In 1976, then-Navy wrestling coach Ed Peery called his team’s dual against the Nittany Lions the “meet of the year.”
“Maybe I’m wrong,” he told the Centre Daily Times’ Doug McDonald, “but the dual meet records seem to indicate it should be a good one. It should be a typical Penn State-Navy match. We’re not going up there to lose ... we’re going up to win. The team realizes this is a big one. We get up for several big meets every year — Lehigh, Penn State, Army, then the Easterns.”
Fast forward to 2019, and a lot of things have changed. Penn State has since left the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association, first for the Eastern Wrestling League, then eventually for the Big Ten, where under the direction of coach Cael Sanderson, the Nittany Lions have become a national wrestling powerhouse, having won eight of the past nine NCAA titles and are riding a 59-straight dual winning streak into the 2019 season.
Penn State opens its 2019-20 campaign at 2 pm. Sunday against the Midshipmen at Rec Hall — where in 1972, 8,100 fans showed up for Penn State-Navy, setting the record for the largest crowd ever to witness a wrestling dual in the East.
“Anytime you have a military team, you know the kids are tough,” Sanderson said during his team’s media availability Tuesday. “They’re making the ultimate sacrifice with what they’re choosing to do for a career. So we have all the respect in the world for them as individuals and competitors and we expect them to come in here and wrestle hard. So we better be ready to go.”
While the defending national champion Nittany Lions are heavy favorites going into Sunday’s contest, that wasn’t always the case. There was a time, particularly in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when, like Peery said, Penn State-Navy was the “dual of the year.” Not only did the two teams wrestle several exciting dual meets, but they also went back and forth at EIWAs and nationals during that period.
Navy was riding a streak of three straight EIWA championships from 1968-70, until Penn State surprised the Midshipmen in 1971. Navy took back the title the next year, then Penn State knocked off the defending champs in 1973 by putting six wrestlers in the finals. Navy won again in ‘74.
“Back in those days, Navy, Lehigh, Penn State, those were the biggest matches east of the Mississippi — and sometimes even in the country,” John Fritz, who wrestled for Penn State from 1971-75, and eventually became head coach from 1993-98, said.
As a two-time PIAA runner-up out of Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Fritz ‘s ultimate goal for college was to become a national champion — which he accomplished in 1975. His best chance to do that, he believed, would be to either go to Penn State, Navy or Lehigh, the three programs he liked the most because of their wrestling tradition and coaching history.
The history of success and relationships between those three coaches — Bill Koll at Penn State, Thad Turner at Lehigh and Peery at Navy — as well as the history of their programs, is what Fritz believes also drew fans into the rivalry.
“They all had very good coaches, coaches that were around for awhile,” he said. “I think the history of that made it even more of a rivalry — and the fans knew that.”
Fritz was a true freshman in that ‘72 dual in front of 8,100. Having gotten his “butt kicked” in his collegiate debut against Michigan, he was looking for a big win to turn things around and get his season back on track. He knew he had the opportunity to do that in a big dual environment against senior Fred Hahndorf. It wasn’t easy, but a late escape and takedown got him the 8-7 win.
With over 1,500 fans more than today’s Rec Hall capacity of 6,502, people were packed on the the upper track and right up to the mat. The crowd size also tied Syracuse basketball for the most people to attend an indoor collegiate sport on campus in the east.
“I remember just being electric,” Fritz said. “I think of that and I think, ‘Oh, that’s probably how these football players think when they go out to a White Out,’ — just the excitement that you feel.”
Adding to the intrigue of the competition between the two teams that year was that Navy had three reigning EIWA champs in Tom Schuler, Andy Tolk and Lloyd Keaser, while Penn State had two in Andy Matter and Dave Joyner. The Nittany Lions were also riding 34-straight unbeaten dual streak, which contained a 17-17 tie with Navy in 1971 and a 16-16 tie with Pittsburgh in 1969.
As a freshman, Penn State’s Tom Teagarden was set to take on the reigning national runner-up in Schuler at 118 pounds. As a “naive farm boy,” he said he was new to the hype and media attention leading up to that dual. While he was handed the first loss of his young career, 4-2, Teagarden said the butterflies went away as soon as he hit the mat.
While most of the favored wrestlers ended up taking care of business in that 1973 dual, sophomore Bob Medina got a big 6-3 win over Tolk. Although he acknowledged it was “a long time ago,” it didn’t take long for Medina to remember that dual.
“That match was definitely the highlight of the dual meets we ever wrestled,” he said. “A permanent memory.”
In particular, he remembers Navy’s toughness, and ability to scramble before scrambling became popular.
Medina lost to Tolk later that year in EIWAs, 7-6. Dan Muthler, a two-time PIAA champ from Jersey Shore Area High School who went on to win a national championship for Navy in 1973, said he remembers a few other matches that Penn State had won at that dual flip at EIWAs.
Muthler was a freshman in 1972, wrestling in the junior varsity meet prior to the varsity dual. Although he had wrestled at Rec Hall before, in the PIAA tournament his senior year of high school, he said that dual crowd was unlike anything he had ever wrestled in front of before.
“It was rocking,” he recalled. “It was packed. I don’t know how they got so many in, but they did.”
Muthler benefited from the back-and-forth results that seemed common between Penn State and Navy wrestlers. As a sophomore, Muthler lost to Penn State’s Barry Snyder in the EIWA finals in 1973, after having beaten him earlier in the year. But it ended up working out to his benefit, Muthler said with a laugh, as Snyder ended up on the “wrong side of the bracket” at nationals and lost early, while he went on to win it.
For Muthler, Penn State was always a dual meet he had circled, knowing that whoever he’d wrestle then he’d probably see again at EIWAs, and possibly at nationals.
“The big ones were always on your mind,” he said. “Of course, going to Navy, Army was always a big one. But the big ones for us were always Lehigh and Penn State, because we knew we would be competing with them in the Easterns.”
One of the other more memorable Penn-State Navy duals of the early 1970s was the 1971 tie at the Naval Academy Field House. With the Nittany Lions in a 14-0 deficit, Penn State’s Don Stone started the comeback with a come-from-behind victory over Ross Chaffin, and former State College multi-sport athlete Joyner finished it with a pin at heavyweight.
Joyner, who also played offensive tackle for Penn State’s football team, decked Navy defensive tackle Glen Nardi for the pin. The two had played opposite each other at Beaver Stadium that fall.
“Thank goodness we have a mature heavyweight,” coach Koll told the CDT in 1971. “He knows how to handle pressure situations. We told him to wrestle his own match. We didn’t want him doing anything foolish. If an opening developed, sure, take it.”
Penn State eventually left the EIWA after the 1974 season, joining the Eastern Wrestling League in 1976, and then the Big Ten in 1993. As Penn State changed conferences, its opponents shifted, and so did its rivals. While Navy became less of a rival in the years following the EIWA departure, Fritz, who oversaw Penn State’s entry into the Big ten as head coach, said it was because of teams like Navy that the Nittany Lions were able to be competitive when they moved into bigger conferences.
”As I look back on that, I think that rivalry and those things definitely prepared us for making steps up, and they were all good because the state of competition was very good for a certain number of teams there (in the EIWA),” he said. “But I think that was a big impetus and that the teams in the EIWA and the rivalry there is one of the greatest things in wrestling.”
Sources for this article include the Centre Daily Times, New York Times and Penn State Wrestling Club archives, as well as interviews with former wrestlers.
Navy (2-1) at No. 1 Penn State (0-0)
When: 2 p.m., Sunday
Where: Rec Hall
Radio: WRSC 93.3 FM
Online: BTN+ (paid subscription), Flowrestling.com (paid subscription)
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