh yearbook)

Oklahoma State champ Phil Kinyon

Phil Kinyon was a two-time Oklahoma state champ from Stillwater High School (1953-54) who served in the U.S. Navy before enrolling at Oklahoma State in the early 1960s, where he was a three-time NCAA finalist, and 1961 champ, compiling a 39-3-4 overall record.

One of the most powerful and feared wrestlers of his era, Kinyon battled Doug Blubaugh in a dozen matches to try to make the 1960 U.S. Olympic team; Blubaugh won a place on the team over Kinyon… then brought home a gold medal from the Rome Olympics.

About the photo: Kinyon tries to escape from Lehigh’s Kirk Pendleton in their 157-pound title bout at the 1963 NCAAs. From the photo, you can see why a college wrestler of Kinyon's era described the Cowboy as being "hairy as a bear and built like a brick ****house." Photo from 1963 Epitome (Lehigh) yearbook.

See Kinyon in action in the first match on a YouTube video of the 1962 NCAA finals.

Dan Hodge on Sports Illustrated
Dan Hodge on Sports Illustrated Author's collection

Dan Hodge on Sports Illustrated

Unlike some pranks involving college wrestling, this cover was no April Fools’ Day joke: University of Oklahoma 177-pounder Dan Hodge was featured on the front of the April 1, 1957 issue Sports Illustrated, the only amateur wrestler to be pictured on the cover as an amateur wrestler* in the magazine’s 60-year history.

Hodge was 46-0 in college, winning three NCAA titles (1955-57) by pinning each of his three finals rivals. He pinned 78% of his opponents… including Iowa’s Gary Kurdelmeier, who he wrestled a couple times in college.

And, yes, this is the guy whose name graces the Hodge Trophy, given each year to the nation's top college wrestler a week or so after the NCAAs.

About the photo: Dan Hodge of the cover of Sports Illustrated, in his Oklahoma Sooner uniform of the era – tights, trunks, no shirt.

* For instance, some NFL players who wrestled in high school or college have been on the SI cover, but, were shown in their football gear or in street clothes, not as wrestlers.

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