Hello all. It’s me again, sharing some thoughts on some fun wrestling topics. It’s hard in this wonderful world of wrestling media to come up with some good ideas on what to write about. When all else fails, it’s time for a reboot! It’s been quite some time since I had a blog on anything and everything, but one of my favorite articles to write while I had it was about 1997, and how it was such a fantastic year. Michigan won the NCAA Football Championship, Barry Sanders rushed for 2000+ yards, The Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Just a fantastic year. Let’s move that focus to wrestling specifically. Wrestling, specifically in 1997, was a very interesting and exciting year. Let’s get into the details and talk a walk through the past together.
Let’s start with Iowa. My god what a season they had. It was Dan Gable’s last season at the helm, and he had an interesting and rocky season. A Season on the Mat by Nolan Zavoral does a great job detailing some of the issues that Gable was having with his health, recovering from hip surgery, and the typical trials and tribulations that go on through a wrestling season. A regular season loss to Oklahoma State and some up and down results from many of their wrestlers left some doubt in their hopes to win an NCAA team title, but then they went out and had 5 champs and 8 AA’s to finish with what remains the single highest point total for a champion in NCAA wrestling history - 170 points. Gable got to walk away on top, and we got to enjoy some history.
Let’s talk individual champions now. Some all time greats were in this pool. Naturally we have the Iowa guys, Lincoln McIllravy, Joe Williams, and Mark Ironside are all Iowa royalty, and all won titles this year. For the Hawkeyes, you also had Jesse Whitmer win as a 6 seed, and Lee Fulhart winning a title as a 5 seed. That’s what happens when you’ve got the greatest coach of all time in his final season. You send him out with a bang. An interesting point, lots of finalists in that season ended up in some high profile spots. We’ve got future world champions Steven Neal and Brandon Slay who lost to Mark Branch (coach at Wyoming) and Kerry McCoy (former coach at Maryland) respectively in there. Additionally, these current NCAA coaches all took second as well - Chris Bono (McIlravy), Tony Robie (Joe Williams), Roger Chandler (Kolat). Some other notable names in here, Matt Hughes of the UFC was wrestling for Easter Illinois at the time, and took 5th in the country at 158, Teague Moore, current coach at American University, took 4th at 118.
The rest of the NCAA Champs that year also include some studs. Eric Guerrero won at 126, knocking off Mike Mena of Iowa in the finals. Cary Kolat is clearly one of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the US, and won a title at 142 for Lock Haven, just a couple years before releasing his signature Kolat’s, which are undeniably some of the most iconic wrestling shoes ever released. We briefly mentioned Mark Branch, but I think it’s important to recognize a lot of Branch’s accomplishments. He won his second title this year, and went on to coach with Oklahoma State while they were on their run through the early 2000s, before eventually leaving for Wyoming, where he has been an outstanding coach for them for the last several years. Barry Weldon won for Iowa State at 177, and Kerry McCoy beat eventual world champ Stephen Neal of CSU Bakersfield in the finals. McCoy vs Neal was a big rivalry for years in college and then competing for world team spots. Neal won the world team spot in 1999, and subsequently the World Championships, and McCoy went on to make the team the next 5 USA teams!
Last piece I wanted to focus on before wrapping this up, was some of the wrestlers who placed for schools that no longer have wrestling. It was a simpler time in 1997. It’s fun and depressing to see some of these programs that were having success back then, and to know that they are no longer around. Programs like Eastern Illinois (2 AA’s that year), Syracuse (1 AA, and I like to think those singlets were awesome), Fresno State (yea, they are back now, but they had 2 AA’s as well, and the fact remains that since 97, the program was dropped), and Boston University (1 AA). It’s also fun to see that 22 years ago, we had Lock Haven, Edinboro and Cal State Bakersfield in the top 10 programs in the country. It was also a precursor to what was about to happen in the landscape of wrestling. Oklahoma State, Minnesota, and Iowa State were on the verge of some history themselves. OSU won plenty of titles in the 2000s, Minnesota won a couple titles as well, and Iowa State had a gentlemen named Cael Sanderson, who was about to never lose a match, which was pretty cool.
That’s all the research I feel like doing about 1997 at the moment, but I tell you what, it’s a blast to go and watch some of these NCAA finals matches on YouTube. McIlravy v Bono, Williams v Robie, Guerrero v Mena, Branch v Slay, McCoy v Neal. Too much excellence to ignore, and I suggest you don’t. Anyway, I hope this was as enjoyable for you to read as it was for me to write. Rock on.