Coaches Grady Peninger and Doug Blubaugh, seeking to convince themselves of the inconceivable, stood beneath the white scoreboard at Kent State University and counted up the points on their fingers, one hoping the other would not suddenly come up with a combination of small disasters that would deprive their Michigan State team of its first National Collegiate wrestling championship. But because it was Saturday—the final day of the tournament—even those two pessimists could find no way to lose.
Their concern was understandable. From the very beginning in 1928 nobody had come even close to beating Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or Iowa State, the schools that, collectively, had dominated college wrestling. Of the 36 national championships that had been awarded up to this year, all but four had been won by one of the schools. Oklahoma State alone had claimed 25 titles.
Peninger, however, had been looking for a turning point ever since he took over at Michigan State five years ago and Saturday he was saying maybe it had come. "You can't imagine just what winning this championship could mean," he said. "Not only to us, but to wrestling and recruiting throughout the country. Before this year no team except one of the big three ever dreamed of winning the national championship, but now it doesn't look as impossible as it used to."
The new era was as predictable as it was promising. The 1967 tournament was one of the best as far as competitive skill and balance goes and, without a doubt, it was the largest. A total of 345 wrestlers representing 91 schools met in 423 bouts before 30,963 persons. Michigan State came out on top by carrying the fight to the opposition throughout, which perhaps was less of a surprise to the Spartan coaches than they indicated on Saturday. This was the same team that had challenged both Oklahoma schools on their home grounds without losing, and no other wrestlers had been able to do this before. When the NCAA competition got under way, Michigan State picked up right where it had left off in Oklahoma. The Spartans, who had also won the Big Ten title, took all the matches they knew they had to win; Oklahoma, which entered the tournament as the favorite, won few of its vital matches. As early as Friday's quarter-finals, two of its best—Bryan Rice, the Big Eight champion at 123 pounds, and Dickie Haxel, 137, were defeated. Similarly, Oklahoma State, though it had won 9 of 12 meets over as rugged a schedule as there is in college wrestling, was suddenly out of its usual number of qualifiers, as was Iowa State. The collapse of the three left the field wide open, and Michigan State, followed closely by Michigan, made haste to fill it.
Under Peninger, a slight man of 39 who is beginning to lose his hair, and Blubaugh, a stocky, crew-cut Olympic champion who wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses, Michigan State wrestling took a sharp turn for the better after 1964, when it finished last in the Big Ten. State rose to second the following year, and then won its first conference title in five years. Even though it repeated this season, the team was not exactly thinking national championship when it left for the NCAA tournament. "We didn't come down here with the idea of winning," said Don Behm, who wrestles at 130 pounds, "but we knew we had a chance. We thought we'd get off to as good a start as we could and then just wait and see."
Their lack of great expectations may have been the thing that kept the Spartans loose. What pressure the team felt was placed mostly on the shoulders of Behm, who had just won his second Big Ten title; Dale Anderson, a two-time champion who was undefeated in 1966; and a 167-pounder named George Radman, acknowledged by Peninger as "the cleverest wrestler I've ever coached."
The most nerve-wracking, too. A beautifully proportioned young man with long, powerful arms, Radman worked on a farm outside of Norfolk, Va., and has never felt in a hurry to go anywhere. He battles weight constantly and can see no reason to suffer for a full week to make his weight limit when the same end can be achieved with a spine-rattling climax. "There wasn't one week that George didn't practically drive me out of my mind worrying about his weight," moaned Peninger. "Why, once he was 11 pounds overweight the day before a meet."
On Thursday, the day the NCAAs began, there was Radman again, a pound over the limit with 35 minutes to go. Peninger, frantic, rushed him into his sweat clothes and then into the steam room, where Radman ran in place and did push-ups until, with 90 seconds to go, he finally made weight. The following day the team searched frantically for Radman before his first bout only to find him in the room of his high school coach—asleep. And the day he was to wrestle for the national championship, Radman had this to say: "Look, after this is over it won't mean nothing toward getting me a farm somewhere. That's all I really want. But a farm costs money. And I'm sure not going to get any by wrestling, now am I?"
When the tournament entered its third and final day the three Big Eight powers had been reduced to skeleton teams. Michigan had scored enough points to be close but did not have the qualifiers to back them up, and Lehigh, the Eastern Intercollegiate champion, had lost 10 of its 11 men. Only Mike Caruso, the lone two-time national champion in the tournament, remained. In the finals Caruso won the 50th straight match of his career and claimed his third national title in a row in a 7-6 squeaker over Bobby Fehrs of Michigan.
But by now the Wolverines had grown used to dropping the close ones. On Friday, Michigan championship hopes disappeared when Dave Porter, a superb heavyweight and defending NCAA champion, lost a hotly disputed and highly disputable 5-4 decision to Dominick Carollo of Adams State. Carollo, after striking for five quick points, was penalized a point for stalling near the end of the match, and when it was over the crowd was roaring that his tactics should have cost him more. Michigan State's Jeff Richardson thought so, too. "That's no way for a champion to lose," he said in consolation to Porter, who shook the hand of his conqueror and then left the arena without even stopping to pick up his sweat shirt.