November 24, 2004

The Best Kept Secret in Cornell Sports

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If I had 15 percent less body fat, weighed 20 fewer pounds, could punch frozen slabs of meat and looked a little bit more menacing than your kid sister, I might go in the ring. Might.

Instead there I was, crunching my Doritos, watching able-bodied men slam each other to the floor at wrestling’s Body Bar Invitational last weekend. A mother from a competing school who was sitting next to me seemed to grimace on each chip that I crunched. I hope she knew it was just me … and not her son.

College wrestling is a new prospect for me, and as I sat back watching three-time All-American and former national champion Travis Lee manhandle another opponent for his trillionth win, I found out what head coach Rob Koll was really talking about a week ago: Cornell wrestling is the best secret on campus.

But for a skeptic like me, coming to this conclusion was difficult, so I had to judge this myself. My beat partner, James, and I were there to interview Koll about the team. I had never met him before, so when you think wrestling coach, you think, seven-foot, 400-pound ogre telling you to climb a rope in double-time.

Thankfully, Koll was not an ogre. In fact, he kindly gave us over an hour of his time, explaining to us that his team is good. Disgustingly good. So good, in fact, that they are three-deep in most weight classes with high school All-Americans trying to compete for starting places. So good that they have the potential to be top-five in the nation with two national champions. So good that their recruiting classes have been among the top of the country each year. So good that…

You get the picture.

Maybe Koll saw that I was not yet sold. So he gave us a tour of the Friedman Wrestling Center. A state-of-the-art gym, study rooms for wrestlers, clean men’s locker room (anything on the floor is thrown out, Koll says) and to top it off, memorabilia.

Looking at the teams in the 1930s, they look like stick figures. But Koll stopped at one picture and pointed to a beanpole named Max Hurwitz. Koll explained to us that Max was caught by the Japanese military during World War II and put in a concentration camp. Instead of killing him however, the Japanese gave him pieces of meat so they could watch him wrestle.

Koll then pointed to the other side of the wall — a framed Cornell singlet that was taken to space by former Red wrester Ed Lu ’84.

“Cornell wrestling can now claim something that no other team can,” Lu writes in a note next to the singlet. “It’s truly out of this world.”

Koll and his coaching staff are trying to follow Lu’s words. Koll wants and expects every home meet to be packed. He wants opposing teams to mark Cornell down not only as a tough place to wrestle but also a place that echoes of a Lynah Rink-meets-WWE type of atmosphere. And most of all, he wants to compete year after year for a national championship.

The team has even started a fan club. After we interviewed senior co-captain Tyler Baier, he then went out of his way to ask us if we wanted to join and Koll said that the team now has hundreds of members (most of them girls, he adds). To top it off, in the team’s last match of the season against Bloomsburg, the first 500 fans will receive free Travis Lee bobblehead doll.

As we were leaving the coach’s office for the second time, Koll sprang up one more proposition: practicing with the team.

“We can start you off with Travis, and work your way up…” Koll told me.

Thanks Coach. But I think I’ll take my bobblehead doll and my Doritos and watch Cornell’s biggest secret get out.

Archived article by Brian Tsao