With the fight to save another Division I program ongoing, we are again reminded how quickly teams can go from the highs, in this case Sa’Derian Perry earning Eastern Michigan All-American honors for the first time since 1999, to struggling to survive. Unfortunately, we have lost far too many over the years with the number of Division I schools that have dropped wrestling easily outnumbering those that remain. As we sat on press row during this year’s Division I tournament, Brad Wilson of LehighValleyLive remarked that someone ought to make a list of the top 10 college wrestlers who competed for programs that no longer exist. I asked if I could take that topic on and he was kind enough to let me take a crack at it. The rules are simple. If a wrestler spent his entire career competing for colleges that have since dropped their program, they are eligible. That means Sammie Henson, who was an All-American at Missouri before transferring to Clemson where he would win two national titles, is out. Here are the 10 most spectacular college wrestlers who no longer have the pleasure of watching their alma maters compete on the mat in NCAA competition.
Some of the research for this article including the year each school dropped their program comes from Jason Bryant’s Mat Talk Almanac.
10) Doug Wyn, Western Michigan
When he concluded his college career with a perfect season and the 167-pound national title in 1974, beating Jeff Callard (Oklahoma), 5-2, in the finals, Wyn stood alone as the greatest wrestler in program history. He still holds that title today. Doug had already finished fifth and second the previous two seasons. Western Michigan had its first All-American in 1971, Richard Bacon, and Wyn’s three in a row following that would be the last for the school. The Grandville, Michigan native is the only three-time MAC champion in program history. He also set school records for wins (89) and pins (29). Western Michigan dropped wrestling in 1982.
9) Stan Dziedzic, Slippery Rock
Before he was a United World Wrestling Vice President, Dziedzic was an incredible wrestler for Slippery Rock. However, his initial foray into college wrestling was with Indiana State. Stan qualified for the 1968 NCAA tournament but lost to the two seed, Len Borchers (Stanford) in the opening round. Back then, only those who lost to the wrestlers who made the finals got pulled into the wrestlebacks, so Dziedzic was eliminated when Borchers fell in the quarterfinals. After transferring to Slippery Rock, Dziedzic lost just twice in three years, winning three Division II national titles, and finishing third, first, and second in Division I. Both of his losses came at the DI national tournament to the eventual champion. Stan’s 1971 NCAA title, won as a junior, at 150 pounds remains the program’s only DI crown. He would go on to claim Olympic bronze in 1976 and become a world champion in 1977. Slippery Rock dropped wrestling in 2006.
8) Ralph Teague, Southwestern Oklahoma
After a runner-up finish at 191 pounds in 1932, Teague moved up the unlimited heavyweight division where he would claim titles in 1933 and 1934. His second championship boosted Southwestern Oklahoma to a fourth-place finish in the team race, giving Oklahoma school three of the top four slots, despite the tournament being held in Michigan. Ralph was slated to be a member of the 1936 Olympic team, but could not compete due to a knee injury.
7) Larry Owings, Washington
Most college wrestling fans know the story of Owings’ upset over Dan Gable in the 1970 NCAA finals very well. The Washington sophomore famously cut down to 142 pounds to face the two-time champion from Iowa State who had yet to lose a match. However, some don’t know that the year before, Owings had cut all the way to 130 to avoid Gable, who won the championship at 137. Larry was the fifth-seed but fell in the quarterfinals. When the man who beat him lost in the semis, Owings was eliminated. That made the 1970 run all the more surprising and the 13-11 final remains one of the most talked about matches in college wrestling history. For Gable, that was the end of his NCAA career, but Owings had two more seasons. Despite bringing perfect seasons into the finals as a junior and as a senior, the greatest wrestler in Washington wrestling history would never again stand atop the podium. Two-time champion Darrell Keller (Oklahoma State) and three-time All-American Tom Milkovich (Michigan State) stopped the Husky one match short each time. Washington dropped wrestling in 1980.
6) Bruce Baumgartner, Indiana State
His unbelievable international career can make it a little hard to believe that Baumgartner won just one NCAA title. Big Bruce did make three trips to the finals, though. As a sophomore, he was 26-3 but was forced to settle for silver when Howard Harris (Oregon State) made Baumgartner his 40th pin victim of the season. In 1981, Bruce again advanced to the finals, this time as the undefeated top-seed. However, he would come up short once again when Lou Banach (Iowa), a two-time NCAA champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist, pinned him. With one last chance to become a DI champion, the Indiana State senior would finally complete a perfect season, watching Banach fall to Steve Williams (Oklahoma) in the opposite semifinal, then taking down the Sooner for the third consecutive national tournament. Baumgartner was his school’s only DI wrestling champion. He would go on to win two Olympic gold medals, three world championships, and an incredible 13 world-level medals during his career. Indiana State dropped wrestling in 1986.
5) Jim Nance, Syracuse
In three seasons of competition, Nance lost just once. After an undefeated sophomore season, during the era when freshman could not compete, the heavyweight headed to the 1964 NCAA tournament at Cornell with a flawless record once again. However, in his quarterfinal match with Bob Billberg (Moorehead State), Nance was called for fleeing the mat and lost, 2-1. Upset by what he believed to be a bad call, Nance refused to continue in the tournament, defaulting out short of the podium. In 1965, Nance entered nationals perfect for the third straight year. A potential rematch with Billberg loomed in the semifinals, but while Nance earned his way there on the strength of two falls, Billberg fell in his opener, robbing Jim of a chance at vengeance. Nance pinned his semifinal opponent as well, then took his second title, 5-3. He would go on to have a 10 year career as a running back in the AFL and took MVP honors in 1966. Syracuse dropped wrestling in 2001.
4) Greg Wojciechowski, Toledo
Baumgartner’s success is well known and Chris Taylor (Iowa State) is a legend. In that same era, Wojciechowski was incredibly successful as well, but due to timing and circumstance, is not remembered by as many wrestling fans. After a second place finish at the NCAA tournament in 1970, behind Jess Lewis (Oregon State) who was the only man to beat Greg that season, a flawless junior season saw Toledo’s second DI champion crowned, after Harry Lanzi won in 1952. On track for another undefeated year as a senior, Wojciechowski was upended in the finals by Taylor. That would be the first of three second-place finishes behind the giant Cyclone in major events that year as the two would meet again in both the freestyle and Greco Olympic trials. Greg had also been the runner-up for the freestyle spot on the 1968 Olympic team and would suffer a similar fate in 1976. In his fourth try, the big man took down Baumgartner and the man he had lost to four years earlier, Jimmy Jackson (Oklahoma State) to finally make the team in 1980. He then missed the games due to the boycott. Toledo dropped wrestling in 1994.
3) Gene Mills, Syracuse
Mean Gene the Pinning Machine began his career as a very good college wrestler, finishing third and fourth in his first NCAA tournaments. However, it was his final two seasons, sandwiched around a redshirt in 1980 during which he made the Olympic team and was also a victim of the boycott, that ensured his position high on this list. Though the exact number of falls Mills secured is difficult to pin down, there is no question his dominant and exciting style puts him among the all-time best in that category. He won his last 77 college matches with a high percentage of those coming by fall. Those that didn’t end with the ref slapping the mat often saw Mills racking up ludicrous point totals. During his final season, with no technical fall in place, Gene won matches 42-0, 36-0, and 26-3. En route to his two NCAA titles, Mills crushed all comers, pinning seven in those national tournaments, while winning by 17 and 24 in two other bouts. The only close battle he endured was his 1979 finals win over Joe Gonzalez, who would become champion in 1980. The two 118 pounders scrapped to a 16-13 decision with Mills the victor. As mentioned above, Syracuse dropped wrestling in 2001.
2) Dean Lahr, Colorado
Few wrestlers ever beat Lahr. The ones who did were legends in their own right. The Buffalo lost just four college matches, all coming in the 1961-62 season. Three were to Bob Johnson (Oklahoma State) who would claim his second consecutive NCAA crown that season. The other came when the 177 pounder bumped up to wrestle another national champion, Leonard Lordino (Northern Colorado). With Johnson gone, Lahr ruled the weight class, running off 43 consecutive victories over the next two seasons, claiming two of the three DI NCAA championships in program history. In between those runs, Lahr was fourth at the World Championships, only losing to two-time Olympic finalist and 1964 gold medalist Ismail Ogan of Turkey. Colorado dropped wrestling in 1980.
1) Rick Sanders, Portland State
Before he was allowed to compete in the NCAA, Sanders was already a college national champion. While a freshman, Sanders won an NAIA crown at 115 pounds, capping a perfect season. It was a sign of what was to come. Unleashed on a full schedule as a sophomore, Rick remained undefeated until the Division II national tournament where he finished third at 123. Dropping back down to 115, Rick had no problem winning a DI title, pinning top-seed Tadaaki Hatta (Oklahoma State), the defending champion, in the semis and not having a margin of victory of less than seven points throughout the event. Staying down at 115 for both NCAA tournaments in 1967, Sanders was untouchable securing three falls, an 8-3 decision, and a 19-2 victory en route to his second DI crown. Those remain the only two DI titles in program history. For most of 1968, the song remained the same despite Sanders’ move to 123. A D2 title kept a zero in the loss column and Rick blasted his way into the finals with two falls, an 8-0 win, and a 12-2 handling of the four-seed Tim McCall (Indiana). However, a new champion would be crowned as sophomore Dwayne Keller (Oklahoma State), eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time, ended Sanders’ career on a sour note. That match can be viewed here. Rick compiled a career record of 103-2. In an odd twist, Keller remained undefeated until the final match of his career, losing in the 1971 NCAA finals as a senior after winning two titles. Portland State dropped wrestling in 2009.