It has been called the ultimate goal of wrestling. It can end a match in seconds, regardless of the score. Those wrestlers who can consistently achieve it become legendary, while many have had their dreams dashed at its hands. We are, of course, talking about the fall. Whenever a discussion begins about great pinners, the faces of wrestling fans light up. There is no shortage of names, both well known and obscure, that will come up. There will always be debate over who was the most dangerous of them all. While that debate is largely subjective, one objective measure of pinning acumen that should be among the most hallowed record in college wrestling remains shrouded in controversy. Who is the all-time pin king at the top level of NCAA wrestling?
The debate begins with Wade Schalles, a two-time Division I and Division II NCAA champion, winning titles at both levels, back then finalists at the Division II tournament advanced to the Division I tournament, in 1972 and 1973 for Clarion. A misunderstanding over the changing eligibility rules for freshmen ended up costing Schalles his post season in 1974, but it did not stop him from racking up an astounding 106 falls in his collegiate career while going 153-5-1 overall. Schalles set the standard, but less than 10 years later that record would be pursued by another great pinner, Gene Mills of Syracuse.
Mills earned the nickname “Mean Gene, The Pinning Machine” by piling up falls from the time he was a kid all the way through his international career. The National Wrestling Hall of Fame (NWHoF) has him for 886 total falls across all levels of competition as well as 1356 career victories. At Syracuse, Mills was a four-time All-American and two-time national champion, winning in 1979 and 1981. In 1980, he took a redshirt to pursue an Olympic gold medal. He made the team, but the United States boycotted the Games that summer.
As Mills’ NCAA career wound down, he believed he was on the verge of breaking Schalles’ NCAA record for pins. In a 1981 New York Times article written after Mills advanced to the NCAA finals, Mills states that he believes he has “tied the collegiate record with 106 pins”. He would go on to secure one last fall in the finals, pinning John Hartupee (Central Michigan) in 6:35. That appeared to be the record breaking 107th pin that Mills needed. However, legendary wrestling historian Bob Dellinger, who at the time was the director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, cautioned that the record would need to be documented before it was fully recognized.
In that era, long before the internet, verifying the results of a career’s worth of matches was a daunting task. Dellinger would have had to rely largely on records kept by Syracuse and Mills himself to document the record. In addition, Amateur Wrestling News (AWN) reported a fair amount of results and newspapers were another useful source of information if you could gain access to them. Dellinger was well versed in this sort of search from his previous work. According to Mills, the initial documentation effort came up just short when names for his opponents at one tournament could not be found. However, Mills found the wall bracket from that tournament years later and sent it to the Hall of Fame who, he told me, were finally able to acknowledge his total of 107 falls.
While the NWHoF does list Mills as having 107 college pins and states that his records are “all verified by the NCAA”, Schalles still disputes the total. When I spoke to him, he had nothing but glowing praise for Mills as a wrestler, but steadfastly held that the 107 total was incorrect. Schalles story was that the verification efforts failed and that was that. How could a record like this, that should be one of the most iconic numbers in our sport, be disputed over 30 years later? Sadly, Mr. Dellinger passed away in 1999 so I couldn’t ask him. After talking to the NWHoF and a few other wrestling historians, no one could provide any evidence one way or the other. It seemed that whatever verification efforts had been done, no one knew where the records had gone or had any good idea what the final verdict was.
What I knew for certain is that I had more tools at my disposal today than Mr. Dellinger ever did. With more newspapers than ever before archived online, I could search stories from all over the country from the comfort of my home. It was in this spirit that I set out to see how much I could verify of Mills’ record. I knew from the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to find records for every match so I decided to work backward. Mills final college record was 144-5-1. Underscoring the vagueries of any numbers from that era, that same New York Times article I mentioned earlier lists him as 138-5-1 with one match remaining in his career. Part of the issue is that wrestlers participated in preseason tournaments back then that did not count on their official records. Those could easily be mistaken for official matches. With the help of Mr. Mills, I was able to confirm which event started the official season for Syracuse, the Rhode Island quad, which narrowed my search to matches from there forward.
Knowing that Mills had 144 wins, if I could find 38 official matches where he did not win by fall, I could confirm that the 107 total was inaccurate. My first stop was the archives of The Daily Orange, the Syracuse school newspaper. Sifting through stories from 1976 through 1981, I found 16 clear instances where a Mills win was not by fall. I did not include a small number of reports which were ambiguous, such as saying Mills “won handily”, nor did I include other evidence such as reports of his season record and number of pins to that point in the year. With all the struggles in record keeping, my assumption was that direct reporting on events was most likely to be accurate.
WrestlingStats.com, largely the work of another legendary wrestling historian who has passed on, Jay Hammond, features brackets for every EIWA and NCAA tournament. This added 14 non-falls to Mills total, putting the total at 30. A friend has an archive of old issues of AWN and was kind enough to send me as many reported results from Mills as possible. Many I’d already found in other sources, but five were new, running the total to 35. As the number approached the threshold, it became harder and harder to find new results. I began to think that perhaps Mills’ total was indeed 107 falls. However, I had one last source I wanted to look into.
Newspapers.com boasts the archives of thousands of papers from across the country and offers the ability to search the entire archive at once. What would have taken years, now takes a few hours. Coming up with the correct search terms to narrow down the results while still finding good information can be tricky, but after many attempts I was able to find five more instances, one from The Pantagraph, one from the the Press and Sun-Bulletin, one from the Courier-Express, and two from the Post-Standard, all verifying an official match that Gene Mills won without recording a fall. The total number of non-falls now sat at 40 which, if each report is accurate, leaves the maximum number of pins earned by Gene Mills at 104, two less than Wade Schalles.
It was at this point in my research that I was made aware of another article, written in 2007 by the aforementioned Jay Hammond and published in AWN, that outlines what he knew of this debate. He mentions the fact that there were no rules as to what constituted an official NCAA bout back then so schools were left to their own devices for record keeping. This, says Hammond, means that all reported pin totals “need to be regarded with some doubt unless they have been validated.” To that end, Hammond had been working on validating the totals of both Mills and Schalles. Though the records were incomplete, 127 of Schalles’ 159 bouts had been uncovered and 110 of Mills’ 150 had been found. In those matches, Schalles had 86 falls and Mills had 61. If that was accurate, Mills could not have had more than 101 career falls, which fits with what I found as well. Schalles total could be accurate, but it is important to understand it hasn’t been completely documented either.
Even with this evidence, there will be a debate. It is possible that there are inaccurate reports floating around out there. Even if Mills’ total is less than 106, the man from Syracuse almost certainly holds the record for wrestlers competing at a school which was Division I at the time. Schalles wrestled for Clarion, which was Division II then. This difference appears important today but was less so in that era. Clarion’s schedule featured many Division I opponents and was tougher overall than some of those schools classified as Division I. Schalles obviously proved he was the best in his weight regardless of division, but some may insist that he wasn’t a Division I wrestler strictly speaking and they would be correct. From a purely Division I standpoint, the next highest total would be Larry Bielenberg (Oregon State) with a reported 94 career falls and then Ben Askren (Missouri) who had 91.
Whether the divisional distinction matters is something each individual will have to decide for themselves. For years, the debate over whether Mills or Schalles owns the record has largely ignored Clarion’s Division II status at that time, deeming it irrelevant given his competition. With Division II wrestlers being allowed to compete in the Division I tournament if they earned their way in, there was less importance placed on a program’s classification and they competed more across divisions than we see today. While some will see this evidence as proof that Wade Schalles is NCAA wrestling’s all-time pin king, there is more to this story. Come back tomorrow as we dive into that in part two.
As I researched this story there were many people who helped locate research materials or point me in the right direction. I could not have gotten as far as I did without the help of Wade Schalles, Gene Mills, Jack Carnefix at the NWHoF, Doug Burney, Ron Good, Denny Diehl, and, of course, Jay Hammond and Bob Dellinger whose work continues to be an incredible resource.