Photo by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
One of the wonderful aspects of wrestling is the ability of one wrestler to impose their will on another. Every wrestler is in charge of offense and defense. They can have a direct impact on how their opponent wrestles and whether or not they perform well or suffer. While this is a huge part of wrestling in individual matches, the NCAA tournament is very different. Each team has precious little ability to impact the performance of other teams. No team has yet scored so many points that they could not have been beaten had another team pulled off an incredible performance. Because of this, and due to the widely varying winning scores from year-to-year, there are many teams scattered through NCAA wrestling history that were good enough to take home a national championship but were defeated by an even better team. Below are the five greatest teams since 1979, the beginning of the eight All-American era, that did not cap their season with a title.
We first published this list in the summer of 2016 but after an incredible performance by Ohio State came up short at the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, we knew it was time for an update.
#5 – 1997 Oklahoma State Cowboys
A perfect example of a strong team that ran into a buzzsaw, the 1997 Cowboys finished 56.5 points behind the second best team in the history of NCAA wrestling. Though this was the era of the “Poke Choke”, a term coined for Oklahoma State’s tendency to under-perform at the NCAA tournament, there were no big misses here. Eric Guerrero (126) won the first of his three championships and Mark Branch (167) returned to the top of the podium in his senior season. Steven Schmidt (134) joined those two in the finals but finished second to Mark Ironside (Iowa). Teague Moore (4th, 118), Scott Reyna (4th, 142), Hardell Moore (4th, 158) and Mark Smith (4th, 177) gave the Cowboys seven All-Americans and they were still more than two title-winning wrestlers short as the Hawkeyes lapped the field.
#4 – 2013 Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Penn State dynasty was still in its infancy in 2013 and the Cowboys almost prevented the Nittany Lions from winning a third straight title. The finals that year started at 174 and when Chris Perry outlasted Matt Brown (Penn State) in tie-breakers, Oklahoma State went into the lead in the team race. Jordan Oliver (149) would win a title later on that night while Jon Morrison (5th, 133), Alex Dieringer (3rd, 157), Tyler Caldwell (3rd, 165), Blake Rosholt (8th, 197) and Alan Gelogaev (3rd, 285) all earned All-American honors on a strong Cowboys team. However, Ed Ruth (184) and Quentin Wright (197) ended the drama by winning back to back titles for Penn State in the two matches after Perry’s and the Nittany Lions took the trophy 123.5-119.5.
#3 – 2018 Ohio State Buckeyes
Tom Ryan’s team amassed 133.5 points but were beaten by Penn State who had 141.5. That made the Buckeyes the highest scoring team ever to not win a title, though scoring rules have changed over the years. Kyle Snyder’s (285) third national title to cap the night wasn’t enough as the Nittany Lions had put the team championships out of reach when Bo Nickal (Penn State) pinned Myles Martin (184) two matches before. Had Martin have won, Ohio State would have been victorious. This was a well-balanced squad that saw Nathan Tomasello (3rd, 125), Luke Pletcher (4th, 133), Joey McKenna (3rd, 141), and Kollin Moore (4th, 197) join the two finalists in the top four. Bo Jordan (5th, 174) and Micah Jordan (6th, 157) rounded out the All-Americans, making eight in total, while Ke-Shawn Hayes (149) and Te’Shan Campbell (165) contributed a pair of wins each. Tomasello, Bo Jordan, and Snyder became the first trio of teammates to become four-time All-Americans in the same season.
#2 – 1982 Iowa State Cyclones
Harold Nichols’ Cyclones were the last team other than Iowa to hoist an NCAA championship trophy coming into the 1982 tournament, having won in 1977. The Iowa State team that year was strong enough to win, but Iowa was taking it to another level so the Cyclones would have to settle for second best. They had six wrestlers finish in the top four at their weight. Nate Carr (150) knocked off Kenny Monday (Oklahoma State) to win the second of his three NCAA titles. He was joined in the finals by Kevin Darkus (118) who finished second to Barry Davis (Iowa) and Mike Mann (190) who dropped his match against Pete Bush (Iowa). Joe Gibbons (4th, 126), Jim Gibbons (3rd, 134), Randy Conrad (6th, 142), Perry Hummel (4th, 177) and Wayne Cole (4th, UNL) were also All-Americans, but Iowa State still came up 20.75 points short.
#1 – 2001 Iowa Hawkeyes
Iowa was the six-time defending NCAA champions coming into the 2001 tournament with Head Coach Jim Zalesky in his fourth season after taking over from Dan Gable. Even after adjusting for the boosted placement points that went into effect for third through eighth place in 2001, Iowa’s squad that year outscored their last three championship teams. They got titles from Eric Juergens (133) and T.J. Williams (157) while Jody Strittmatter (125) and Doug Schwab (141) made the finals and finished second. Add in All-American finishes from Mike Zadick (3rd, 149), Ben Shirk (8th, 165) and Gabe McMahan (6th, 174) and the Hawkeyes were on the awards podium at the first seven weights. Unfortunately for Iowa, eighth-seeded Jessman Smith (184) ran into fifth-seeded Damion Hahn (Minnesota) in the round of 12 after Smith had lost in the quarters to Cael Sanderson (Iowa State) and Hahn had wrestled back after a first-round loss. Hahn dropped Smith 3-1 on his way to a fifth-place finish. Had Smith won that match and finished fifth himself, Iowa would have overtaken Minnesota who won the title that year 138.5-125.5 over the Hawkeyes.