Penn State Wrestling has a long and storied tradition in collegiate wrestling.
And let’s face it, it’s early August. Which means we’re in the calm before the storm that is the beginning of the 2023-2024 college wrestling season.
So, there’s no better time than the present to hit the “Way Back Machine” and take a trip down memory lane to highlight a handful of Nittany Lions grapplers in each of the last 70 years of Penn State Wrestling.
And I’m starting in the 1950’s for several reasons.
One of the main reasons is that the Nittany Lions crowned 19 EIWA Conference champions in this period. The most in any decade in Penn State history up until that point.
Secondly, the Penn State faithful saw five Nittany Lions reach the epic peak of being NCAA National Champions. At that point, only Howard Johnston had won a national title. And, Johnston’s title in 1935 was the first in program history.
The meteoric rise of the Penn State Wrestling program in the 1950’s also culminated in them snagging their first ever team title in 1953.
By starting in the 1950’s, this also means I’ll be missing some of the all-time Nittany Lion greats from before.
The following guys helped shape the program and build it into the national force seen in the 1950’s and well beyond to what it is today:
F.W. Kaiser (1925-1927 18-2)
Ted Wilson (1928-1929, 14-3-1, two-time EIWA Conference Champion)
Jack Light (1935-1937, 25-1-1, three-time EIWA Conference Champion)
Sam Harry (1942-1946, 35-4, two-time EIWA Conference Champion, finished third in 1942 and 1946 NCAA’s)
Charley Ridenour (1941-1943, 35-6, three-time EIWA Conference Champion, finished third in 1942 NCAA’s)
Howard Johnston (1933-1935, 24-5, two-time EIWA Conference Champion, won title in 1935 NCAA’s)
So with that, let’s get the list started and breakdown my top five Nittany Lion wrestlers of the 1950’s!
Conference titles: 1 (1950)
NCAA finish: 3rd (1950)
Conference titles: 2 (1949 & 1950)
NCAA finish: 4th (1949), 3rd (1950), 2nd (1951)
Conference titles: 0 (4th in 1952 & 3rd in 1953)
NCAA finish: 1st (1953)
There are simply too many Penn State greats of the 1950’s to not have an honorable mention list.
And as you can probably tell based on the records from the early guys and from the three guys above, the world of college wrestling 70+ years ago was MUCH different than it is today.
Freshman did not compete in NCAA athletics and most guys were lucky just to wrestle three full seasons. For the vast majority of the grapplers they maybe had one or two seasons in the starting lineup and only a single shot at the NCAA Championships. Which led to career records looking more similar to a single season from all-time Nittany Lion great Ed Ruth.
But that’s why you have me here to chew through the fat and try my hardest to put things in perspective when comparing each of these talented wrestlers.
And make no mistake about it, Jim Maurey, Homer Barr, and Hud Samson were beasts on the mat.
Of his 18 career wins, Maurey turned his opponent’s back to the mat eight times and currently sits at No. 9 (40%) all-time in career fall percentage. But unfortunately, Jim was really only cut loose for a single season where ended up going 15-2, won his first conference title, and finished third in his one and only NCAA appearance.
On the other hand, Barr was a full time wrestler for three seasons where 18 of his 42 career victories were by pin. This feat lands Homer at No. 16 (38.3%) all-time in career falls.
In this case it’s easier on paper to put Barr above Maurey simply due to the accolades he racked up. Two EIWA Conference titles and three top-four finishes in the NCAA Championships is nothing to sneeze at.
But, if the circumstances were different, and had Maurey been given a chance at multiple years in the starting lineup, then it wouldn’t be out of the possibility he could have been a multi-conference winner and multi-NCAA place finisher.
Hud is still slightly higher than both Barr and Maurey. And it’s not because of his career wins or career winning percentage. Because based on some of the top level Nittany Lions in program history, Samson’s numbers are rather pedestrian.
Hud’s career winning percentage of 80% doesn’t come close to cracking the top 25. Penn State great Kerry McCoy occupies 25th place and his career winning percentage was 89.3%.
And Samson’s 24 total wins in his Nittany Lion career are a blip on the radar when compared to other greats. Greg Kerkvliet currently sits at No. 100 on the career wins list and his total (51) is already twice as much as Hud’s.
Hud Samson made this list because of what he did in the 1953 NCAA Championships held in the friendly confines of Rec Hall.
During the 1953 season, Samson wrestled his first 13 matches at the Unlimited weight class. There he was 11-2 and racked up four falls.
But going into the 1953 NCAA Championships, Hud dropped down to 191. And this change allowed him to absolutely blister the field as he pinned both his opening opponent and his opponent in the finals to take home the crown as the nation’s best grappler at 191 pounds.
Hud Samson was the only Nittany Lion to secure an individual championship in 1953 and he was instrumental in Penn State securing their first ever NCAA team title.
All three of the above warriors deserve their place in Penn State history.
Conference titles: 1 (1952)
NCAA finish: 1st (1952) & 3rd (1953)
If you followed Penn State wrestling in the 1950’s, then “Lemyre” was no doubt a household name.
Both Joe and his younger brother Dick competed on the same Penn State wrestling teams which took fifth in the 1952 NCAA Championships and first in the 1953 NCAA Championships.
The 1952 Penn State squad that finished fifth, ended up only sending Bob Homan and Joe and Dick Lemyre as the NCAA’s were held at Colorado State University. At that point it marked the farthest west an NCAA Wrestling Championship was held. And as you and I both know, travel in college athletics was much different 70 years ago.
Joe started all three years for the Nittany Lions where he had podium finishes in all three of his conference championships (3rd 1951, 1st 1952, and 3rd 1953).
Lemyre’s lone EIWA conference championship in 1952 was followed by him demolishing the entire 167 pound field in the 1952 NCAA Championships. Joe breezed his way to the finals by winning 6-0, 13-7, and 8-3 in the opening matches.
He then shutout Michigan State’s Bender 6-0 in the finals to win his lone title and vault the three man Penn State team to a fifth overall finish.
Joe wasn’t able to duplicate his magical run in 1953, however his third place finish in that year’s NCAA Championships went a long way in allowing Penn State to fend off Oklahoma for the team title.
Conference titles: 1 (1955)
NCAA finish: 1st (1955)
Larry Fornicola is the lone Nittany Lion grappler on this list to wrestle all four years for Penn State.
Fornicola took to the mat two times his freshman season where he won a bout and tied another.
But during his first three years on the team, Larry only saw action in a total of 10 matches. He was 1-0-1 his freshman year, 3-0 his sophomore campaign, and 3-2 during his junior season.
Fornicola’s coming out party wasn’t until he was unleashed at 137 pounds his senior season. This marked the first time Larry competed in both the EIWA Conference Championships and the NCAA Champions.
And all he did was win the whole freaking thing.
Fornicola was a buzz saw in the regular season where he only allowed opponents to score a total of three points. Then in the EIWA Championships, Larry mowed down all four foes to snag his first conference title.
But it wasn’t until the 1955 NCAA Championships that Fornicola started to turn some heads.
After pinning his first opponent, Larry won an 8-5 decision and pinned his semi-finals foe to punch his ticket to the finals. Where Michigan’s Andy Kaul would be there waiting.
The Wolverine’s talented grappler had finished fourth in the previous NCAA Championships and he was looking to end his collegiate career on a high note.
Unfortunately for Kaul, Larry Fornicola was simply wrestling at a different level.
And Fornicola’s 6-0 shutout against Kaul in the finals put a stamp on one of the most impressive seasons a Nittany Lion wrestler had ever had.
In his only full-time season, Fornicola went undefeated, won a conference title, and became only the fourth Nittany Lion to win an NCAA title.
Conference titles: 1 (1956)
NCAA finish: 3rd (1954), 1st (1955), & 3rd (1956)
Bill Oberly was a mountain of a man who possessed a jawline straight out of a cartoon super hero movie. But the big man could move and he was incredibly nimble on the wrestling mat.
This is absolutely evident by Oberly being listed at No. 12 (39.6%) in career fall percentage in Penn State history.
Wrestling all but five of his career matches at the Unlimited weight limit, Bill held his own against the other giants of the sport in the mid-50’s.
After finishing third in his first conference championship, Oberly dropped down to 191 and snagged a third place finish in the 1954 NCAA Championships.
Bill followed up the success of his first season by again finishing third in the 1955 EIWA Championships. But something lit a fire underneath the big man because he blasted his way through the Unlimited bracket en route to his first ever NCAA Championship.
Oberly finally broke through his senior campaign to win the EIWA Championships. With the EIWA belt around his waist the only thing left to do was try to become the first ever back-to-back NCAA champion in Penn State history.
Only the train derailed before it even left the station.
Bill dropped his very first match of the 1956 NCAA’s in a heartbreaking 8-6 loss. The defeat was Oberly’s first and only loss of the season. And he wasn’t happy about.
Oberly then went out and decimated the rest of the wrestleback bracket by going 4-0 with a pin and a combined score of 13-2.
I guarantee Bill Oberly would love a do over in his match against Gordon Roesler, but in the end his career speaks for itself.
Other than Homer Barr, Oberly is the only Nittany Lion great of the 1950’s to place in three NCAA appearances. And to me, that’s worthy of being in the top five.
Conference titles: 3 (1952-1954)
NCAA finish: 3rd (1952) & 2nd (1953)
We’ve already highlighted Joe Lemyre and his accomplishments in Happy Valley. But his younger brother, Dick, also compiled a plethora of accolades in his time at Penn State.
And yes, you can clearly see there is not a “1st” listed in the “NCAA finish” category. However that doesn’t mean he wasn’t one of the best Penn State grappler of the 1950’s. Far from it.
Lemyre kicked off his Nittany Lion career his sophomore season where he rattled off a 15 match win streak before falling to Northern Iowa’s Gene Lybbert in the 1952 NCAA Championships.
Dick shook off the loss and promptly won the next two matches to finish in third place.
And in the following season, Lemyre put together a 13 match win streak which included his second EIWA conference title. But more importantly, it landed him in the 130 pound finals in the 1953 NCAA Championships.
That was the good news. The bad news was that Michigan all-time great Snip Nalan would be his opponent.
In a razor close match, it was Nalan who secured the winning takedown and snagged the title 7-5. But just like before, Lemyre stood back up, dusted himself off and went to work the next season.
Dick Lemyre slapped together another winning streak which gave him his third EIWA title and he set his sights on an NCAA Championship.
Things were going well for Lemyre after besting his first two foes in closer than expected matches. But hey, a win is a win.
Wyoming’s Richard Hockley was up next and he was the last person between Lemyre and a second straight finals appearance. But I’m sure based on your astute reading, you also noticed there wasn’t a 1954 finish listed in the “NCAA finish” section as well.
And that’s because Dick lost a soul crushing 2-1 match against Hockely. Based on the way the NCAA tournament did the brackets back then, Lemyre was immediately eliminated from the tournament because Hockley then lost his next match due to a referee’s decision.
In his final two seasons on the mat, Dick Lemyre’s season ended with a loss in the NCAA Championships. Lemyre compiled a career 8-3 record in the NCAA’s which included losses to two of the eventual champions.
Remember Snip Nalan? After winning the title in 1953, he continued a winning streak of 35 straight matches and became the first Wolverine to ever win back-to-back NCAA titles. And his winning streak stood for more than 34 years until John Fisher finally beat it in 1988.
Had Lemyre bested Hockley in his match in the 1954 NCAA’s, then I’m sure his story would have ended much differently. And his ranking would probably be a slot above where it currently it.
But as it stands, he didn’t win. And so that leaves us with one more Nittany Lion great on this list.
Conference titles: 3 (1956-1958)
NCAA finish: 1st (1957) & 3rd (1958)
John Johnston started off his Nittany Lion career with a bang during his sophomore year. Here’s a listing of his first seven matches:
But in their match against Pitt, Johnston found himself standing across from Panther all-time legend Ed Peery. Peery got the best of Johnston in a low scoring 3-2 match, however this wouldn’t be the last time the two tangled.
Following the loss, John ripped off three straight pins to start out the 1956 EIWA Championships. He then took a hard fought 3-2 match to win his first of three EIWA titles.
Unfortunately for Johnston, this is where his first season comes to an end as he lost his very first match of the 1956 NCAA Championships.
One and done.
John began his junior season by opening up another win streak of eight matches. And take a guess who was up next?
Yep, you guessed it. Ed Peery.
Yet again Johnston battled Peery tough, but he lost his second straight match (5-4) to the collegiate great. This ended up being their final collegiate matchup and to put things in perspective, Peery dropped only a single college match and he was a three-time NCAA Champion at 123 pounds. And John Johnston gave him everything he could handle and pushed Peery to the brink every time the two squared up.
Just like he did the prior season, John took his frustration out on the first three opponents of the 1957 EIWA Championships. Following another three-pin streak, Johnston’s hand was raised once again following the conclusion of the EIWA finals matchup.
But John Johnston was a different wrestler in the 1957 NCAA’s and he used the valuable experience and pain from the prior year to harness the necessary energy to blow through the field.
After winning four matches in the 1957 NCAA Championships, Johnston had won his second EIWA title and his first ever NCAA title.
It appeared the sky would be the limit for the talented Nittany Lion in the upcoming season.
Johnston started right where he left off by cruising through his first 14 matches which included a score total of 68-21 and four pins. During the win streak John tallied his third EIWA conference title and made it to the semi-finals in the 1958 NCAA Championships.
Oklahoma State’s Bob Herald would be the lone person between Johnston and his second finals appearance.
In a tightly contested battle, Herald ended up being the man at the center of the mat with his hand raised. The 4-3 loss dropped John to the consolation bracket and he shutout his final two opponents to finish in third.
Herald ultimately fell to Pitt’s Paul Powell 11-4 in the final, but a Powell Johnston match would have been epic.
Who would have won? I have no idea because it never happened.
John Johnston only dropped four career matches and his 91.5% career winning percentage puts him above the likes of Roman Bravo-Young, Cary Kolat, Vincenzo Joseph, Nick Lee, Sam Harry, and Kerry McCoy.
When you look at their careers it’s really close between Dick Lemyre and John Johnston when compared to the rest of the guys in the 1950’s. But in the end, with what he did on the mat against the best in the nation and what he did against one of the best to ever done a singlet, John Johnston stands alone on my list.