Pat Smith, One of the Greatest

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. 

Relaxed Rules

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 46 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.

As a side note, how can USA Wrestling persuade the NCAA that the two international styles of wrestling have nothing in common with folkstyle, then turn around and convince them that the two are the indelibly linked so the richest universities can have additional coaching staff members running their various RTC (Regional Training Centers) programs, and post graduates working out with their collegians? True, it’s good for Colorado Springs and great for America’s international efforts.

But how does that effect the parody that the NCAA was dead set on achieving by putting limits on the number of scholarships and coaches any school can have? Somehow that doesn’t seem very parody like for the other 200 plus schools, who can’t possibly compete with the big boys, or afford their programs as they are, let alone loose what used to be previously available charitable giving to have that money shift over to begin an RTC program.

Not to worry though, there’s a movement afoot by several influential members of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to dump the 5 combative’s (Judo, Karate, Taekwondo and both wrestling styles) from the Games and instead, add MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) in their place. The why is simple; the huge fan appeal of the UFC, and as a result, the interest the networks would have ($$$) in broadcasting the fights. And who knows who else might be quietly pitching that scenario?

If, and when that happens, it would be a major win-win for the IOC, they get to add one very popular sport while dumping 5 very non-popular sports relative to revenue production, versus expenses.

I don’t like it, but I understand it makes perfect sense for a company to cut fat and replace it with muscle. And don’t be fooled, the IOC is a company first, and a premiere sporting event second.

If that happens, it will be interesting to see how the NCAA will view the RTC’s and Olympic Redshirting?

Let’s get back to my 9 year, 4 years of eligibility point.

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.   

Participation Opportunities

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.    

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7 thoughts on “Pat Smith, One of the Greatest

  1. Speaking of amateur wrestling strategies, can people identify different amateur wrestling strategies?

    I think I can identify two strategies:

    1) a tactical strategy

    One wrestler is a tactician, very good a doing take downs and escapes. This wrestler builds up a large point lead.

    2) a positional strategy

    A positional wrestler is very good at using his/her body to apply leverage and pressure to the opponent, hopefully going for a pin.

    These two strategies should fight it out on the mat, not in the rules committee.

  2. I have an idea for three incremental rule changes to help the sport of amateur wrestling.

    1) eliminate the technical fall. Let the wrestling continue until either time runs out or a wrestler is pinned.

    Why?

    If one argues the losing wrestler shouldn’t be humiliated, I would suggest wrestling is a tough sport. We don’t end a football game or a basketball game, prematurely, when one team gets a thirty point lead. Why should we end a wrestling match, prematurely, when one wrestler gets a thirty point lead?

    If one argues it gets boring when a wrestler gets ahead by twenty to thirty points, this suggests all the action from scoring points during a match becomes boring. This suggests scoring points ceases to be exciting. Why should a technical fall be defined as being ahead by ten points or fifteen points. Why not five points or thirty points? When do the fans get bored?

    If one argues a wrestler getting ahead by fifteen points deserves the victory and we should stop the match, I ask why. We don’t end a football game or a basketball game just because a team gets ahead by thirty points. A wrestler getting ahead by fifteen points should be encouraged to go for the pin.

    2) change team scoring to be the following:

    1 point – decision, winning a match by less than 8 points
    2 points – major decision, winning a match by 8 points up to 14 points
    3 points – superior decision, winning a match by 15 points or more
    6 points – pin, a pin ends the match
    9 points – forfeit, the opposing team gets 9 points if a match is forfeited

    The rationale for this is to award points based on the difficulty of achieving objectives. A pin seems to be the most difficult objective to achieve and should be appropriately awarded.

    I suggest a pin is also important to the fans. A pin represents closure. A technical fall seems more like an arbitrary number of points after which the match is artificially ended.

    A forfeit is the least desirable outcome and should be severely punished.

    3) If a wrestler comes to the scoring table and is the designated wrestler, and refuses to wrestle, it should be a forfeit.

    I heard about these whistle matches where a coach doesn’t want to have a match wrestled that might break the momentum. It shouldn’t be any coach’s choice whether or not the momentum is broken.

  3. When will amateur wrestling find a set of rules and stop changing the rules every year?

    I’m asking not only about eligibility, but the actual moves and holds and time limits for the matches and all the rest?

    If I look at the history of the game of Chess, the last great rule changes happened in the 1500s with the advent of the “Mad Queen”. There have been minor tweaks since then, with a change to how pawn promotion works and the addition of a chess clock, but a player of the 1500s would recognize the modern game.

    What’s changed in Chess is the strategy. Rather than changing the rules to favor one strategy or another, Chess lets players fight it out using different strategies on the board. New strategies are born from the struggle. Old strategies go out of favor. The game evolves, but the rules don’t change.

    Can anyone say that about amateur wrestling? In the 1800s and early 1900s, when professional wrestling was real, moves and holds used by George Hackenschmidt or Joe Stecher are outlawed today.

    As an example of the problem of making rules upon rules upon rules, one outlaws rides a wrestler from the 1920s or 1930s might employ when the bottom wrestler goes belly down, calling those rides for punishment only or stalling or potentially dangerous. One argues no progress is being made; please tell that to the defensive wrestler, on the bottom, getting weaker and weaker, squirming, trying to escape.

    Thanks to the rule changes, the wrestler on top has no tools to deal with a wrestler that goes belly down. What does the amateur wrestling rules committee do? The rules committee creates a another rule about the bottom wrestler needing to work back to hist base or it’s stalling.

    What do coaches do? They find a way around the rules, teaching their wrestlers how to put in a leg and use a power-half to turn turn the defensive wrestler. It’s not stalling because the wrestler, on top, is trying to turn his opponent. Meanwhile, the defensive wrestler’s coach is yelling, watch the arm, it’s potentially dangerous, it’s too cruel and punishing, and should be outlawed.

    A rule creates a problem and another rule is created to fix the problem created by the first rule. Meanwhile, the strategy and style of amateur wrestling is fundamentally changed. People who don’t like the new strategy scream for rules to outlaw the new strategy, and on it goes.

    Learn from Chess. Find a set of rules and stick to them. Let the different strategies fight it out, on the mat, not in the rules committee.

  4. Question please: can one actually compare the abilities of wrestlers from one decade to the next given the rules of the 1910s favored certain strategies while the rules of the 2010s favor different strategies?

    Over the decades, the rules eliminated many moves and holds, eliminating certain strategies which may have been the bread and butter of great wrestlers from a particular time. I grant, the rules encouraged other strategies to emerge.

    Isn’t comparing wrestling greats from the 1910s and 1920s with wrestling greats from the 2000s and the 2010s like comparing apples with oranges?

    Can’t we accept wrestling greats in their own right, from their own decades, without speculating who is the greatest of all time?

    I could go back to the ancient Greek style of Greek Palé, and ask how do the modern wrestlers stack up against Milo of Croton, but the styles are so different, the comparison wouldn’t make much sense.

  5. Question please: if one wishes a wrestler to only be able to wrestle in their own division, meaning D-2 and D-3 can’t wrestle in NCAA D-1 Championships, would you be in favor of a post NCAA college Division Championship where the best of each division can wrestle?

    Why? Some people may wish to ask, who are the best college wrestlers at the college style of wrestling that year.

    When D-2 and D-3 could wrestle D-1, people could find out that answer. Should there be another way to find out that answer?

    • Rick . . . thank you for commenting . . . several times. The answer to your comment immediately above is, pretty much everyone knows who the top dogs are these days. Why, because there are so many tournaments during the year where D-II and D-III athletes can test their metal against D-I stars. The Midlands is an example. Decades ago, that wasn’t necessarily the case. And ever since the time when D-II and D-III athletes weren’t allowed to move up, anyone capable of a D-I title, enrolled at a D-I institution. No longer does the sport see wrestlers like Haselrig, Sanders, Dziedzic, Simpson, Rohn, Schalles, Simons, Hitchcock, Bonomo etc. competing under a D-II or D-III banner.

      • Hi Wade,

        I didn’t know. I have much ignorance about amateur wrestling. I believe in trying to learn from history, but the rules of amateur wrestling keep changing.

        It still troubles me to try to compare wrestlers of the past with wrestlers of the present. I think it’s like comparing the modern styles Freestyle and Folkstyle and Greco Roman. There are significant difference even though there are similarities.

        For example, if I look at the training manuals for wrestling from the 1920s and 1930s, I find the coaches who wrote those training manuals talk about four phases of wrestling. Wrestlers had to learn all four phases to be good:
        1) take downs (and counters)
        2) riding (and counters)
        3) escapes/reversals (and counters)
        4) pinning (and counters)

        The manuals make a big deal of using legs as much as arms. Riding was a skill learned to relax while using your weight to weaken an opponent making it easier to pin an opponent. One need only look at the “Scientific Methods of Wrestling”, by Paul Prehn, Copyright 1925, “Modern Wrestling for the High School and the College”, by H. Otopalik, Copyright 1934, or “Wrestling, Prepared by the Training Division, Bureau of Aeronautics”, released by the United States Naval Institute, Copyright 1943. They are all available, online, At https://babel/hathitrust.org.

        It seems to me, wrestling, these days, one need only learn two of the phases, perhaps three:
        1) take downs (and counters)
        2) escapes/reversals (and counters)
        4) pinning seems to be optional although the counters might still be mandatory

        One does not need to learn riding (and counters). Riding is now treated as stalling.

        I stopped being interested in Olympic Wrestling in the late 1960s when I first saw it on TV. One seemed to only need to learn one phase:
        1) take downs (and counters)

        After a period of time, if there was no “activity”, the referee would stand the wrestlers up, so the wrestlers didn’t need to learn escapes.
        If nothing happened after a period of time, the referee would stand the wrestlers up, so the wrestlers didn’t need to learn riding or the counters to riding.
        Pinning, which does make Olympic wrestling exciting to me, seems to be done, more or less often, from a standing throw.

        Is my assessment of the devolution of amateur wrestling correct? Did the wrestlers of the 1920s and 1930s have to learn more phases, and be proficient at more phases, than the wrestlers of today.

        The wrestlers of today may be much more proficient at doing take downs, but are the wrestlers of today less rounded than the wrestlers of yesteryear?

        I suspect, if the wrestlers of today were to wrestle the wrestlers of the 1920s, using the rules of the 1920s, the wrestlers of today would lose, and lose badly. The wrestlers of today might do okay as long as both wrestlers were on their feet. Should the wrestler of today be found on the mat in the down position, I suspect the wrestler of today might not know how to escape being ridden, and would become too weak to avoid getting pinned.

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