Alex Coolidge NCAA D-3 Wrestling Champ
by Chuck Sheley (Cave Junction '59)
In the January 2004 issue of Smokejumper, I wrote an article-Giant Killers-Bigger Than Hoosiers-NSA Life Members Involved In Biggest Upset in Collegiate Sports History. From that article: Teams from the states of Iowa and Oklahoma have dominated collegiate wrestling as no other NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Assoc.) sport has over the years. Oklahoma State and the University of Oklahoma have won 38 national wrestling championships and Iowa-based teams have won 29 titles. All this was chronicled in an article in the March 31, 2003, issue of Sports Illustrated. Actually, the article had teams from Iowa accounting for 28 national championships. However, the Sports Illustrated count for the state of Iowa was one short. Missed was one of the biggest accomplishments in U.S. sports history. Gene Hackman starred in the movie "Hoosiers," about a 1950's basketball team from a small town in Indiana that went all the way to the state tournament and won the whole works. It was a classic story about the tiny school winning over the giants under almost unbelievable circumstances.
Well, the National Smokejumper Association has its own connection with a "Hoosier" type experience, maybe more of a David vs Goliath contest. The one national championship missed by Sports Illustrated in their Iowa total came in 1947 when a tiny Methodist school with fewer than 700 students won both the NCAA and AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) wrestling championships. The school was Cornell College located in Mount Vernon, Iowa. What's the connection with smokejumpers you ask? As Paul Harvey says, "Here's the rest of the story." NSA Life Members Wallace "Pic" Littell (MSO-44) and Ben Conner (NCSB-48) were a part of this little-known story. Oklahoma State had taken six straight national wrestling championships, starting in 1937 and right up to the war years. No collegiate championships were conducted in 1943, 1944 or 1945 because of WWII. When the tournament resumed in 1946, the Aggies took it all again when they beat Iowa State Teachers by a single point for the national championship. Then came 1947 and one of the most astonishing exploits in amateur sports history when little Cornell College won the NCAA by a 32-19 margin over second place Iowa State. Although they didn't play a direct role in the NCAA victory, on that team were Midwest Conference champions Pic Littell (155 pounds) and Ben Conner (175 pounds). Led by wrestling legend Dale Thomas, Cornell then went on to take the AAU title for a clean sweep of the wrestling titles in the United States. Even though the school had produced some quality individuals over the early years, the team dropped off the wrestling scene after third place finishes in the nationals in 1949 and 1950. Collegiate sports are now big business and dominated by money and scholarship schools. Cornell College's success in 1947 was truly a "Cinderella" story and will never be repeated. The smaller schools have been put into Division III and only the "big boys" really get a shot at the National Championship.
Pic Littell lettered in football, wrestling, and track while at Cornell College and was conference champion at 155 pounds in 1942 and 1947. He jumped at Missoula during the 1944-45 seasons and transferred to NCSB for the 1947-48 seasons. After getting his MA from Columbia University in 1949, Pic started a 35-year career with the U.S. Foreign Service where he received two Meritorious Service Awards for service in the former Soviet Union. Pic was responsible for recruiting Ben Conner into the NCSB jumper program in 1948 where he jumped through 1950. Ben, who had been in the Air Corps, had just graduated from Cornell College where he was the Midwest Conference wrestling champion at 175 pounds. Their friendship dated back to the summer of 1942 when they both were on a fi re suppression crew in Oregon. Ben went on to law school and spent the majority of his career as an executive in the business world. Despite his success as a corporate executive, Ben says, "The best job I ever had was smokejumping."
Besides being smokejumpers and successful in their lifetime careers, Pic and Ben were involved in one of the greatest achievements in U.S. sports history-the 1947 national championships won by little Cornell College from Mount Vernon, Iowa. They were the "Giant Killers", so little known that even Sports Illustrated overlooked that historic feat. That's the rest of the story! Now, how about an addition to the Cornell College wrestling achievements. In the years since, collegiate athletics have morphed into three divisions. Cornell, not to be confused with the Ivy League school, is in Division 3. Some 67 years later, I found out that another smokejumper made Cornell wrestling history. In the 2013 National Championships, Alex Coolidge (NIFC-18) with a 29-4 season record and the number two seed, worked his way through the bracket to get second place in the fi nal match.
Alex came into the 2014 Championships with a 29-4 record and was #1 seed at 197 pounds. The seeding was perfect as Alex faced the #2 seed, Shane Siefert (41-5) from Wisconsin-Whitewater in the finals. Siefert scored first with a takedown in period one, but Alex countered with a reversal, Siefert with an escape and a 3-2 lead at the end of the period. Period two ended tied at three each. Siefert got two more points with a reversal and a 5-3 lead with just over a minute remaining. With time down to 55 seconds, Coolidge got an escape to close the score to 5-4. Trailing with only 26 seconds remaining, Alex got a takedown and, with those two points, won the National 197-pound D-3 Wrestling Championship 6-5. Strange how history makes an almost impossible connection between two smokejumpers from the '40s and a current smokejumper. The sport, a small school in Iowa, a National Championship team, a National Champion, and three smokejumpers. You couldn't create this actual history in a novel.
Alex was born and grew up in Gillette, WY, and graduated from Campbell County H.S. in 2010. He was the Wyoming State Champion at 189 pounds in 2010 and went on to wrestle at Cornell from 2010-14. His championship photo is on the cover of this magazine. Alex earned his bachelor's degree in History and Secondary Education in 2014. He spent three years with the Logan Hotshots before his rookie year at Boise in 2018 where is currently jumping.
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Alex Coolidge NCAA D-3 Wrestling Champ