'I like to bandy words'

Oklahoma won the college title, but Penn State was best on verbal takedowns
April 04, 1960

He doesn't talk all the time. It just seems as if he does. Last week cauliflower-eared Charlie Speidel, wrestling coach at Penn State for 35 years, had even more than usual to talk about. His team was competing in the NCAA championships at the University of Maryland.

In the Penn State equipment room last Wednesday the baggage was being gathered for the 185-mile trip by car to College Park, Md. Charlie, 61, sat on one of the tables in the equipment room, the stubby legs on his 5-foot-5 frame dangling far from the floor.

"Hi, Doc," boomed Speidel as Sam Minor, the team captain, came by. "I don't know what route we drive, Sam. Let the drivers decide. I tried to tell 'em last time and everybody got lost."

Charlie had started slowly. Now his words were tumbling out faster, racing each other. "We get 6,000 here for our dual meets. They love the action. College rules permit more maneuverability than Olympic rules. Why, in Greco-Roman wrestling we have to eliminate 90% of our tricks because they don't allow holds below the waist." He gripped himself about the waist with tight little fingers, and threw up his arms.

"We don't want to have to start training our kids in grade school just so they can win a gold medal 20 years later. We think our college rules bring out the finest wrestling. They test a boy in all aspects of the sport—offense, defense, the works. For years America won the Olympic wrestling when they were using our catch-as-catch-can college rules, and then in 1928 they voted us down, because we have just one man on that committee, and how are you gonna win an election with one vote? Now if a man's shoulders just roll over the mat—they call that a touch fall—he's pinned in the Olympics. A man can get pinned without even knowing his shoulders have touched the mat, and that's not right. A man gets overcautious. We're trying to get 'em to change the rules back. Olympic wrestling puts too much emphasis on strength. Why, they think its wonderful if you can make yourself rigid like an iron horse and hold like that."

He bounded down from the table. "Let's go, Doc."

Speidel has gone to a lot of tournaments, but he was bubbling with the enthusiasm of a kid with a bag of marbles as he got in the back seat of a black Lark driven by Ed Czekaj, business manager of athletics. He kept right on talking.

"We've got to get back to the basics in this country: reading, writing, arithmetic and," as he poked a hard finger into his rib cage, "care of the body. Too many of our boys have narrow shoulders and wide hips.

"When you're out there wrestling you're on your own." Charlie turned sideways and his voice shifted to the excited, raspy staccato of a Jimmy Cagney. "Suddenly you realize nobody can help you." He clutched his throat. "The other guy's tough. You're afraid." His eyes widened, his hands jumped in front of his chest and locked in icy fear. "What are you going to do?"

He sat back and looked out the window.

"When I started at Penn State in 1926 there were only 20 high schools in the state that had wrestling. Now more than 300 schools have it. If you give parents and school boards a chance to know what it's all about they'll accept it. We have a weight class for everybody and we don't care how short or tall he is.

"Know when the first Olympics were held? I'll tell you You'll never forget. When was the Declaration of Independence signed? O.K., take off the first number. Now you've got to add B.C., that gives you 776 B.C., and that's when the first Olympics were."

Charlie Speidel looked out the window again.

"I like to bandy words."

Then he turned sideways. "I used to have a boy named Sammy Wolfson. He went through the same mumbo jumbo before every match. I asked him what it was all about. He told me it was an old Jewish saying: 'First comes the battle within yourself. To win that is the most important.' That's when I became a coach.

"When you think about it you realize all coaches have the same basic information. We all know how to deal with the combative side. What we have to learn is how to deal with the emotional side. I don't like to use the word psychology. You know what psychology is? It's 90% common sense and 10% vocabulary.

"I'm no different from anyone else. When I was in Japan I wanted to know how high Fujiyama was. I'll tell you. You'll never forget. It's the number of months in a year plus the number of days in a year. But this year's a leap year. Are we here? Good."

That night in his room Speidel put on his Polaroid glasses and put a newspaper over his head and watched the fights on TV. "Cuts out the wavy lines," he explained.

Thursday morning, following the weigh-ins, Sam Minor and his teammates sat down to a breakfast of peas, fruit cocktail, orange juice and a steak smothered with honey. For dessert the boys had ginger ale and a mishmash of vanilla ice cream and raw egg. That afternoon in Maryland's beautiful Cole Field house (which has orange, aqua and yellow seats) 266 wrestlers from 81 colleges began the action, with bouts being held simultaneously on five mats.

Charlie Speidel worked hard that day, his body twisting and turning as each of his wrestlers got in and out of trouble. "Shoot for it, Sam," screamed Charlie. "Grab a leg. Keep 'im low. The other way, Sam, the other way." Sam won.

After breakfast the next morning Charlie lit a cigar and nipped the match on his plate. He stood up, talking, and turned from the table. Someone yelled at him, "Charlie, turn around. Behind you, Charlie, behind you."

Charlie turned and jumped back. His plate had turned into a flaming fireplace. The match had set fire to the napkin on the dish. Charlie doused the fire with a glass of water, but for once he was speechless.

Friday was a bad day for Penn State. Sam lost, and before the day was over every one of Charlie's boys had been whipped.

Even so, at Saturday's breakfast Speidel was as chipper and talkative as ever. His egg and sausages got cold as he pursued his favorite topic. "Let's be realistic. We don't live just for the Olympics. Sure it would be nice to win, but this wrestling isn't a vocation. It's an avocation. We just want to provide the boys with a wholesome form of recreation. Let's not overemphasize it."

Oklahoma, which had been a pre-tournament cofavorite with Oklahoma State (Oklahoma had won four NCAA team titles, Oklahoma State 21), advanced five men to the quarterfinals on Thursday and went on to win the championships easily. Oklahoma State was fourth, and Charlie Speidel's Penn State team was a badly beaten sixth. But in 10 years the number of high schools with wrestling teams has doubled (to more than 3,000) and the number of colleges competing in the sport has risen from 180 to more than 320. Defeated, but still delighted with the whole idea of amateur wrestling, Charlie Speidel talked on.

PHOTOSPEIDEL'S COSTUME FOR WATCHING TV FEATURES POLAROID GLASSES, NEWSPAPER HAT PHOTOSTRONGMAN ART KRAFT (left) proved too much for his foes, brought 157-pound championship to Northwestern. Art, 26, got special coaching from brother Ken, 24.