Courtesy of Dan Ackel, Wall Street Journal
Photo credit: Lindsey Mechalik, Cornell
Arising from the east may be the most prodigious group of red wrestlers since the fall of the Soviet Union -- and the least likely. Cornell University, coming off its third straight victory in the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association tournament held this past weekend in Philadelphia, has the second-ranked wrestling team in the nation. Rarely has an East Coast team been ranked so high; for the Ivy League, it is unprecedented.
Cornell has had good wrestling teams before -- the team placed fourth in the NCAA tournament in 2005 -- but this year its wrestlers and coaches talk openly about challenging the mighty University of Iowa, winner of 20 team titles in the past 30 years, for the national title at the tournament in St. Louis starting on March 19. It could happen -- if everything breaks just right for the Big Red.
Cornell's rise to the top wrestling ranks is part "Field of Dreams," part fund raising, and part the story of two unlikely champions. Head Coach Rob Koll, an NCAA champion and the son of a three-time NCAA champion, is wrestling royalty, but he has charted his own path.
Though his dad had been the coach at Penn State, Mr. Koll opted to attend the University of North Carolina, a school never known for wrestling. After a career capped by an undefeated season and a stint as a graduate assistant, he was hired by Cornell as an assistant coach. Four years later, in 1993, Mr. Koll, who looks and sounds much like Coach Taylor on NBC's "Friday Night Lights," gained the head job at age 28.
Soon after, wrestling alumni hatched plans for a new facility on campus. The idea of a building devoted to a single nonrevenue-generating sport -- even one fully funded by alums -- was "not a slam dunk," says Andy Noel, Cornell's athletic director and a former wrestling coach himself. But Cornell's president at the time was Hunter Rawlings, who had been president at Iowa. He backed the plan.
The $6 million Friedman Wrestling Center, named for Stephen Friedman, a former wrestler who went on to become chairman of Goldman Sachs, opened in 2002. The building -- the only stand-alone wrestling facility in the country -- was the biggest step in raising the program to national prominence. "If you build it, they will come," Mr. Koll says. That same year, Travis Lee won his first of four EIWA titles for the Big Red.
Mr. Lee, now a biotech researcher and volunteer assistant coach for the team, had been a high-school champion. But because that high school was in Hawaii, it didn't cut much ice with college coaches. Cornell was "one of the few places that took me seriously," Mr. Lee says, at least until he won a national tournament the summer after his senior year of high school. Recruiters then started calling, but Mr. Lee was committed to attending college in upstate New York. He wound up winning two NCAA crowns, becoming the first NCAA champ from Hawaii and the first Ivy Leaguer in more than 40 years to win twice.
Mr. Lee was followed by Jordan Leen. Though Mr. Leen was a four-time state champion, he was also from one of the wrong states, Tennessee, and was likewise ignored by top wrestling colleges. Coach Koll, though, had known Mr. Leen's father, also a wrestling coach, since Jordan was a boy. The coach "told me I could be a national champion. Either he believed it or he was filling me up with a lot of hot air, but I believed him," Mr. Leen says. In 2008, Mr. Leen, then a junior, lost in the EIWA finals and was seeded eighth at the 157-pound weight class in the NCAA tournament. But he beat the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds en route to victory, making the coach not just credible but correct.
To read the continuation of the story about the Big Red, head to the Wall Street Journal.