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 36 to 40. 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.
Randy Lewis, Iowa, 126, 1979
The only perfect season for the two-time NCAA champion and 1984 Olympic gold medalist came as a sophomore. After finishing second in the nation as a freshman, Lewis pinned opponents at a prolific rate in 1978-79, sticking 19 of 36. The Hawkeye wrestled a wide-open style that made him a fan favorite and never slowed down, even on the grand stage of the NCAA tournament. After a pair of falls to open the tournament at Iowa State, the 126 pounder piled up 54 points in his three remaining matches, topping John Azevedo (Cal State-Bakersfield) in the final by a football score, 20-14. Azevado was no slouch himself, joining Randy on the 1980 US Olympic team that was not allowed to compete in Moscow and winning the 126-pound national title that same year when Lewis moved up. Lewis sits second, behind Ed Banach, on Iowa’s all-time career pins list with 64.
Wade Schalles, Clarion, 158, 1973
Schalles was also a two-time NCAA champion and had just one perfect season. One of the most prolific pinners in the history of college wrestling pinned 28 of his 37 foes in 1972-73, allowing just nine of his opponents to escape that fate. After winning what we now know as the Division II national tournament, the Clarion junior pinned his way into the finals at the Division I championships in Washington, having just one bout get through the first period. While he could not cap his season with yet another fall, he controlled Mike Jones (Oregon State), 9-2, for his second title. Due to an eligibility snafu surrounding his initial enrollment at East Stroudsburg, this would be the last NCAA tournament for Schalles, though he was allowed to wrestle in the 1973-74 regular season, running his career pin total to 106.
Jordan Oliver, Oklahoma State, 149, 2013
After three years at 133 pounds, Oliver jumped all the way to 149 for his senior campaign. It did nothing to lessen his dominance. He pinned 17 and earned bonus points 32 times as a senior. Once he got to Des Moines, Iowa, in search of his second national title, Oliver just kept scoring, marching into the title bout with four major decisions, 16-6, 13-3, 11-3, and 14-3. Squaring off with number two seed Jason Chamberlain (Boise State) on Saturday night, Oliver was unable to get his vaunted offense on track and the clock ticked under one minute in the third with the two knotted at one point apiece. However, a slide by with just 13 seconds remaining put the Cowboy in front and sent Oliver out a two-time national champion.
Stephen Neal, Cal State-Bakersfield, 275, 1998
Neal was already a two-time All-American entering his junior season, coming off a runner-up finish to Kerry McCoy (Penn State) in 1997. With McCoy graduating, there was no one left in college wrestling that could compete with the San Diego native. He earned 18 falls and found no competition in Cleveland on his way to the first of two national titles. After opening the tournament with a pair of major decisions, Neal pinned his man in both the quarters and semis before blasting Trent Hynek (Iowa State), 20-5, in the final. After another perfect season in 1999, Neal went on to be a world champion and an offensive lineman in the NFL, starting on the New England Patriots as they won the Super Bowl after the 2004 season. He retired in March of 2011.
Cael Sanderson, Iowa State, 197, 2002
En route to going 159-0 in college, Sanderson was remarkably consistent, winning 39 matches as a freshman, then 40 in each of the next three years. Though he was flawless from the start, his dominance continued to grow as his career progressed culminating in a career-high 23 pins and 11 tech-falls as a senior in 2001-02. With the two forfeits he received and a pair of major decisions, Sanderson put up bonus points in all but two matches. Both of his decisions came over Jon Trenge (Lehigh), who Cael beat 12-4 in the NCAA finals to close his incomparable college career. That match made Sanderson the first undefeated four-time NCAA Division I champion and he remains the only wrestler to accomplish that feat. He was named Outstanding Wrestler after all four of his national tournament wins and he is the only wrestler to win three Hodge Trophies, winning each season from 2000-2002.