The 1961 Columbia wrestling season was not supposed to be anything special. In 1960, the team had gone 5-5-1, and 2-4 in the Ivy League. Though it was the first relatively successful season for the Lions in almost a decade, and the team was a young one, that didn't mean that Columbia wrestling got any respect from those in the know.
Joe Whritenour, editor of the Bethlehem, Pa. Globe-Times, predicted Cornell to win the Ivy League title, followed by Yale, Harvard, Brown, Penn, Princeton and finally, Columbia.
But under the guidance of a new coach, the Lions didn't see that article as a slight: they saw it as motivation. New head coach Stan Thornton, who had taken over the team in the offseason, placed the article written by Whritenour front and center in the locker room for all to see.
Under the article, Thornton wrote: "There is no doubt in my mind that this is a wrong evaluation - let's keep working hard to prove Joe Whritenour wrong."
For Bob Dickstein, the 157-pound starter for the 1961 Lions, this is a classic example of the type of coach Thornton was.
"On the mat, Coach Thornton had that intangible quality of being able to motivate us," Dickstein said. "Off the mat, he was an exceptionally nice person, very approachable with no ego. The biggest advantage to his coaching style was that he encouraged each wrestler to develop his own style, thus encouraging a wrestler to perfect the areas that he was naturally good at."
In the five years prior to the 1960-61 season, Columbia won a combined total of five Ivy League matches. Under new guidance, people were ready to see the team move in a different direction in the standings: up. The team had a solid lineup, and finishing in the middle of the Ivy League seemed to be a logical goal for the Lions.
But logic had nothing to do with what the 1961 squad set out to achieve. The team started off with a pair of duals against local teams CCNY and Brooklyn Poly, easily defeating both 24-6 and 33-3, respectively. Columbia suffered its first setback on December 17 when it lost to a talented Rutgers team 23-6. But the Lions put that behind them, and were ready to kick off the Ivy League portion of the schedule.
Columbia hit the ground running, and set the tone early in the season with a decisive 22-8 victory over Princeton. They followed that up with a thumping of Brown, 26-9, two weeks later. By this point, people started to take notice of the noise the Lions were making.
After falling in a tough match to Army, Columbia once again bounced back, with two critical conference wins. This time the victims were the Crimson and the Bulldogs. The Lions defeated Harvard 21-12 on February 2, and Yale 17-12 in a battle on February 11. With the pair of wins, Columbia took over control of first place in the Ivy League with a conference-best 4-0 record, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown against Cornell in a battle of two unbeaten teams.
The Lions were able to notch one more win before the big Cornell match, as Columbia pulled out a win over Colgate, narrowly edging the Raiders 15-14. The team's ability to come out on top in a close battle would prove invaluable the following week.
The stage was set. 4-0 Columbia versus 2-0 Cornell, in a battle of unbeaten Ivy League teams that was slated to take place February 25, in Columbia's University Gymnasium. Columbia was becoming the "Cinderella team" of the Ivy League, surpassing everyone's expectations, and putting together its best record since the 1932-33 season. Cornell, on the other hand, was looking for its fifth-straight Ivy League title, after winning 28 consecutive conference matches.
On the morning of February 25, Coach Thornton had something to show his wrestlers: an Ivy League championship medal, leant to him by Irv DeKoff, the Columbia fencing coach at the time. The team now literally had their eye on the prize, and it was go-time.
After Columbia jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, the two teams went back and forth, and eventually the score was knotted at 12-12 after Columbia's Bob Asack had an 8-2 win over Philip Oberlander at 191 pounds. The scene couldn't have been scripted better: the match came down to the heavyweight bout, and this time it was Bob's brother, Lou, who took to the mat.
Lou fell in a 3-0 hole to begin the match, but the 6'6", 235-pounder managed a reversal, followed by a half-nelson and crotch hold. The sudden swing in momentum drew hundreds of fans to the edge of the mat, just in time for Asack to pin William Werst in 7:18, marking the first time all season a Cornell wrestler had been pinned. As if that wasn't enough, not only did he win the bout, he sealed the 17-12 team win for the Lions, ultimately giving the team at least a share of the Ivy League crown.
Fifty years later, that overwhelming sense of emotion is still there for Dickstein when he recalls that unforgettable match.
"The first two words that hit me are ecstasy and euphoria," Dickstein said. "This is especially true because all of the experts on Ivy League wrestling gave us no chance at the beginning of the season. But some time during the middle of the season, we were gaining confidence and honestly believed we could win. And then before a packed gymnasium we pulled it off and the ecstasy and euphoria set in."
"We're Ivy League champions, and nobody's going to take that away from us!" exclaimed Bob Asack from the locker room. "We're going down to Penn next week and wrap up that title."
Asack was right, but in order to win the title outright, the Lions had one more fierce competitor in their way - the Penn Quakers.
On March 4 the team traveled to Philadelphia and once again the fate of the Lions fell in the hands of the Asack brothers. In a must win situation, both Bob and Lou picked up decision wins, giving Columbia its first Ivy League wrestling title in program history.
It was a storybook ending to a Cinderella season. So how do you describe the team that shocked the Ivy wrestling world back in 1961?
"Most of the wrestlers on that team came from winning traditions, which transformed to a positive psyche of the team," Dickstein said. "The group of guys was special, in that each wrestler was a good guy and we really enjoyed each other. There were no jealousies. We were rooting for each other, and all had great senses of humor, which translated into a lot of fun."
Fun. Historic. Unexpected. Special. 1961, a year Columbia wrestling fans will never forget.