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Penn State Patriarch: Bill Koll

As wrestling season gets under way, let's remember the patriarch of the Penn State Wrestling Family, Bill Koll.

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Bill Koll.  His name is just two syllables, short, gruff, hard, brutal, like reading a Hemingway sentence.  And it's still not tough enough to match the man who coached Penn State Wrestling from 1965 - 1979.

He was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa in 1923.  He wrestled.  As a high school sophomore, he lost every match.  He kept fighting.  As a senior, he was an undefeated Iowa state champion.[1]

Bill Koll matriculated to the University of Northern Iowa.  He played quaterback, manned their dining hall to pay his tuition, and wrestled on the freshman squad.  He went unbeaten as freshman, besting two-time NCAA Champion Burl Jennings of Michigan State in a dual meet.   Freshmen were ineligible for the NCAA tournament.  It mattered not, because he traveled to US Army basic training seven days after that win.[2]

Serving in the 149th Combat Engineers Battalion, Koll ran onto Omaha Beach on June 6th, 1944.  D-Day, 2nd wave.  He was among the first there.  He cleared obstacles with explosives that he carried, on a battlefield that claimed 35% casualties.  Later, that December, Bill Koll earned the Bronze Star, our nation's 3rd highest military medal, for his fight at the Battle of the Bulge.

Surviving the war, he re-enrolled at Northern Iowa, and rejoined the wrestling team as a sophomore.  Thousands of veterans joined him, using the GI Bill to pay their ways.  Hardened combat veterans swelled the NCAAs ranks.  Bill Koll beat them all.

He never lost a college match, winning three NCAA titles, finishing with a career 72-0 mark.  As a senior in 1948, Koll pinned all five opponents, and earned his second Most Outstanding Wrestler Award - the first to ever accomplish the feat.  His pinning record stood for two and a half decades.

In 3-plus years of competition, spanning six years, Bill Koll allowed one opponent to take him down.  One, in his junior season, in the NCAA final.  Seventy-two matches wrestled, one takedown allowed.  He surrendered just two reversals, ever.  Thus describes all of the offensive points ever scored against Bill Koll in collegiate competition.

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UNI Teammate and National Wrestling Hall of Fame member Gerry Leeman: "Bill Koll was the toughest person I ever worked out with, and I consider him one of the very best wrestlers I ever watched.  He was mean on the mat and would say to me before a match, ‘I’ll draw blood before you will tonight.’"[2]

Terry McCann, 2x NCAA Champ and 1960 Olympic gold medalist: "I think Bill Koll is the best wrestler I ever saw.  In terms of technique and pure wrestling skill, he was the master on the mat.  He literally devastated his competition." [2]

From Wrestling Tough by Mike Champan: "A wrestler facing Koll knew that he was going to tangle with one of the most ferocious competitors ever seen on a mat.  Koll believed that wrestling was nothing to be timid about.  He would demand that his opponent meet his level of tenacity and commitment or be in for a very tough night." [3]

Dan Gable, when asked to name which of his Hawkeye wrestlers would be mostly likely to succeed in MMA, gave his respect to one non-Hawkeye: "You know, Bill Koll was one of those guys that would pick you up and slam you on your head.  The (now illegal) slam rule was brought in because of him." [4]

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If that's all there was to Bill Koll's story, it would be more than enough to be remembered forever.  Bill Koll, though, was much more than that.  He earned his MA from Northwestern in 1953, and his PhD from Oregon State in 1965.  He became Penn State's wrestling coach for the 1964/65 season, and, with his loving wife Barbara, raised his family in Happy Valley.

Coach Koll's Nittany Lions finished unbeaten in dual meets in 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1974.  His 41-dual meet Rec Hall unbeaten stretch (1969 - 1976) still stands.  He's the patriarch of Penn State's wrestling family, and his name adorns the Penn State Wrestling locker room.

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Bill Koll Nittany Lion wrestler John Fritz, NCAA Champion and former Penn State wrestling coach: "Coaches from all over the country had so much respect for him.  I remember coaches would come up to me and say, 'oh, [Penn State].  You wrestle for the toughest wrestler ever.'

"I think the greatest thing about coach Koll was that he was so intense and driven and such a fierce competitor, but he also had such a balanced life and was very well rounded and intelligent.  He was a great technician and a master psychologist. He was tough on us and didn't dole out a lot of praise, but he always got the best out of his wrestlers and he always tried to teach us something outside of wrestling. I can remember trips were he would take us to Civil War battlefields before the match. He always tried to make sure we had balance in our lives and I feel so lucky to have been coached by someone like that." [5]

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NittanyLionGrappling interviewed Coach Koll before he passed in 2003.  The old HTML page survives, and imparts a beautiful exchange:

Q: What advice do you have for collegiate wrestlers?

A: Go to class!! Keep your education as your first priority.  On the mat: keep your elbows in, keep your head up, and don't reach! [6]

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And here are your citations, because who could believe a life story like Bill Koll's if you didn't read it everywhere else?

[1] - Des Moines Register Archive

[2] - The History of Collegiate Wrestling, Jairus K. Hammond

[3] - Wrestling Tough, by Mike Champman

[4] - Des Moines Register Interview with Dan Gable

[5] - Penn State Pat, the best SID in the business

[6] - Nittany Lion Grappling, Coach Koll Interview