The greatest seasons in NCAA wrestling history can and will be debated. Eras are difficult to compare. As time wears on, many forget the stories of the champions, even more so those that they defeated in getting there. Still, the mystique surrounding a wrestler who wins every battle, defeating each foe who steps on the mat against him on his way to a national championship remains powerful. To have a little fun as we continue to wait for the season to begin, I decided to take a look at the best seasons in Division I wrestling history for each different win total, 11 through 55. Some of the decisions were easy, there has only been one wrestler to ever win a D1 title after going 55-0 for example, but others were incredibly tough. Choosing the best 34-0 season had me splitting hairs as the list of legendary athletes who have earned that record is long.
Today we continue our journey looking at win totals from 46 to 50. I used a blend of dominance, historical significance, and who a wrestler beat to make my choices. Win totals can be a little tricky to confirm, especially for older wrestlers, but using Jay Hammond’s historical work and school websites among other sources, this is what I came up with. We’ll be rolling out the list in increments of five throughout the fall so be on the lookout.
Howard Harris, Oregon State, UNL, 1980
Entering his senior season, Harris had finished sixth, fifth, and fifth at the NCAA tournament, wrestling each season at 190 pounds. He had won 123 matches, 47 by fall. What had already been an excellent career suddenly became a legendary one when Harris moved up to the unlimited weight class. Throughout the regular season, the Oregon native pinned opponents at a frightening rate. Heading into the national tournament, which was at home for the Beavers that year, Harris was the top seed after going 41-0 with 35 falls to that point. He rolled into the finals pinning all four of his foes. In the title match, he would face a sophomore from Indiana State, Bruce Baumgartner. Big Bruce, who would go on to become an NCAA champion and win 13 world or Olympic medals, was no match for Harris on this day. Howard’s 40th pin of the year gave him the title and he remains one of just five wrestlers to pin each of their five opponents on the way to an NCAA DI crown. The Oregon State big man also became the first African-American wrestler to be named outstanding wrestler at the NCAA DI Wrestling Championships.
John Smith, Oklahoma State, 134, 1988
It may surprise some to learn that the six-time world or Olympic champion only had one perfect season in college, coming as a senior when he went 47-0. Smith was the defending national champion coming into the 1987-88 season and, even better, had won his first world championship in late August before his final college season. As you would expect from the best wrestler in the world at his weight class, Smith dominated the competition, pinning 19 and recording 39 bonus point victories, never having a match end with less than a three-point margin. Smith put an exclamation point on his college days, pinning three and recording a 21-8 win on his way to the finals. Once there, he was too much for Iowa’s Joe Melchiore securing his second NCAA crown with a 9-2 victory. That summer, he would claim his first Olympic gold medal.
Chris Taylor, Iowa State, UNL, 1973
The exact number of wins and falls recorded by Taylor in his senior season at Iowa State, his second after beginning his college career at Muskegon Community College. However, the most likely totals seem to be 48 wins and an astounding 44 falls. That Taylor was undefeated on the season is undisputed. The big man who tipped the scales at 415 pounds was, like Harris, one of five wrestlers to pin each of his five opponents on the way to his second national title. The Cyclone didn’t have a single match last longer than 4:19, easily winning the Gorriaran Award for most pins in the least amount of time. Taylor went on to represent the United States at the 1972 Olympics in both freestyle and Greco, claiming bronze in freestyle.
Mike Land, Iowa State, 126, 1978
After building from sixth as a freshman to third as a sophomore, Land was flawless as a junior. In a tight team race between the Cyclones and the Iowa Hawkeyes, Land boosted Iowa State’s hopes, scoring two falls and receiving a default in his first three matches at the NCAA tournament. He produced a 19-4 superior decision, then worth three-quarters of a team point, to move into the finals and got his team within half a point of Iowa with yet another bonus point victory, taking down Randy Lewis (Iowa) by major decision, then worth half a team point, 13-5, in the finals. Despite Land’s heroics, Iowa State would remain half a point short, dropping two later matches in the finals in what remains the closest team race finish in NCAA DI national tournament history.
Mark Coleman, Ohio State, 190, 1988
After finishing fourth for Miami (OH) in 1986, Coleman transferred to Ohio State and redshirted with just one year of eligibility remaining. When he did take the mat for the Buckeyes, he tied the school record for wins in a season, held by Ed Potokar, with 50. He did have a pair of defeats during the regular season, but claimed the Big Ten title and a number one seed heading to the NCAA tournament at Iowa State. Once there, he would not be denied. Opening with a 17-1 tech-fall, Coleman controlled his next three bouts 7-1, 16-3, and 7-2 earning a spot in the finals. A 5-0 shutout of third-seeded Mike Davies (Arizona State) completed a storybook finish for Coleman’s college career. He would go on to win a world silver medal in 1991 and was a 1992 Olympian. After his wrestling days, Coleman was one of the first stars of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), winning the UFC 10 and UFC 11 tournament titles before becoming the first heavyweight champion for the organization at UFC 12.