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Historic Coaching Hires Shift College Wrestling Landscape

Historic Coaching Hires Shift College Wrestling Landscape

Will David Taylor restore Oklahoma State to its former glory? History says it will take a style that's all his own.

May 23, 2024 by Kyle Klingman

J Robinson’s history in wrestling is as deep and diverse as anyone’s. He competed for Oklahoma State under Myron Roderick, coached with Gary Kurdelmeier and Dan Gable at Iowa, and built Minnesota into a championship program. 

Every transcendent coach, he says, elevated wrestling to a new place that was uniquely his. 

“If you look at the history of wrestling, you have a guy named Ed Gallagher who elevated wrestling to where it started and then a guy named Art Griffith and then a guy named Myron Roderick, and a guy named Tommy Evans and Harold Nichols. 

“Each one of them put their stamp on the sport at different times. Different people have a different impact and put a stamp on the sport in different ways. It’s no different than entering any field. There’s a standard, and then somebody comes in and raises the standard. When they raise the standard it shifts the sport to a different place.”

College wrestling is built on dynasties with only six programs winning multiple titles since the first NCAA Championships in 1928. Three programs stand out: Oklahoma State, Iowa, and Penn State. 

Each owned an era with a handful of disrupters along the way. Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Minnesota had pockets of consistency, but none won more than two titles in a row. Another six programs secured a lone team championship. 

Division I NCAA Team Champions

Oklahoma State341928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1946, 1948, 1949, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006
Iowa241975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2021
Penn State121953, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2022, 2023, 2024
Iowa State81933, 1965, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1987
Oklahoma  71936, 1951, 1952, 1957, 1960, 1963, 1974
Minnesota32001, 2002, 2007
Cornell College (IA)11947
Northern Iowa 11950
Michigan State11967
Arizona State11988
Ohio State12015

Cracking The Code

In wrestling, cracking the championship code is difficult. Building a dynasty is nearly impossible. 

David Taylor was recently hired as Oklahoma State’s next head coach, replacing John Smith who won five titles during his 33-season tenure. Many wonder if he can shift the landscape of college wrestling again, returning the Cowboys to their former glory. 

Taylor was a founding member of the current Penn State dynasty who remained involved with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club until his departure. His relentless pace led to four NCAA finals appearances (2011-2014), NCAA titles in 2012 and 2014, World titles in 2018, 2022, and 2023, and a 2020 Olympic gold medal. 

Sanderson built his dynasty with Taylor as a centerpiece, and teammates like Quentin Wright, an NCAA champion in 2011 and 2013, witnessed the results. The Nittany Lions have won 11 of the last 13 titles with no signs of slowing down. 

“There was a level of expectation of what you’d do in practice and outside of practice and how you fight through things,” Wright said. “Cael demanded it all the time no matter if you were a walk-on or an NCAA champ. He demanded that level of excellence at all times.

“(David) was a great personality. People who meet him love him. He knows how to work a room. He’s very good, and I think he’ll be able to get the recruits in. He knows the system and he’s smart and that’s why he got as good as he is. He’s going to do a good job.”

It's All About Style

Good won’t cut it in the high-stakes world of Division I college athletics. Like every transcendent coach, Taylor needs to develop a distinctive style. The transfer portal, recruiting, NIL, and RTCs are parts of the game that didn’t exist when Gallagher won 11 of the first 13 NCAA Championships for Oklahoma State. 

“Someone comes along and puts the pieces of different empires together but it's successful because nobody else is doing it,” Robinson said. “That’s the way it was with (former Oklahoma State coach Myron) Roderick. He had a method. He had a technical way of teaching wrestling.

“(Former Iowa State coach Harold) Nichols won with a different way. There are different ways to reach the top and the coach or CEO or president tunes into the one that’s needed at the time. Then there is a flow of resources to a program because everyone wants to belong to a winner. Different times require different needs. You can’t be just one thing.”

The Hawkeyes Soar Like Never Before

The University of Iowa offers clues about how dynasties work. Iowa State loosened the grip of Oklahoma State’s dynasty by winning four titles in five seasons from 1969 through 1973, and it’s no coincidence that Dan Gable was the key ingredient to those Cyclone teams.

Gable transcended the sport as an athlete, going 183-1 in college before winning the 1972 Munich Olympics without surrendering a point. 

Could he do the same as a coach? Gary Kurdelmeier said yes, luring Gable from Ames to Iowa City in a move that sent shockwaves through college wrestling. 

Gable was a Hawkeye and his role as Kurdelmeier’s assistant made an immediate impact. Iowa finished seventh in 1973 and fifth in 1974 before winning titles in 1975 and 1976. After four seasons as head coach, Kurdelmeier handed the reins to Gable. 

The next 21 seasons are the stuff of legend. Gable-led teams won 15 NCAA Championships, and 21 consecutive Big Ten titles, with a 355-21-5 dual meet record. 

Did Gable know he would change the landscape of college wrestling? Not a chance. 

“When they signed me up I was an athlete,” Gable said. “The only thing I knew was to win a gold medal and kick some butt. I have never visualized something that wasn’t ready to be visualized yet. Until I got done with the Olympics I didn’t know I was a coach. 

“I had been a coach forever. When I went to the YMCA I was already coaching kids. I was coaching teams and I didn’t even know it. I was being an athlete but most of the time I was just being an example. It never once crossed my mind that I was ready to make a mark on the sport. Until I got in the position, I had no idea that the stands were going to be full.

“You have to win national titles to have a big shift.”

Title with a J

Making a mark took a community of fans, donors, administration, and assistants. A key ingredient was J Robinson who joined Kurdelmeier’s staff with Gable after both returned from the 1972 Olympics. Each had different skills that complemented each other. 

Gable notched his first team title in 1978 by half a point, before winning eight in a row with a 38-point average margin of victory over second place. Robinson left the program in 1984 over a dispute with the university before resurfacing as Minnesota’s head coach during the 1986-87 season. 

Here is where things get interesting. Iowa won two titles after Robinson left before a four-year championship drought from 1987 through 1990. Does Iowa’s streak continue if Robinson stays?

Robinson had a five-year plan to win a championship that eventually became a 15-year plan. Minnesota finally cracked the code in 2001 when the Golden Gophers won their elusive title in Iowa City with 10 All-Americans and no finalists. They won again in 2002 and 2007. None of the titles came during the Gable era. 

Penn State has kept its original coaching staff intact. Did the Nittany Lions learn an important historical lesson on continuing a dynasty without disruption?  

Head Coaches With Multiple NCAA Championships

E.C. GallagherOklahoma State111928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940
Art GriffithOklahoma State81941, 1942, 1946, 1948, 1949, 1954, 1955, 1956
Port RobertsonOklahoma31951, 1952, 1957
Myron RoderickOklahoma State71958, 1959, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1968
Tommy EvansOklahoma21960, 1963
Harold NicholsIowa State61965, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1977
Gary KurdelmeierIowa  21975, 1976
Dan GableIowa151978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1997
Joe SeayOklahoma State21989, 1990
Jim ZaleskyIowa31998, 1999, 2000
John SmithOklahoma State51994, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006
J RobinsonMinnesota32001, 2002, 2007
Tom BrandsIowa42008, 2009, 2010, 2021
Cael SandersonPenn State112011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2022, 2023, 2024

College Wrestling's Biggest Shift

When Russ Hellickson stepped down as Ohio State’s head coach in 2006, it triggered a string of events that rocked college wrestling.

Tom Ryan left Hofstra for Ohio State, Tom Brands left Virginia Tech to replace Jim Zalesky at Iowa, and Cael Sanderson took over for Bobby Douglas at Iowa State. The 2009 NCAA Championships reflect how major coaching hires affect the college wrestling landscape. 

Iowa finished first, Ohio State second, and Iowa State third. Oklahoma State and Oklahoma — standard bearers for nearly six decades — finished 16th and 30th respectively with one combined All-American.

Sanderson left Iowa State for Penn State during the 2009-10 season. The Nittany Lions recently scored a record 172.5 points with a record 100-point margin of victory.

Can Taylor make the magic happen in Stillwater? 

“It’s going to take some work,” Gable said. “It will take work if it’s Oklahoma State or Penn State or Iowa State or Michigan or Iowa. Even though Oklahoma State was the dominant team when I came to Iowa State, they were beatable when you have some good guys. 

“It’s exciting for the rest of the country because who is going to take (Penn State) on? Oklahoma State’s hire is exciting. I think they want to take them on. I would hope (Iowa coaches Tom and Terry Brands) would think like that. I think (Iowa State coach Kevin) Dresser is competitive.

“Whoever is on the rise right now should feel like this is a moment to punch back. They shouldn’t feel like Oklahoma State is going to dominate like Iowa did or Penn State is right now. This is just excitement in the sport. I hope other people will take on this template of how you get to a new level. 

“It’s the greatest challenge in the history of our sport.”