In part one of our attempt to answer the question of who is NCAA wrestling’s all-time pin king, we tackled the debate over whether Gene Mills (Syracuse) broke Wade Schalles’ (Clarion) NCAA record of 106 career falls. However, while those two are cited at the top of many all-time college wrestling pins lists, there is another wrestler out there who may have topped them both. Al Sears of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is said to have had 122 pins in his career, though when I spoke with him he confirmed that his official total was 110. The discrepancy could well be the for same reasons that Mills’ total was so hard to pin down. There were more unofficial matches back then that did not count on official records. Regardless, 110 is still enough to make Sears the all-time pin king in college wrestling.
Sears wrestled at the end of the unlimited era in the heavyweight division. His four Division II All-American finishes helped the Cougars win two D2 national titles and finish in the top four every year during Sears time in the line-up. In 1985, Sears finished eighth at the Division I national tournament after qualifying by reaching the finals in Division II. His yearly pin output was remarkably steady, putting up 24 as a freshman, 29 as a sophomore, 27 as a junior, and capping his career with 30 in 1984-85. Sears reportedly broke Schalles’ record at the Midwest Regional his senior year by pinning Jon Perry (Missouri-Rolla) just 18 seconds into his finals match, his third pin of the tournament. When he did so, he rolled his tube socks up to his knees, revealing the number 107 on both, commemorating his career fall total to that point. He would tack on three more falls in all at the Division II and Division I national tournaments to reach 110.
It is interesting that when reviewing articles from the time they all refer to Sears breaking Schalles record of 106 with no mention of Mills. Some might see this as further proof that the verification effort after Mills career ended in 1981 had failed. However, we should also remember that Mills himself admitted the initial verification efforts came up short, leaving him behind Schalles through this time. That, in addition to the 2007 article by Jay Hammond mentioned in part one, makes the recognition of Schalles as the record holder at that time an obvious choice. The 2007 article does not outline any efforts to document Sears total, but it does include a list of NCAA wrestling’s all-time top pinners, attributed to another wrestling historian, Bob Dellinger. Sears is listed at the top of that table with 110 falls, Schalles is second with 106, and Larry Bielenberg (Oregon State) is third with 94. Notably absent despite the list including Howard Harris (Oregon State) with 87 falls, is Mills. Part one outlined the case against Mills made by Mr. Hammond, but the fact that Sears was included while Mills wasn’t is a strong vote in support of the big man.
Sears, just like Schalles, was officially a Division II wrestler throughout his career. However, he sent me schedules from his time in college that show just how different that era was. When SIUE won their second straight Division II national title in 1985, Sears’ senior season, they wrestled 16 of their 20 duals against D1 competition, including ranked opponents such as Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Northern Iowa, and Missouri twice. Both regular season tournaments they attended were hosted by Division I institutions and Sears told me he wrestled 13 of the top-20 heavyweights in Division I that year. Underscoring how different that era was, beyond the fact that they wrestled since departed programs Clemson and Tennessee-Knoxville, SIUE’s schedule included both Minnesota, who they tied 20-20, and Minnesota’s b-team, who they beat 44-6.
We can parse the records however we like, but at the very least Sears and Schalles fall into the same category. For some reason, while Schalles’ name consistently comes up when discussing the all-time pin king, Sears’ name rarely does. Certainly, Sears did not have the type of wrestling career that Mills or Schalles did, a fact that he readily admits. However, he is one of only three wrestlers in the history of NCAA wrestling to have pinned more than 100 opponents, if we include Mills, and he is the only one to reach 110. Sears may well own one of the most important records in our sport outright and he deserves the recognition that comes with that. While his total has not been completely documented either, remember that is true of everyone that has a triple digit pin total attributed to them. We will likely never know for certain the exact totals, but Sears has a reasonable claim.
The all-time NCAA wrestling pins list can be difficult to assemble. Record keeping varies widely depending on the school and some programs, like Syracuse, have been lost, taking most of their history with them. Even at the top, there have been disputes for years over some totals. However, after doing the research a few things seem likely. Al Sears is the all-time pin king with 110. Wade Schalles is second with 106. Gene Mills is almost certainly the leader out of those who wrestled for a Division I school, but his total, whatever it was, is likely to never be confirmed. The difference between a school like Clarion or SIUE and Syracuse, not to mention lesser Division I teams in the 70s and 80s, was minimal calling the D1 distinction into question. However, multiple lists and records exist in most sports so there is no reason they can’t here as well.
The next wrestler to make a run at 100 falls in a career will have a much better documentation than any of the three mentioned here. However, we might not see that for some time. Only one wrestler in any NCAA division pinned more than 25 wrestlers this season, Hunter Harris (Messiah) who had 32, and you need to average that throughout a four-year career to crack 100. Harris had 13 pins his first two seasons, leaving him needing 42 next season to hit triple digits. As of February 1st of this season, no one in Division I had more than 51 falls. Yes, each era is different, but this is also a really difficult thing to do. Recognizing those that did it is important for the history of the sport. I hope these articles can provide some clarity for future discussions.
In addition to those I thanked yesterday, Al Sears was instrumental in providing documentation and context for this article.