Barnabas Meriwether, who proclaims himself the world's greatest amateur wrestling gate-crasher, once got into the New York Athletic Club to see the Russians wrestle the U.S. by having his son strip to his shorts and impersonate a contestant. The situation was not quite that desperate in Bethlehem, Pa. last week, but it wasn't easy. Along with his wife and 6,000 other passionate enthusiasts, Meriwether turned up for the dual match between Iowa State and Lehigh. Most Americans could hardly care less, but Meriwether fidgeted like a man trapped in his cell with the water rising. As usual, he had no tickets and all 3,800 seats had been sold. Not even the threat of a blizzard had kept the crowds away, for this was the No. 2 team in the nation meeting No.4-ranked Lehigh (Oklahoma State is first and Michigan third). As Lehigh Coach Gerry Leeman put it, "This is a tremendous chance for eastern wrestling to prove itself."
In the end, the match proved that eastern wrestling is good but not quite good enough. Iowa State won 15-9. Barnabas Meriwether, on the other hand, more than met the Lehigh challenge—he somehow finagled seats both for himself and his wife. Wrestling enthusiasm is nothing new in Bethlehem, which prides itself on being a steel center, the Christmas City and the home of the Bach Choir and of Lehigh, for years possessor of one of the finest wrestling teams in the land. Even Dr. W. Deming Lewis, who became president of the university just last October, soon found himself caught up in the fervor. Dr. Lewis is a space scientist with three degrees from Harvard and two from Oxford. Not long after he arrived on campus he took slide rule in hand and figured that, according to the mathematical theory of probability, Lehigh was 4,041 years ahead of schedule in the matter of undefeated wrestling teams. The Engineers had had eight seasons without a loss in 55 years of competition.
There was hope, before Friday night's match, that this year's team would push the overall record even further ahead of schedule. Lehigh had won eight straight, five of them this season. Iowa State, however, came to town with even more impressive credentials—an undefeated streak of 27 matches and a lineup that included a champion, a runner-up and two fourth-place finishers at last year's NCAAs. Still, Lehigh had the home-court advantage which, according to other visitors, can be considerable in crowded, noisy Grace Hall. Once wedged in, the 3,800 lucky ones seem determined to prove that they can make enough noise to peel the paint off the ceiling. They become a stomping, hand-clapping, chanting, howling mob, and it takes a wrestler with strong eardrums and iron concentration not to crack.
There is even a tradition of terror. Some years ago a Navy wrestler complained that a girl fan seated near the edge of the mat kicked him in the head. Two years ago Army's cadets issued what has become known as their "revenge letter." It was a detailed complaint concerning the previous year's meet, and it read in part: "Lehigh has all the varsity sports, but they care for only one—wrestling! They recruit almost as many wrestlers as we do football players...." To which Lehigh can only plead guilty. Last fall, 48 men showed up for football practice. A few weeks later, 90 turned out for wrestling.
Wrestling coaches do recruit, not because they want to but because they have found they must. "You have to go out and get the talent these days," says Coach Leeman. "The high school coaches do the teaching, and we try to polish the boys up. We recruit as much as our money allows. We'll go as far as Ohio, Virginia, New York and Illinois for a boy."
"You have to talk to 'em because everybody else does," is the way Harold Nichols, the Iowa State coach, puts it. "We have 12 boys on full scholarships on our team each year. It's still not easy getting 'em, though."
An hour before the match Nichols sat in his room at the Hotel Bethlehem studying a map and figuring how to drive his team to Maryland for the next day's match. "No use gettin' excited," he said. But he did, of course. Leaving for Grace Hall, he tried to start his engine with his room key. Then he turned into a one-way street the wrong way before being straightened out. When he parked he left the headlights on.
If Nichols' nerves were raw before he got into Grace Hall, they were about shot as the match began amidst a thundering cacophony that would have unsettled an astronaut. When Lehigh sophomore Mike Caruso scored a 7-6 win in the first match against Roger Sebert, State's runner-up in the NCAA last year, the noise bulged the walls. Lehigh won the next two matches, giving the Engineers a dizzying 9-0 lead.
Then Bob Buzzard came through with the first win for the Cyclones. ("I said to myself, 'Ya gotta go out there and get that meanness right out of ya,' " he said later.) Gordon Hassman, the NCAA's 157-pound champion last season, won the next match for Iowa State, making the team score 9-6.
In the key match of the evening Harley Ferguson, the Lehigh captain, drove in for a takedown with one minute to go. He seemed almost to have it—and the win—when State's Vic Marcucci pulled a clever and desperate maneuver. He fell to his back and swung his left leg over Ferguson as he came down, then pulled up on top and had the takedown himself. This tied the team score at 9-9, and Tom Peckham's win in the 177-pound match put Iowa State ahead.
Enter the heavyweights—220-pound Steve Shippos of the Cyclones and 235-pound John Illengwarth. Lehigh fans had cause to be hopeful. A fine clutch wrestler, Illengwarth had come through with a takedown in the final 25 seconds a week earlier at Penn State to give his team a 17-11 win. Should he decision Shippos now, Lehigh would gain a satisfying 12-12 tie; a pin would mean victory, and no doubt mass delirium.
But such dreams arc to remain just that, this year anyway. Shippos got a quick escape in the second period and rode Illengwarth for most of the match. Illengwarth escaped with 40 seconds left in the bout but again was unable to get a takedown. Shippos, with one point for riding time, was a 2-1 victor and the Cyclones won 15-9.
Oddly, several Iowa State wrestlers felt that the howling Grace Hall crowd had helped rather than hurt them. "When you hear that yelling, it makes your blood rush," said one. "They know wrestling and they get you keyed up."
And what of Barnabas Meriwether? If he was disappointed, he was not crushed. He had won his game, though he would not tell how. "After all," said Meriwether, "I may have to get into another Lehigh meet."