Was Pat Smith the first 4-time NCAA Champion; absolutely! What he accomplished was certainly akin to what Roger Banister did in 1954, shattering the track and field myth that said, a sub four-minute mile was impossible.
Pat wasn’t the first wrestler to ever set 4 titles as a goal, but he was the first one to accomplish it. Or maybe he wasn’t; more on that a little later.
But since the time when Pat graduated, three others have won 4 NCAA titles as well; Cael Sanderson, Kyle Dake and Logan Stieber. And no question, there will be others but Pat was the one who illuminated the path that all those other greats traveled.
But . . . isn’t there always a but?
Do four titles mean that Pat was better than all the previous two and three-time NCAA Champions who came before him, or, for that matter, anyone of a half dozen other greats who also won titles in his weight class? Some names that history would suggest could have given Pat all he wanted, and possibly more, are, in no specific order; Lee Kemp, Dave Schultz, Joe Williams, Carl Adams, Jordan Burroughs, Kyle Dake, and Jim Zalesky. And maybe that Clarion kid as well. Who can say with certainly? But any debates along those lines would no doubt be fun.
On a similar topic, let’s begin with some historical background for those who are too young to know, or too old to remember.
For almost 40 years, from the first NCAA Championship in 1928 to the end of WWII, and from the 1950s through 1968, the NCAA had a rule that not only prohibited freshman from competing, but it meant that the best any wrestler could do, is win 3 NCAA titles. They felt that an athlete’s first year away from home should be spent acclimating themselves to the rigors of academia, before being thrown into the time-consuming demands of competition.
With that in mind, and in the opinion of many historians that I’ve talked with, there were about a half dozen or so wrestlers before Pat’s time, who, most likely, would have won 4 NCAA titles had they been given the opportunity.
In alphabetical order, here are a few of those greats: Buddy Arndt, Jack Van Bebber, Earl McCready, Stanley Henson, Danny Hodge, Bill Koll, Gray Simons, and arguably the best of the bunch, Yojiro Uetake, who, for those who like statistics, only gave up two takedowns, all season, every season, leading up to his 3 NCAA titles for Oklahoma State. Danny Hodge, on the other hand, who is also one of the kindest gentlemen the sport ever produced, was never taken down.
How do you rank, rate, or argue for any particular athletes greatness when it’s possible today to be part of a collegiate program for up to 9 years, and be able to pick and choose whatever 4 years you want to wrestle?
As I wrote earlier, for most of the first 40 years of NCAA competition, athletes could only compete in 3 national tournaments. Then during the following 40 years, athletes could wrestle all 4 years, but were limited (redshirt) to a 5-year period, in which to complete their 4.
But now, it’s 9 years, which happens to be a year longer than any President of the United States can stay in office. That laxness sounds a little to the left of liberal if you ask me. Especially when you remember the tight restrictions so many other athletes had to live by for decades, whose records and accomplishments are being judged, probably unfairly now, against the greatness of today’s performers.
To my point, how many collegiate wrestlers do you know of that made it to the 100 match win club? I would imagine quite a few. But none of those athletes wrestled before the 1960s.
When Danny Hodge competed in the 50s as an example, he had a record of 46-0-0, with 36 pins, and never missed a match. You might say, “So what, there have been quite a few wrestlers I’m aware of with that many wins.” And you’d be right if you were talking about the number of wins in a season. But Danny’s 41 matches covered his entire collegiate career, including all of Oklahoma’s dual meets, his 3 Big 8 Conference titles and 3 NCAA Championships. And he never missed a match.
As to those 9 years I just mentioned where an athlete can pick which 4 seasons to wrestle, here’s how it works.
Since the Olympics occur every 4 years, a freshman can take what is known as an Olympic Redshirt year during his first year and then again 4 years later, neither of which will cost him a year of eligibility. That would give him 6 developmental years in which to wrestle 4.
Then, every athlete is entitled to a regular redshirt year, where he or she can select which season to take off, but still work out with the team and wrestle “unattached” in open tournaments. Now we’re up to 7 years from the date of matriculation to choose which 4 the athlete wants to wrestle.
For the possibility of an 8th year, there’s the medical waiver year, when an athlete’s institution petitions the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility due to a season ending injury. Assuming the NCAA grants the petition, which seems to be automatic anymore, tag on another year.
Then there’s grey shirting. This is when an athlete enrolls at an institution but takes less than 12 credits a semester during his freshman year. This gives the athlete the opportunity to work out with their future teammates, and wrestle unattached in open tournaments without starting their eligibility clock. That makes it a span of 9 years in which to wrestle 4.
Besides those 9 years, there’s something that was unheard of prior to the start of this century. An athlete postponing college admission and heading to one of the Regional Training Centers, or to Colorado Springs for a year or two, to toughen up, or if you happen to be a 125 pounder, wait until Lee graduates.
With all this, opportunities are growing, records are falling and the names of our earliest legends are fading.
What’s a Haselrig Rule
Named after Pitt-Johnstown’s Carlton Haselrig, it effectively put a stop to all the countries best D-II and D-III wrestlers being allowed to, in the same season, move up and compete in the D-I nationals.
For those, as I mentioned earlier, who may not remember before 1990, the best athletes from D-II and D-III, could also compete in the D-I’s if they were good enough, but in the reverse, D-I athletes were not allowed to move down.
I never really understood why anyone would think that was fair? I get it that the fans loved it, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of some D-I wrestlers who have earned the right to be on the podium.
Let’s say for a moment that your son were a wrestler at Northwestern University, and good enough to place 7th at the NCAA’s. But, unfortunately, there were 2 wrestlers, one from D-II and another from D-III present in his weight class, and they placed 3rd and 7th. I think you’d agree, “good job guys.” However, is it fair, or reasonable, that your son is now off the podium in 9th place, never to be an All-American, when those two other athletes each receive a second All American certificate, in the same year?
That’s what prompted the Haselrig Rule. It was the optics of Carlton winning 6 NCAA titles, 3 of them in D-I, which effectively kept 3 other great big men from being declared an NCAA Champion. That rule is thankfully in the past, and as a result, Carlton will be for all time, the only wrestler who can say he won more national championships than anyone else.
Or, maybe that’s not true either.
Gray Simons won 4 NAIA National Championships and 3 NCAA Championships, which makes 7 during his career. Again, for those who don’t know, or can’t remember, the NAIA’s in the 60’s when Gray won, were as tough then as winning an NCAA College Division* Championship was in the 70s.
Now, regarding Pat Smith, he wasn’t the first 4-time NCAA Champion. Rick Sanders from Portland State, won 2 College Division and 2 University Division titles in ’67 and ’68. Stan Dziedzic from Slippery Rock, was next with 3 College Division Championships and 1 University Division title during the ’70, ’71 and ’72 seasons. And Stan’s BFF from Clarion won both the College Division and University Divisions in ’72 and ’73.
If we care to muddy the waters even more, how about this . . . to win a D-I title prior to 1990 and after 1963, you had to beat not only the best wrestlers in D-I, but as I mentioned, the best wrestlers from D-II and D-III as well. That meant, at the D-I level, for 27 years, wrestlers were competing against at least twice as many star level athletes per weight class than are in today’s brackets.
Now, let’s talk about what-if for a moment. How many Division I Champions since 1990 wouldn’t have won title(s) had the champions from the smaller divisions been allowed to move up? An interesting question. Were there any athletes from D-II or D-III what could have stopped anyone of our four 4-timers from winning their four? I doubt it, but remember, there is a history of athletes from smaller schools doing very well against their larger school counterparts.
I know, it’s hard to compare apples to apples when rules, regulations and opportunities varied so much over the years. But it is fun to speculate.
And if we’re interested in comparing athletes from different decades, it’s probably reasonable to mention the number of institutions that no longer have wrestling programs. The sports bell curve was at its zenith during the 1970s when there were over twice as many institutions wrestling than there are today. That would have to play a part in any discussion of who’s tougher.
I wonder just how many great athletes in the past 30 years could have won NCAA titles, but never got the chance to, because the institution they chose to attend didn’t have wrestling? Or they lived in anyone of the 20 states that either doesn’t have a collegiate wrestling program at all, or the type of program that’s incapable of developing talent? I guess we’ll never know, but all this is what makes any debate fun, an often contentious.
You Must Wrestle Your Freshman Year
Here, I wanted to explain, what so many people have asked me about over the years, and has been discussed in articles, chat rooms and blogs. “Why didn’t Wade wrestle in the NCAA’s his senior year?” Here it is . . .
In 1968, the NCAA decided to eliminate their Freshman Aren’t Eligible rule. Why, who knows, but the rule was written, saying that athletes now have 4 years of eligibility, but, the athlete must compete in his first year of school. After that, he could redshirt whatever year he wanted.
This was contrary to what, in my case, the rules were for the ECAC, the Eastern College Athletic Conference that Clarion was a member of, and basically all of the institutions in the northeastern part of the United States. They differed from the NCAA’s rule, and felt, athletes could redshirt any one of their four years of eligibility, as you know is the case today and has been in place for the last 50 years. But that change didn’t help me.
This is where I got caught and lost my senior year of eligibility, having only wrestled in 3 NCAA tournaments. It’s a longer story, but basically, I didn’t wrestle my freshman year, and then in year 5, was allowed, per ECAC rules, to wrestle Clarion’s entire schedule, including our conference tournament, and then be denied the NCAA’s because in their eyes, I sat out the first year, which counted as a year of competition.
*The NCAA College Division Championships was actually a combination of the D-II’s and D-III’s. During the late 60s and the first half of the 70s, wrestling only had two divisions; the University Division, which is today’s D-I’s, and the College Division, which is now D-II and D-III.