The 1948 Olympic Wrestling Team
London is the first city to host a Summer Olympiad on three occasions – in addition to 2012, Britain’s capital also hosted the 1948 and 1908 Olympic Games. The wrestling team that represented the United States in 1948 included a remarkable eight Hall of Fame Distinguished Members. Cliff Keen of Michigan was the team manager and Art Griffith of Oklahoma State was the head coach. Among the squad of 16 wrestlers were six Hall of Fame members. A trio of Iowa Teachers (now Northern Iowa) competitors, Gerry Leeman, Bill Koll, and Bill Nelson, qualified for the team. Nelson was injured just prior to the event and was unable to compete. Henry Wittenberg, Glen Brand, and Dick Hutton also represented the U.S. Wittenberg and Brand won gold medals and were the first Americans to do so since 1936.
London was awarded the 1944 Olympic Games in June 1939, but World War II resulted in the cancellation of the Games. London again stood as a candidate for the 1948 Games, but Great Britain nearly declined to host them because of post-war financial and rationing problems. However, King George VI intervened and argued that the Games could be used to help Britain recover from the war. In March 1946 the International Olympic Committee, through a postal vote, awarded the summer Games to London ahead of Baltimore, Minneapolis, Lausanne, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.
At the time of the Games food, gasoline, and housing rationing was still in place in Great Britain — the 1948 Olympics came to be known as the “Austerity Games”. Athletes were given increased food rations, the same as those received by dockworkers and miners. However, building an Olympic Village or new venues was deemed too expensive. Athletes competing at the Games were housed in existing accommodations. Male competitors stayed at Royal Air Force camps in Uxbridge, West Drayton, and Richmond and female competitors in London colleges.
Very little media attention was devoted to the competition. Live, worldwide telecasts of events and the Internet were decades in the future. The Games took place during a period of heightened tension between the West and the Soviet Union. Just one month before the start of the London Olympics, the Soviet Union blocked railway and road access of the three Western powers to their occupied sectors of Berlin, Germany. It was the first major international crisis of the Cold War.
The Games opened on July 29th and continued through August 14th. A record 59 nations participated in the Games with 4,104 athletes, 3,714 men and 390 women, in 19 sports. Because of their roles as aggressors in World War II, Germany and Japan were not invited to participate. The Soviet Union, the preeminent wrestling power in the second half of the 20th century, was invited, but chose not to send any athletes. The United States team won both the most medals (84) and the most gold medals (38).
The wrestling competition took place in eight weight classes for both Greco-Roman and freestyle. The freestyle competition was held from July 30th to August 2nd and the Greco-Roman from August 3rd to August 6th. London’s Empress Hall served as the venue for the wrestling. The U.S. did not enter a team for Greco-Roman wrestling. This was the last Games in which America did not compete in both styles.
Sweden and Turkey, two countries that did not suffer from the ravages of World War II, dominated the wrestling competition. Turkey won a total of six gold medals, four in freestyle and two in Greco-Roman. Sweden won five of the eight classes in Greco-Roman and the most medals with 13. The U.S. finished third in the medal table, despite competing in just one style.
The U.S. had not participated in a major international tournament since 1938 and the NCAA and the AAU did not use the International Association of Wrestling Federations rules for any of its competitions. Also, there were very few American wrestling officials familiar with the rules or had even seen any bouts using them. The IAWF rules were radically different than domestic rules and included the touch fall, which would prove to be a nemesis for American wrestlers.
International bouts were 15 minutes in length for freestyle and 20 for Greco-Roman. For freestyle there would be six minutes of wrestling on the feet, followed by two three minute periods of parterre (on the mat), then followed by another three minutes on the feet. If a bout did not end in a fall in the first six minutes of wrestling, each contestant got three minutes in the offensive position in the parterre periods. There was one exception to 6-3-3-3 periods. At the end of the first six minutes, if the judges agreed by a 3-0 or 2-0-1 vote that one wrestler was leading, then that wrestler was given the option of continuing for three more minutes on the feet before the parterre periods. The match became three periods of 9-3-3.
In parterre wrestling, the contestant “on top” was given the opportunity to attack, while his opponent was required to be passive — remain as non-combative as possible on his hands and knees. If the action resulted in what Americans would consider a reverse, it was allowed to continue only if it resulted in a pinning situation. Otherwise, the referee stopped action and put the defender back down on the mat. Also, no escapes were allowed during a parterre period.
The simultaneous touching of both shoulders to the mat was consider a fall, no matter how short the duration of the contact, and it would end a match. If a bout did not end in a fall, a jury of three judges would determine the winner. These judges were required to keep notes for the bout on their “scoring papers” and use them in determining the victor based upon wrestling superiority. This “scoring” of a bout was not visible either to the wrestlers or the audience. The winner was determined by a majority vote of the judges and split decision victories were common. A judge was required to vote for one of the wrestlers — no ties were permitted.
The tournament bracketing did not use the single elimination system common in American tournaments. Match pairings were based upon numbers drawn by the contestants at the weigh-in. A bad mark system was used to eliminate wrestlers from competition. A wrestler winning by fall, disqualification or default received zero bad marks and the loser was given three. For jury decisions, the winner got one bad mark and the loser three. If the jury was split, then the winner got one bad mark and the loser two. A wrestler was eliminated when he accumulated five bad marks. Tournament placing was based upon the fewest number of bad marks and the round in which a wrestler was eliminated. In future international tournaments, a round robin system was introduced when three contestants remained in the competition. The London Olympics did not use this system and resulted in U.S. wrestler Leland Merrill winning a bronze rather than silver medal.
The Olympic Wrestling Committee decided to hold a series of qualifying tournaments prior to the final team trials and all these tournaments used the IAWF rules. Two of the tournaments were those for the NCAA and the AAU and the top four wrestlers in each weight class would qualify for the final trials. There were also 12 regional tournaments with two qualifiers per weight class.
For the first time since 1936, the NCAA tournament was conducted using international weight classes, bracketing, and rules. It was hosted by Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA on March 19th and 20th. The tournament organizers had some issues with the bracketing but they were eventually resolved. The unfamiliar rules also produced some major upsets in the tournament. Olympic silver-medalist Gerry Leeman of Iowa Teachers, the Outstanding Wrestler of the 1946 NCAA tournament, was a victim of a touch fall and failed to place. His college and Olympic teammate Bill Nelson, who won NCAA titles in 1947, 1949, and 1950, also did not place.
The AAU tournament was held less than a month later at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY on Long Island. The highlight of the tournament was the eighth straight title for Henry Wittenberg, who also won the award for the fastest fall in a mere nine seconds. Wittenberg, a New York City policeman, had not lost a match since finishing second for the City College of New York at the 1939 NCAA tournament. Leland Merrill, who won a bronze medal in London as Nelson’s replacement, was the champion at 73 kilos.
The Final Trials
The final team trials were held at Iowa State College (now University) in Ames, IA from April 29th through May 1st. A large field of over 200 wrestlers qualified for the trials that would determine the 16 men for London Olympic team. The winner and runner-up at each weight would comprise the team. The champion had the inside track to wrestle in London but there would be further tryouts between him and the alternate.
Mickey MacDonald of the U.S. Navy won the 52-kilo class at the AAU tournament and was the favorite at this weight. However, he moved up to 57 kilos and Bill Jernigan of Oklahoma A & M defeated Leland Christensen of California-Berkeley to win this class. It was a surprising result since Jernigan had finished third at the NCAA tournament. Christensen, a transplanted Iowan, upset Arnold Plaza of Purdue, the NCAA champion, in an early round.
At 57 kilos Gerry Leeman of Iowa Teachers defeated MacDonald in the sixth round to win this weight class. MacDonald then decisioned Lou Kachiroubas of Illinois to capture the alternate spot.
Two Cornell College wrestlers, Lowell Lange (1947 NCAA champion) and Leo Thomsen (1948 AAU champion), were the favorites at 62 kilos. Lange, who missed much of the collegiate season with an injury, was pinned in the third round by Wayne Smith of the U.S. Navy and eliminated in the fourth round with five black marks when he failed to pin Harold Henson of San Diego State. Henson was the first African-American to wrestle in both the final Olympic trials and the NCAA tournament. Hal Moore of Oklahoma A & M, who did not wrestle in the NCAA tournament, decisioned Thomsen to win the top spot at 62 kilos.
Bill Koll of Iowa Teachers was the Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAA tournament and he also dominated the team trials at 67 kilos. He scored pins in four of six bouts and defeated John Fletcher of the Naval Academy to win the weight class. Fletcher, the runner-up to Koll at the NCAA tournament, pinned Jim Miller, future head coach at Cornell University, to capture the alternate spot.
Bill Nelson of Iowa Teachers won the NCAA tournament in 1947, but failed to place in 1948 after suffering an injury. He had fully recovered by the time of the trials and reached the final round with just one black mark. He defeated the AAU champion Leland Merrill of the New York AC to win the top spot at 73 kilos. Gale Mikles of Michigan State, who beat Nelson at the NCAA tournament, finished third.
The 79-kilogram weight class was a battle between two Iowa greats — Glen Brand of Iowa State and Joe Scarpello of Iowa. They were the NCAA champions in 1948 and 1947, respectively. Scarpello reached the final round despite losing to Jim Gregson of Oklahoma A & M, who also beat the Hawkeye at the NCAA tournament. Brand knocked off Gregson in the sixth round and then decisioned Scarpello for the title.
Henry Wittenberg dominated the 89-kilogram weight class, just like he had dominated the AAU tournament for the last eight years. He pinned his way to the finals where Verne Gagne of Minnesota, the NCAA champion, managed to avoid becoming Wittenberg’s sixth pin victim.
Two-time NCAA champion Dick Hutton of Oklahoma A & M had little difficulty winning the heavyweight slot. He defeated Bob Maldegan of Michigan State in the final round. Maldegan was also the runner-up to Hutton at the NCAA tournament.
Following the tournament, the Olympic Wrestling Committee selected Art Griffith of Oklahoma A & M as the Olympic head coach and Cliff Keen of Michigan as team manager. Both men were a unanimous choice. Griffith succeeded coaching legend Edward Gallagher in Stillwater and had won four of the five NCAA tournaments during his tenure. Keen had wrestled for Gallagher at Oklahoma A & M and qualified the 1924 Olympics, which he missed because of an injury.
The U.S. Olympic Wrestling Committee had planned a two-week training period prior to the team’s sailing for England on July 14th. In early May the Naval Academy informed Keen that it would not be able to meet its commitment to provide training facilities. Fortunately, Keen was able to find an alternative — as he stated in his Olympic Games report “good old Lehigh came through again with a magnanimous offer to provide complete facilities for us.”
All 16 members of the team arrived in Bethlehem by July 1st in good physical condition and no more than 3 ½ pounds over weight. The next nine days were spent in intensive training and on July 10th there were official tryout matches between the team trial winner and alternate. The weigh-in was at 3 PM and the bouts began at 8 PM. Billy Sheridan and Bliss Sergeant were the referees and Doc Northrup, Dick Vaughan, and Dave McCuskey were the judges.
All of the trial winners repeated their success except at 73 kilos where Merrill won by a unanimous decision. There were split decision victories by Leeman and Brand. Gagne started out strong against Wittenberg and scored two takedowns in the first six minutes. However, Wittenberg wore down Gagne in parterre and put him in several predicaments in the final nine minutes.
All of the matches were filmed and the team reviewed them the next day with Griffith critiquing the wrestling. He emphasized that a much greater effort must be made to get falls since this was of paramount consideration to European judges. Both Griffith and Keen agreed that the wrestlers had shown considerable improvement over their performances in the team trials.
The team departed via train from Bethlehem on the morning of July 13th for New York City. Upon arriving in New York, Keen discovered that there was no wrestling mat on the ship bound for England. With the help of Henry Wittenberg, who lived and trained in the city, Keen was able to borrow a mat and mat cover and get them on the ship. The U.S.S. American sailed for Southampton, England at 4 PM on July 14th. The next seven days were spent training, which consisted mostly of running on deck and drilling on technique. The team disembarked the morning of July 22nd and traveled to the Olympic Village, which was the RAF barracks at Uxbridge, 25 miles from London.
There were no adequate training facilities in the village and Keen managed to find some, although the standard was far below what the team was accustomed to in the U.S. On July 23rd there was an official tryout between Nelson and Merrill, who had split their previous two matches. Nelson injured his back during the match and could not continue. Griffith and Keen then decided against any more tryouts to avoid further injuries. Also, at all other weights the winner at the team trials had a 2-0 advantage in official matches.
On July 24th there was a match between the U.S. alternates and a team of British Empire wrestlers in London for the Olympics. All referees and judges were furnished by England. The U.S. won all eight matches and MacDonald, Thomsen, and Maldegan scored falls. The latter pinned Joseph Armstrong of Australia, future Olympic heavyweight bronze medalist. Doc Northrup, rather than Merrill, wrestled at 73 kilos and won a unanimous decision over Richard Garrard of Australia, the Olympic silver medalist in 1936 and 1948.
The wrestlers continued their preparations in the final week before the Games, but Nelson was out of the competition. Aside from heavyweight Dick Hutton, who was battling a cold, all of the other wrestlers were in good condition and anxious to begin their quest for gold. The Games opened on the afternoon of July 29th and the regular members of the team did not participate in the parade of nations since they would be competing the following morning.
The freestyle wrestling took place on July 30th and 31st and August 2nd. There was no action on Sunday August 1st because Great Britain’s restrictive blue laws prohibited any athletic competition on Sundays. There were two sessions each day. The first was from 10 AM to around 1:30 PM. The second started at 6 PM and could last until midnight.
Bill Jernigan — 52 Kilograms
Jernigan’s first round match was against Rassoui Raiisi of Iran. Jernigan was able to takedown Rassi a number of times but never had him in any danger of being pinned. Jernigan won a unanimous decision. In his next match he met the eventual gold medalist and 1946 European champion Lennart Vitala of Finland and the Finn scored a unanimous decision. Jernigan now had four black marks and needed a pin against Khashaba Jadav of India. Jernigan never came close to a pin — in fact Jadav came closer and was a unanimous winner. Jernigan was out with seven black marks and failed to place in the top six.
Gerry Leeman — 57 Kilograms
Leeman opened strongly in his first match against Bose of India. He had the Indian in jeopardy on several occasions and got the fall at 7:35. Leeman got an even faster pin in his second round match when he flattened Raymond Cazaux of Great Britain in 4:13. Lasjo Bencze of Hungary, 1946 European champion, offered much greater resistance in the third round and Leeman settled for a unanimous decision. Leeman got a similar result against Charles Kouyous of France. There were now just four wrestlers left in the competition and Leeman could advance with a decision. He wrestled cautiously but still managed another unanimous decision against Joseph Trimpont of Belgium.
The match between Leeman and Nasuh Akar of Turkey was for the gold medal. Keen noted in his report that Akar was stronger than Leeman and effectively countered Leeman’s takedown attempts in the initial six minutes. Akar was on top in the first parterre period and like all the Turks used his legs to attack while on top. Leeman defended very well for nearly three minutes until Akar trapped his left arm and was able to score a fall with just 13 seconds left in the period. Akar went on to become the national freestyle coach for Turkey and in 1966 lead his country to a team title at the world championships in Toledo, OH.
Hal Moore — 62 Kilograms
After a first round bye, Moore had a highly controversial second round match against Hassan Saidan of Iran. Moore, in the opinion of the U.S. officials, dominated the match, but lost by split decision. Keen immediately protested and the Belgium judge, who had voted for the Iranian, admitted he had made a mistake. The U.S. went to the Jury of Appeal and the Belgium judge then changed his story. However, other officials had heard his initial statement and he was banned from further officiating. Unfortunately, the Jury did not reverse the result. This experience with bad officiating brings to mind Chris Taylor’s bout with Alexander Medved of the Soviet Union 24 years later in Munich.
Moore scored a fall in his next match against Abdel Hamid of Egypt at 13:51. In the next round Moore was paired with Gazanfer Bilge of Turkey, the eventual gold medalist and 1946 European champion. Bilge used his legs to put Moore in danger several times and got a fall near the end of the match at 14:28. Moore was eliminated with five black marks and finished sixth.
Bill Koll — 67 Kilograms
In the first round Bill Koll had the bad luck of drawing the eventual champion Cecil Atik of Turkey, who was also the 1946 European champion. Koll was riding Atik in the first parterre period when he tried to snap back the Turk. Koll’s foot caught on the mat cover and Atik arched back and drove Koll to his back. His teammates did not think Koll was pinned. Heavyweight alternate Bob Maldegan recalled in a recent interview, “It was not a fall, but they called it fast for Americans. Koll was definitely the best wrestler in that class.”
In the next two rounds Koll won a unanimous decision over Hassan of Egypt and pinned Ghaffari of Iran in 9:12. Koll then met Gosta Frandfors of Sweden, 1947 European champion, and needed a fall to remain in the competition. Koll was superior in scoring takedowns and riding while the Swede had a slight advantage in creating pinning situations and Frandfors won a split decision. Koll was eliminated with six black marks and finished fifth.
Leland Merrill — 73 Kilograms
Merrill got a favorable draw and won three straight unanimous decisions against Harry Peace of Canada, Frans Westergen of Sweden, and Byung-Kwan Whang of Korea. Merrill got a bye in the fourth round and met 1936 silver medalist Richard Garrard of Australia in the fifth round. The wrestlers were evenly matched and Merrill managed a narrow split decision victory. However, Merrill was faced with the task of pinning Yasar Dogu of Turkey to win the gold medal. Any other result would eliminate Merrill and leave him with the bronze. Dogu, outstanding wrestler at the 1947 European championships, dominated the match. Merrill lost by unanimous decisions, but managed to avoid a fall, unlike Dogu’s other opponents. Merrill was eliminated with seven black marks and the bronze medal. Under the bracketing rules introduced at the 1952 Olympics, a round robin would have been used with three wrestlers left and Merrill would have won the silver medal.
Glen Brand — 79 Kilograms
Brand opened the tournament against Hariri of Iran. He dominated the Iranian in the neutral position, but never had him in any danger. As a result, Brand could manage just a split decision victory. Brand had a bye in the second round and pinned Bruce Arthur of Australia in 4:21 in the third round. Next up for Brand was Adil Candemir of Turkey and they battled on even terms until the final period when Brand took the Turk down to his back and pinned him in 13:24.
Years later Brand reflected back on his match with Candemir. “I told myself that I was going to wrestle this Turk so hard that he will run out of gas and won’t be able to keep up with me energy-wise. I did everything possible to make him work hard. After about 12 minutes, he had enough. He was done. He was beat physically, mentally and spiritually and I pinned him.”
The next match against Erik Linden of Sweden was for the gold medal and Brand was dominant. He scored several takedowns and put Linden in jeopardy on more than one occasion. Brand won a unanimous decision and the first wrestling gold for the U.S. since 1936. Brand, recalling the medal ceremony on the next day before 95,000 spectators in Wembley stadium, noted, “As the music played, I got goose bumps. It was the biggest thrill of my entire life.”
Henry Wittenberg — 89 Kilograms
Wittenberg was by far the most experienced American wrestler and in great form throughout the tournament. He started with a unanimous decision against Mellavuo of Finland and quick falls against John Sullivan of Great Britain in 0:47 and Taranyi of Hungary in 2:20. Wittenberg had a bye in the fourth round and did not wrestle again until the final evening of competition.
This scheduling mix up forced Wittenberg wrestle three bouts in the final session. He started with pin against Muharrem Candas of Turkey in 7:38. Wittenberg countered a switch attempt by the Turk and threw him to his back. Wittenberg then faced back-to-back the 1946 European gold and silver medalists. He first scored a split decision against Bengt Fahlkvist of Sweden and then the same against Fritz Stockli of Switzerland. In the final bout Wittenberg tired, but an early advantage on his feet enabled him to capture a second gold medal for the U.S.
Dick Hutton — 89+ Kilograms
Hutton’s first match was against Josef Ruzicka of Czechoslovakia. Hutton had no problem scoring takedowns but never put the Czech in jeopardy. The takedowns did not amount to much in the jury’s eyes and Hutton lost a split decision. Hutton was still sluggish in the next round, but he did manage a split decision victory over Abolghasem Sakhdari of Iran. Hutton was pinned and eliminated in the third round by Joseph Armstrong of Australia. Hutton hyperextended his elbow early in the bout and was totally ineffective against the Aussie.
The U.S. finished the competition with two gold medals, a silver medal, and a bronze. It was a very good showing considering the wrestlers’ unfamiliarity with the rules and lack of international competition. All four of Turkey’s champions were over 30 years old, had experience in major events like the European championships, and in Keen’s opinion physically stronger than their American opponents.
European judges put great emphasis on how close or effective a competitor is in getting a fall. Unlike American folk style wrestling, takedowns, reverses, and riding did not amount to much in their eyes unless they led to a pinning combination. With hindsight, the coaching staff acknowledged that its preparation would have been different if they had a better understanding of the international style. Keen noted in his report on the Games: “With the adaptations we have to make, with the lack of contact we have with the European style of wrestling, and the limited time in which we have to prepare, it is surprising that we are able to win any titles at all.”
Keen also sited the lack of support by the AAU for Olympic wrestling. Although it was the American representative to IAWF, the AAU selected delegates to the body without even informing the U.S. wrestling community. Keen suggested that “we set up our own national wrestling association and make application for membership in the IAWF so that we can run our own affairs in a competent and unfettered manner.” This battle between American wrestling and the AAU would go on for more than three decades until USA Wrestling became the representative U.S. organization with FILA (the successor to IAWF).
Art Griffith had perhaps the most difficult job in the history of coaching — replacing the man who established the most successful dynasty in American sports. Oklahoma State wrestling has won more national championships than any other team in any sport and Edward Gallagher was the man who started it all. When Gallagher passed away in the summer of 1940, Griffith was selected as his successor. Griffith was then the coach at Tulsa Central High School and he had been producing state champions and future NCAA champions for nearly two decades.
Griffith continued Gallagher’s success by winning the NCAA team title five of his first six seasons at the helm and did not lose a dual meet until 1951. He coached the Cowboys from 1941 to 1956, had a 78-7-4 dual meet record, won eight NCAA titles, and had 27 individual NCAA champions. He also hand picked as his successor Myron Roderick, who continued the OSU dominance for more than another decade.
But it was not the wins and a room full of individual champions that was Griffith’s greatest legacy. Prior to 1941, the winner of an NCAA wrestling match had to record a pin or win by time advantage. Griffith, who had gotten a point scoring system adopted for Oklahoma high school matches in the late 1930’s, made the presentation to the NCAA Wrestling Rules Committee in 1940 that was key to the introduction of bout scoring the following year.
After serving in World War I, Griffith worked in Oklahoma City for a while and then accepted a coaching job at Carnegie High School. He took three of his wrestlers to the first Oklahoma state high school wrestling tournament held at Stillwater in 1922. All of them came home with medals but, more significantly, their 28-year old coach came home with his eyes opened after seeing Gallagher’s analytical methods.
That September Griffith changed the entire direction of his life and enrolled at Oklahoma State to learn at the foot of the master. He was also added to the athletic staff as freshmen wrestling coach. In 1924, Griffith received the first degree in Physical Education in Oklahoma and was hired to teach and coach at Sand Springs High School. A year later, his career at Tulsa Central began. From 1925 to 1940, his teams had at least one state champion each year. His 1929 squad crowned seven champs and before he was through 12 of his teams won the state title.
Perhaps Griffith’s proudest moment came in 1976 when, bedridden with cancer for two years, he learned of his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a charter member. On September 11, 1976, Griffith was part of the first Honor’s Weekend and accepted unaided the granite plaque with his likeness from his sons, Jack and Jim. Griffith died on November 12, 1976.
Cliff Keen was uniquely qualified to be the manager of the Olympic wrestling team. He was an outstanding wrestling coach, had a law degree from the University of Michigan, and as the founder of Keen Athletic was a successful entrepreneur. Resources were scarce for the first Olympiad of the post World War II era and Keen used his varied skill to find training facilities, acquaint the team with the international rules, and even find at the least minute a mat for team training on the ship to England. His comprehensive, 34-page post Games report was treasure for future administrators and historians.
Keen coached wrestling at the University of Michigan from 1925 to 1970. That 45-year span, the longest tenure for any wrestling coach, was interrupted only by a three-year stint as a Navy commander during World War II, when he headed up the pre-flight conditioning program. His teams won 267 dual meets against only 91 losses and 10 ties, once going undefeated for four years and 34 matches. He produced three NCAA second place teams, 13 Big Ten team champions and placed in the top three in the conference on 30 occasions. His 68 All-American wrestlers won 11 individual NCAA titles and 81 Big Ten crowns. Ironically, his best team did not win a Big Ten title. His 1967 squad finished second to NCAA champion Michigan State in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
Keen was born June 13, 1901 and was raised on a ranch outside of Cheyenne, OK. He starred in football, track, and wrestling at Weatherford High School and Oklahoma State. In the Cowboy wrestling room he developed an intense rivalry with another unbeaten Gallagher protégé, Guy Lookabaugh, who returned to school to train for the 1924 Olympic trials. Although Keen won the trials, an injury handed the Olympic berth to Lookabaugh, who reached the finals in Paris before losing a controversial decision.
Keen served four 4-year terms on the U.S. Olympic Committee in addition to being team manager of the 1948 Olympic team. He was an original member and later president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. He was instrumental in getting wrestling recognized as an NCAA sport and he presided over the national rules committee for an extended term.
In 1976 Keen was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a charter member. Then in 1980 he was inducted into the University of Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor as part of the third class. He passed away on November 4, 1991 at the age of 90 in Ann Arbor, MI.
Glen Brand did not win a state high school wrestling title, but went on to become an NCAA and Olympic champion. He was born and raised in Clarion, IA where he won three letters and placed second in the state championships during his high school mat career. Brand’s high school coach was Dale Brand, his cousin and a 1937 NCAA champion for Cornell College. After graduating from high school in 1942, Brand entered the Marine Corps. There were four rugged years in store for him and he spent 19 months on Guam and in the South Pacific.
Brand enrolled at Iowa State in the Civil Engineering School in 1946 and joined the wrestling team under Coach Hugo Otopalik. He had a 52-3-0 career record for the Cyclones and finished third, second, and first at the NCAA tournament. One of his dual meet wins was over Olympic teammate Verne Gagne of the University of Minnesota. He had a year of eligibility left after the Olympics, but a shoulder injury sidelined him for the 1949 season and ended it in 1950 after a 7-0 dual meet mark. Brand was the first wrestler from an Iowa college to win Olympic gold, as well as the first of five from Iowa State University to accomplish it. The other four are Dan Gable, Ben Peterson, Kevin Jackson, and Cael Sanderson.
In his professional career as a hydraulics engineer, Brand built a highly successful company in Omaha. His company, Brand Hydraulics, was founded in 1956. In his honor, the Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame was established in 2002 to recognize the people who have made an impact on the sport on a national level, or who have done extraordinary work in the State of Iowa. Brand was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 1978. He passed way on November 15, 2008 at the age of 85 in Omaha, NE.
Richard Heron Avis “Dick” Hutton was a split-second away from becoming the first four-time NCAA champion. In his match for the heavyweight champion at the 1949 NCAA tournament against Vern Gagne of Minnesota officials ruled that Hutton’s winning takedown came just after the final whistle. The bout ended in a 1-1 tie and referee Finn Eriksen awarded the bout to Gagne based on a small margin (much less than a minute) in time advantage. The rules in 1949 did not allow for overtime and the single referee would decide the winner should a match end in a tie.
While wrestling for Oklahoma A & M (now State) Hutton had won the heavyweight crowns in 1947 and 1948 and would win again in 1950. Thus, Hutton’s narrow loss to Gagne prevented him from winning four NCAA titles. Many observers of the match felt that Hutton’s takedown was completed before the end of the bout and he should have been gotten the referee’s decision based upon superior aggressiveness in the match. Jack Griffith, son of then OSU coach Art Griffith, noted that his father regarded the decision as “great injustice” and stated “Hutton chased Gagne all round the mat.”
It was the only loss that Hutton suffered in his career as he finished with a mark of 42-1-1 and 13 falls. Hutton held the record for career wins by a Cowboy until the 1962 season. His lone tie was with Thurman McGraw of Colorado State, whom he pinned on two previous occasions. He was a state champion a Tulsa Webster High School and served in the Army for five years during World War II before beginning his collegiate career in 1947.
After graduating from Oklahoma State, Hutton joined the professional wrestling circuit. Contrary to the usual professional image, he became known for his honest, gimmick-free wrestling. In later years, Hutton owned and operated a thoroughbred and quarter horse racing and breeding ranch in Texas. Hutton was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 1995. He passed away on November 26, 2003 at the age of 88 in Tulsa, OK.
William Shue “Bill” Jernigan was a state champion at Tulsa (OK) Rogers High School in 1943 and enlisted in the Army Air Corps that summer. He served as a waist gunner in a B-24 and left the service in March 1946. He wrestled for Oklahoma A & M from 1947 to 1950 and placed second and third in the NCAA tournament. Jernigan’s career record for the Cowboys was 25-4-1. He became a successful “oil man” and served as an Associate Governor of the Wrestling Hall of Fame. He has passed away.
Bill Koll and Gerry Leeman
Bill Koll and Gerry Leeman, distinguished members of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation”, had remarkably similar career paths on their way to becoming Distinguished Members of the Wrestling Hall of Fame. They were both Iowa high school state champions (Leeman won three titles) and enrolled at Iowa Teachers in 1941. World War II interrupted their collegiate careers and they served their country with distinction. After the War they returned to Iowa Teachers and won NCAA titles and Outstanding Wrestler awards. They were then members of the 1948 Olympic team before embarking on long and illustrious coaching careers. Koll and Leeman were both members of the second class to be inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977.
Koll was from Fort Dodge and won an Iowa high school title in 1941, two weight classes above Leeman. Like Leeman, he enrolled at Iowa Teachers in September 1941 and stayed long enough to wrestle in three dual meets in the winter of 1943. Koll won all three matches, including one against two-time NCAA champion Burl Jennings of Michigan State. He was then inducted into the Army, where he served three years. Koll said of his military career, “As a combat engineer, I spent 24 months in Europe, where our unit of amphibious engineers landed at Omaha Beach at 6:15 a.m. on June 6.” Koll was among those who had to clear the beach of the dead and wounded. He was also in the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded a Bronze Star for his service.
Leeman won three titles for Osage High School from 1939 to 1941 — the first came at 85 pounds, which is why he acquired the nickname of ‘Germ’ (as in: “that little Germ”). Leeman also placed first and second at the National AAU Championships. After finishing his freshman year at Iowa Teachers, Leeman entered Naval Air Corps flight training. He served as a Navy carrier pilot and was involved in the defense of the Panama Canal Zone. While in the Navy he wrestled for the Iowa Seahawks and Corpus Christi bases.
Koll and Leeman returned to Iowa Teachers after the War and they were the heart of a team that finished second in the NCAA tournament in 1946 and 1947. Leeman earned the 1946 NCAA Outstanding Wrestler Award as the 128-pound champion and was denied a chance to defend his crown in 1947 because of torn rib cartilage. The use of Olympic rules for the 1948 NCAA tournament proved troublesome, since a loss by touch fall turned out to be his only defeat. He posted a record of 24-1-0 in three years of collegiate competition.
Koll had an even more illustrious collegiate career. He also won an NCAA crown in 1946. In the finals, Koll yielded the only takedown of his college career, but defeated Edgar Welch of Oklahoma State 7-2. That was just a prelude to the next two seasons, when he added Outstanding Wrestler awards to his second and third NCAA title. Koll pinned every opponent in the 1948 tournament and finished his collegiate career with a 36-0-0 record and 16 falls.
Koll’s wrestling style was described as “controlled anger”. His youngest son Rob, 1988 NCAA champion for North Carolina and head coach at Cornell, recounted his father’s advice on competing. “His top lesson was that getting ridden was a cardinal sin and could get quite graphic about what a man could do to you when he was on top, citing some wartime experiences. Emotional control — quick, explosive, ‘fight or flight.’ A lot of that came from his Army training. It made him more brutal on the mat.”
Leeman saw Koll wrestle countless times and said of him: “Bill Koll was the toughest person I ever worked out with and I consider him one of the very best wrestlers I ever watched. He was mean on the mat and would say to me before a match: ‘I’ll draw blood before you will tonight.’ He often said to me: ‘no one wrestled like you and I.’ I consider this one of my greatest compliments.”
During the 1948 pre-Olympic training in Bethlehem, PA, Leeman caught the eye of Billy Sheridan, the legendary coach at Lehigh. Sheridan picked him as his successor at Lehigh and Leeman became his assistant after coaching in high school in Iowa for two seasons. Leeman took over in 1953 and coached Lehigh for 18 seasons until 1970. Leeman won over 80% of his dual meets and finished with a record of 161-38-4. Leeman’s wrestlers won nine NCAA titles and 32 All-American medals. His first NCAA champion was Eddie Eichelberger, who was also named Outstanding Wrestler. Leeman and Eichelberger were the first coach wrestler combination to have each been named OW of the NCAA tournament.
It took Leeman seven years to win his first EIWA team title before capturing six of the next nine. His 1962 team led by NCAA champion Kirk Pendleton demolished EIWA records for most points, with six champions in nine weight classes. He coached at least one NCAA finalist in eight of nine years from 1959 to 1967. Leeman stepped down as head coach after the 1970 season and handed the reigns over to one of his best wrestlers — Thad Turner. Leeman remained at Lehigh and was Turner’s top assistant for the next decade.
Koll’s coaching career began with stints at the University of Chicago and then Cornell College. He became coach at his alma mater in 1953 when his collegiate coach, Dave McCuskey, left Iowa Teachers for Iowa. In 11 seasons Koll had two top-five NCAA team finishes (fourth in 1953 and fifth in 1962). He coached three NCAA champions and five finalists at Northern Iowa. Koll mixed in academics by earning his master’s in education from Northwestern in 1958 and pursuing a doctorate that he eventually completed at Oregon State in 1965.
In 1964, Koll succeeded the legendary coach Charlie Speidel at Penn State. For the next six years, the Koll and Leeman coaching matchup amped up the already intense rivalry between Penn State and Lehigh on the mats. They split the six dual meets during that period and in 1967 Penn State upset Lehigh 18-12 in the last dual of the year to spoil Lehigh’s perfect season. Koll had his best seasons in the ‘70’s — his Nittany Lions had six straight top ten NCAA finishes from 1971 to 1976, led by champions Andy Matter and John Fritz. From 1970 to 1974 he had a dual meet record of 54-1-2. Koll stepped down after the 1978 season with a career dual meet mark of 208-79-14 in 29 years. He coached six NCAA champions and 33 All-Americans and his 1971 and 1973 teams won the EIWA team title.
In retirement, Koll and Leeman were regular attendees at the NCAA tournament. Although he passed away in 2003, Koll lived to see his son Rob’s team place tenth at the NCAA tournament that year. Leeman wrote of Koll after his passing: “During our last meeting he was using a cane and when I asked him if it was a permanent aid, he said ‘no, only when I walk.’” Leeman himself passed away on October 10, 2008 at the age of 86 in Cedar Falls, IA.
Harold Linman “Hal” Moore saw limited action at Oklahoma A & M in first two seasons in 1947 and 1948, but won all six matches of his matches. He served in the Marine Corps the next two years before returning to college in 1951. That season Moore finished second in the NCAA tournament and completed his career with a 15-1-0 record. He passed away on March 31, 2003 at the age of 88 in Oklahoma City, OK.
Bill Nelson was a three-time NCAA champion and an Olympic team member, but injuries prevented him from having an even more illustrious career. During the 1948 NCAA tournament Nelson developed severe stomach cramps. He was forced to withdraw from competition when a doctor thought it was either a ruptured appendix or an ulcer. Nelson won NCAA titles in 1947, 1949, and 1950. The injury bug struck again in London just prior to the Olympics when Nelson injured his back in a tryout with team alternate Leland Merrill. The injury prevented Nelson from wrestling and Merrill won a bronze medal.
Nelson wrestled for Eagle Grove (IA) High School and was a state champion at heavyweight in 1945. He took a year off between high school and college and then enrolled at Iowa Teachers after he failed the English part of an admissions exam for Cornell College. He became part of the great Iowa Teachers teams that included Olympians Gerry Leeman, Bill Koll, and Bill Smith and undefeated three-time NCAA champion Keith Young. Nelson had a collegiate record of 48-3-0 with 21 falls. His only losses were to NCAA champions Dave Shapiro of Illinois and Gene Mikles of Michigan State.
At 5’-7 ½”, Nelson was short for his 155-pound weight class, but he was exceptional strong. Koll once said of Nelson, “he had the most natural strength of anyone I’ve known in my life.” Nelson also had very long arms (he could touch his knees with his hands while completely upright) and was very skillful in using the leverage it afforded him. He also employed visualization in his match preparations. In a 2005 interview Nelson commented, “As I reflect back on the years that I wrestled, I probably never wrestled a match that I hadn’t already wrestled 100 times in my mind and I never lost.”
Nelson went into coaching after graduating from Iowa Teachers in 1950. He was a high school coach from 1953 to 1963. He then was the head coach at the University of Arizona until 1981. The Wildcats were the host of the 1976 Division I NCAA tournament. Nelson was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 1980. He currently lives in Iowa, but spends the winter in Arizona.
Henry Wittenberg is among the handful of American wrestlers to win a medal in more than one Olympics. He did it despite the fact that the prime years of his career coincided with World War II. He was 29 when he won gold in London and 33 when he captured silver in Helsinki. Even more remarkable is the fact that he never saw a wrestling mat before he enrolled at City College of New York in the fall of 1935.
Wittenberg had played football and other sports at Dickinson High School in Jersey City, NJ, but there was no wrestling program. Joe Sapora, the CCNY wrestling coach, changed all that. Sapora had been a two-time NCAA champion at Illinois, but like Wittenberg had no previous experience with wrestling. It turned out that Wittenberg was a “natural”. He placed third at the 1938 NCAA tournament and second in 1939, where he lost in the finals in overtime. Wittenberg would not lose again for 13 years.
He continued his career in 1940 while studying for his Master’s degree at Columbia. He worked out every day at the West Side YMCA and won the 174-pound AAU title at the 1940 tournament in Ames, IA. He would eventually win eight AAU titles. The YMCA wrestled a regular dual meet schedule in the ‘40’s and it enabled Wittenberg to build a long winning streak. He became a New York City policeman in 1941 and from 1946 represented the NYPD in wrestling competitions.
Wittenberg continued to compete after the 1948 Olympics, although he was now over 30 years old. He went to Israel in 1949 to win a gold medal in the first ever Maccabiah Games and then retired with a ten year winning streak. However the lure of a second Olympic gold medal convinced Wittenberg to come out of retirement in 1952. Although injured, he finished third at the Olympic trials behind Dale Thomas and Bradley Glass. Wittenberg made the team as first alternate by beating Glass. In subsequent elimination matches, Wittenberg defeated Thomas and represented the United States at Helsinki. This time Wittenberg had to settle for a silver medal.
Wittenberg won another Maccabiah title and then retired for good in the spring of 1953. While he never won an NCAA title, Wittenberg compiled a 14-year record from 1939 to his eventual retirement estimated at 350-3. The three losses were to either National or Olympic champions. He then coached wrestling at Yeshiva University and City College.
Wittenberg was a late replacement as the coach of the United States Greco-Roman wrestling team at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, despite the fact that he did not compete in the style. An initially skeptical team member Wayne Baughman later observed, “He knew very little about Greco wrestling, but he did know a lot about wrestling and what it takes to prepare for international competition. He always seemed to get more out of you than you thought you could give.”
Wittenberg was far ahead of his compatriots in his training techniques. He used isometric and isotonic strength training along with weight lifting, sprints and distance running to develop strength and endurance. He also had long arms that he utilized in an unstoppable ankle pick takedown. Olympic teammate Bob Maldegan said of Wittenberg, “he was the fastest big man I ever saw. He was an extremely smooth and fluid wrestler.”
In 1948, Griffith discouraged Olympic team members from lifting weights. In an interview, Wittenberg recalled that “I told him I was going to lift anyway, and he said, ‘O.K., but don’t let the other guys see you doing it.’ ” Wittenberg used what he learned from training to write a best-selling book Isometric Exercises, which is in its fifth printing. He was inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977. He passed away on March 9, 2011 at the age of 91 in New York City.
Leland B. Christensen was a two-time runner-up in the Iowa high school state wrestling tournament for Cherokee High School. He finished second in 1940 and 1941 to Jim Stoyanoff of Waterloo West at 85 and 95 pounds, respectively. He served in the U.S. Navy and after World War II enrolled in the University of California-Berkeley. Christensen wrestled for the Bears and was a three-time Pacific Coast Conference at 121 pounds from 1946 to 1948. He received an engineering degree from Berkeley and worked in the aviation industry. Christensen passed way on February 7, 2001 in Las Vegas, NV.
John Fletcher II attended the Moses Brown School in Providence, RI and was an all-state wrestler in 1943 and 1944. Fletcher wrestled four years at the Naval Academy and was an EIWA champion and the Outstanding Wrestler in 1947 and 1948. He was Navy’s first two-time All-American and finished second to Bill Koll at the 1948 NCAA tournament. Fletcher was an alternate on both the 1948 and 1952 Olympic teams to two superstars of American wrestling — Koll and Tommy Evans of Oklahoma.
Fletcher defeated Evans in the 1952 Olympic trials using what Josiah Henson, 1952 Olympic bronze medalist, described as “the best roll I ever saw — it was unstoppable the first few times he used it on you.” Evans had figured it out by the time the team got to Helsinki and won the spot on the team and a silver medal at 67 kilos. Fletcher was killed in 1954 when his naval aircraft crashed into the sea during a night flight.
Gagne earned all-state honors in football and won two state heavyweight wrestling championships, despite weighing just 185 pounds, at Robbinsdale (MN) High School. He was the Big 10 champion in 1944 at 175 pounds for Minnesota. After serving in the Marine Corps he returned to Minnesota and won three more Big 10 titles from 1947 to 1949. He was also a three-time All-American and two-time NCAA champion. In 1949 Gagne won the NCAA heavyweight title in a controversial referee’s decision over his Olympic teammate Dick Hutton.
Gagne briefly pursued a career in professional football and signed with Green Bay. Gagne played for the Packers in the pre-season, but could not play in the regular season because of a dispute between the Packers and Chicago Bears over which team had the rights to Gagne. He then went into the professional wrestling and was involved in it for over four decades as a wrestler and promoter. Gagne suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a Minnesota health care facility.
Robert G. Maldegan enrolled at Michigan State in the fall of 1945 on a football scholarship. He had no wrestling experience, but the rangy, 6’-4” Maldegan caught the eye of MSU wrestling coach Fendley Collins in a P.E. wrestling class. Maldegan became a four year starter for the Spartans at heavyweight and a two-time All-American. He finished second in 1948 and third in 1948 at the NCAA tournament and was the 1949 AAU heavyweight champion. Maldegan came out of retirement in 1952 to wrestle in the Olympic trials and finished third.
After graduating from Michigan State, Maldegan joined his father-in-law’s insurance agency. He eventually bought the business and expanded it to one with 35 employees. Maldegan retired in 1990 and the youngest member of the 1948 Olympic team now lives in northern Michigan in Petoskey.
Malcolm “Mickey” MacDonald was a product of the Oklahoma high school wrestling powerhouse Tulsa Central High School. He won Oklahoma state titles in 1938 and 1940. He enrolled at Purdue University and in 1942 was a Big 10 champion and NCAA runner-up at 121. He lost in the finals to Merle Jennings of Michigan State, also a Tulsa Central alumnus. MacDonald then transferred to the Naval Academy and was a three-time EIWA champion from 1943 to 1945 at 121 pounds. He continued to wrestle while in the Navy, but retired after the 1948 Olympics. He has passed away.
Leland G. Merrill Jr. traveled a very unconventional path to an Olympic wrestling medal. The Danville, IL native grew up in Parkersburg, WV and started wrestling in ninth grade in 1935. At Parkersburg High School, Ben Schwartzwalder, who later coached football at Syracuse and won a national championship in 1959, was his wrestling coach. Merrill wrestled for Michigan State from 1940 to 1942 and finished third at 155 pounds in the 1942 NCAA championship. After graduating from MSU, Merrill entered the U.S. Army and spent 1943 through 1946 in Europe. He commanded a Tank Destroyer Unit and received a bronze star for service in action.
He left the service as a Major and entered a graduate program in entomology at Rutgers University. Merrill also resumed wrestling in 1947 and trained at the New York AC. He placed third in the AAU tournament in 1947 and won it in 1948. Merrill earned his master’s in 1948 and doctorate in 1949 at Rutgers. He spent four years on the Michigan State faculty before return to Rutgers in 1953. He was a professor teaching and working with farmers throughout New Jersey, a college wrestling official, and an Army reservist. When he retired as Professor Emeritus from Rutgers, he became coach of the Princeton (NJ) High School wrestling team for several years. He passed away on July 28, 2009 at the age of 88 in Princeton.
Joseph J. Scarpello was a three-time Nebraska high school champion at Omaha Central High School, where was coached Allie Morrison, a 1928 Olympic champion. After graduating from high school he joined the Army Air Corps and flew 18 missions over Germany. He enrolled at the University of Iowa and became the Hawkeyes first four-time Big 10 champion and All-American. He was an NCAA champion in 1947 and 1950. He had a great rivalry with Glen Brand of Iowa State. Scarpello beat Brand in the 1947 NCAA finals, but lost to him in both the 1948 NCAA championships and the team trials. After the Olympics, Scarpello turned professional and wrestled for 27 years in the pro ranks. He often formed a tag team with Olympic teammate Vern Gagne. Scarpello passed way on November 9, 1999 at the age of 76.
Leo Thomsen was a two-time Iowa high school state champion for Waterloo West and with high school teammates Dick Hauser and Lowell Lange became part of the 1947 Cornell College Dream Team. That squad won both the NCAA and AAU team titles. Thomsen was a two-time All-American and placed four times in the AAU tournament, which he won in 1948. After graduating from Cornell College in 1950, he taught and coached wrestling at Colby (KS) High School for two years. Colby was state champion in 1951. From 1952 to 1974, Thomsen worked for the Iowa Manufacturing Co. He passed away on September 13, 1974 at the age of 44 in Cedar Rapids, IA.