When Spencer Lee completed his repeat performance in the 125 lb finals last weekend, he joined a pretty exclusive club among Iowa wrestlers: the multi-time national champions club. (It also gave him the thoroughly surreal career stat line -- for now -- of 0x Midlands champion, 0x Big Ten champion, and 2x NCAA champion.) Lee became the 23rd member of that fraternity and the first new member since Matt McDonough (also a 2x 125 lb national champion). Let's talk a little about the other members of that club.
FOUR-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPIONS: none
Iowa has never had a four-time national champion. Only four wrestlers in the history of the sport -- Pat Smith (Oklahoma State), Cael Sanderson (Iowa State), Kyle Dake (Cornell), and Logan Stieber (Ohio State) -- have ever won four national championships. Smith is the only one of the four who won all of his titles at the same weight (158 lbs), though he did so in five years (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994). He did not compete in 1993. Sanderson won titles at 184 lbs in 1999, 2000, and 2001, and won his fourth and final title at 197 lbs in 2002. Dake, famously (and incredibly), is the only wrestler in history to win four titles at four different weights, winning at 141 lbs in 2010, 149 lbs in 2011, 157 lbs in 2012, and 165 lbs. Stieber won national titles at 133 lbs in 2012 and 2013 and at 141 lbs in 2014 and 2015.
No Iowa wrestler has ever entered his fourth season with the chance of becoming a four-time champion. Four of Iowa's six three-time champions (Jim Zalesky, Barry Davis, Tom Brands, and Joe Williams) did not win a national title in their freshman year, but won titles in their remaining three years of eligibility. To the best of my knowledge (and research), only two Iowa wrestlers have entered their junior seasons having already won two national titles, like Lee: Ed Banach and Lincoln McIlravy. Both Banach and McIlravy finished second in their junior seasons, before rebounding with championships as seniors.
For his part, Lee downplayed the four-time national championship talk after his win on Saturday night. As he correctly noted, “Can't worry about being a four-time national champ because you can't win four if you don't win three — and I haven't won three yet.”
The dream of a four-time national champion is tantalizing, but it's one best put on a back burner for now. If Lee is able to win his third national title in Minneapolis next March, then the speculation can really begin and the hype train will leave the station. But for now his focus is rightly on March 2020, not fantasies of what might be in March 2021.
THREE-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPIONS: 6
Should Lee win next March, he'll become only the seventh Iowa wrestler to win three national championships in his career.
Ed Banach (1980, 1981, 1983)
Ed Banach was the first three-time national champion in the history of the Iowa program, which seems like a fitting capstone on one of the most accomplished careers in Iowa history. Banach still holds the career record for pins (73), which may never be broken (especially since the modern trend is toward wrestling dramatically fewer matches than guys did back in the '70s, '80s, and '90s). Sam Stoll was one of Iowa's most accomplished pinners in recent times; he had 24 pins in his Iowa career. Spencer Lee currently has 17 pins in his Iowa career; given that he's currently averaging around 25 matches per season, he could pin everyone he faces for the next two seasons and still fall short of Banach's mark. Banach is also fourth all-time in career wins (141) and ninth all-time in career winning percentage (.937). Banach won titles at 177 lbs in 1980 and 1981, but finished 2nd to Oklahoma legend Mark Schultz at 177 lbs in 1982. He moved up to 190 lbs and won his third title in 1983.
Jim Zalesky (1982, 1983, 1984)
Zalesky was the second Iowa wrestler to win three national titles, with a career that overlapped Banach's. Zalesky finished fifth at 158 lbs in 1981, before winning three straight national titles at that weight in 1982, 1983, and 1984. Zalesky ranks seventh in program history in career wins (131) and winning percentage (.939), but is probably most famous for ending his career with an 89-match winning streak. That winning streak is a program record that, like Banach's pin record, will likely never be broken.
Barry Davis (1982, 1983, 1985)
Davis became the third Iowa wrestler to win three national titles, winning his third title a year after Zalesky did so. Davis finished 7th at 118 lbs in 1981, then won a national title at 118 lbs in 1982 and at 126 lbs in 1983. After sitting out the 1984 season (though he did win an Olympic silver medal that year), Davis returned to action in 1985 and won his third national title, at 126 lbs. Like Banach and Zalesky, Davis also holds program records unlikely to ever be bested -- most wins in a season (46) and a career (162).
Tom Brands (1990, 1991, 1992)
Current Iowa head coach Tom Brands became Iowa's fourth three-time national champion in the '90s. After finishing 4th at 126 lbs in 1989, Brands won back-to-back-to-back national titles at 134 lbs in 1990, 1991, and 1992. He's second only to Davis in the single season (45) and career (158) wins totals in program history.
Lincoln McIlravy (1993, 1994, 1997)
McIlravy became Iowa's fifth three-time national champion during his brilliant career in the 1990s. McIlravy, the last true freshman at Iowa to win a national championship until Spencer Lee in 2018, won his first title at 142 lbs in 1993. He won his second title at 150 lbs in 1994, but lost a wild 13-10 final at 150 lbs in 1995 to finish second. (To add insult to injury, that year's NCAA Tournament was contested in Iowa City.) After sitting out the 1996 season (McIlravy competed for a spot on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, but did not make it), McIlravy returned to college and put together a 22-0 season en route to his third national title (also at 150 lbs) in 1997. McIlravy's career winning percentage of .970 (93-3) is third-best all-time among Iowa wrestlers.
Joe Williams (1996, 1997, 1998)
Williams became Iowa's sixth and (to date) final three-time national champion in the late '90s. Williams finished 7th at 158 lbs as a freshman in 1994, then did not compete during the 1994-95 season. He returned to the lineup in 1995-96 and began a run of dominance that didn't abate until his career was over. Williams won national titles at 158 lbs in 1996 and 1997, then moved up to 167 lbs and won his third national title in 1998. He had a record of 99-2 during his final three years at Iowa.
TWO-TIME NATIONAL CHAMPIONS: 17
Iowa has a long and distinguished list of two-time national champions, which now includes Spencer Lee.
Joe Scarpello (1947, 1950)
Scarpello was the first Iowa wrestler to win multiple national titles in a career. He won his first at 175 lbs as a freshman in 1947 and his second as a senior (also at 175 lbs)in 1950. In-between he finished third as a sophomore at 174 lbs and second as a junior at 175 lbs.
Terry McCann (1955, 1956)
McCann became Iowa's second two-time national champion a few years later. After a third-place finish at 115 lbs in 1954, McCann won back-to-back titles at 115 lbs in 1955 and 1956. So Iowa's excellence at the lightweight ranks has deep roots. Fun fact: McCann also helped found the United States Wrestling Foundation (now known as USA Wrestling, the sport's national governing body).
Chuck Yagla (1975, 1976)
Iowa had to wait 20 years to add another member to the multi-timers club but Chuck Yagla got there in the mid-70s. After a fourth-place finish at 150 lbs in 1974, Yagla won back-to-back titles at 150 lbs in 1975 and 1976.
Chris Campbell (1976, 1977)
Campbell joined Yagla in the multi-timers club a year later. After getting upset in the first round as a freshman in 1974 and finishing as runner-up at 177 lbs in 1975, Campbell won back-to-back titles at 177 lbs in 1976 and 1977. Campbell's career winning percentage of .943 (122-6-3) is the sixth-best in Iowa history.
Randy Lewis (1979, 1980)
Lewis's Iowa career is one of the greater "what if" stories in program history. But for a twist of fate (and elbow ligaments), Lewis likely would have been a three-time national champion. After a runner-up finish as a freshman at 126 lbs in 1978, Lewis won a title at 126 lbs in 1979 and another at 134 lbs in 1980. His bid to become a three-time champion in 1981 was derailed by a dislocated elbow suffered during the season. Despite wrestling with only one good arm, Lewis still managed to secure an All America finish (7th place) that season. Lewis is second to only Banach in Iowa's career pins list (64) and despite "only" being a two-time national champ, is certainly an all-time great at Iowa.
Lou Banach (1981, 1983)
The "other" Banach brother wasn't too bad himself. Despite weighing 210 lbs, Banach wrestled at heavyweight -- back in the days when "heavyweight" was an unlimited weight, meaning that he faced opponents who outweighed him by several dozen (or hundred) pounds. Banach won a national title in the "unlimited" weight class in 1981 (pinning another legendary wrestler, Bruce Baumgartner), but finished 3rd at that weight in 1982. He rebounded with a second title at the "unlimited" weight class in 1983.
Marty Kistler (1985, 1986)
Kistler went just 12-16 as a freshman in 1982, but he transformed considerably after a redshirt season in 1983. After finishing as runner-up at 150 lbs in 1984, Kistler won a national title at 158 lbs in 1985 and a title at 167 lbs in 1986. He went 106-9 over those final three seasons and was Most Outstanding Wrestler at the 1986 NCAA Tournament.
Royce Alger (1987, 1988)
Alger finished 5th at 158 lbs in 1986, but won his first national title at 167 lbs in 1987. He won his second national title at 177 lbs in 1988. During that 1988 season, he won 42 matches (sixth-best all-time) and had 19 pins (fifth-best all-time). For his career, Alger had 49 pins, fourth-best in program history.
Terry Brands (1990, 1992)
The "other" Brands was only slightly less decorated than his twin brother. Terry won a national title at 126 lbs in 1990, but was runner-up at the weight in 1991. He rebounded with a second title at 126 lbs in 1992. Terry ranks fifth on the all-time Iowa wins list (137) and sixth on the all-time Iowa pins list (48, two ahead of Tom at 46). Fittingly, he ranks just .001 behind Tom Brands in terms of career winning percentage (Tom won .952 percent of his matches, while Terry won .951 percent of his matches at Iowa).
Jeff McGinness (1995, 1998)
McGinness was a local legend who went 172-0 at Iowa City High as a prep and won four state championships; he followed that up by becoming the 17th multi-time champion in Iowa history. McGinness finished 5th at 126 lbs in 1994, then went 30-0 and won a national title at 126 lbs in 1995. A growth spurt made cutting down to 126 lbs difficult in 1996 and despite entering the NCAA Tournament as the #2 seed that year, McGinness failed to finish in the top-8. After redshirting in 1997, McGinness returned to the lineup in 1998 -- at 142 lbs, where he won a second national title.
Mark Ironside (1997, 1998)
Ironside began his career with a 6th place finish at 134 lbs in 1995, then improved that to a 3rd place finish at 134 lbs in 1996. He broke through with a title at 134 lbs in 1997 and repeated at 134 lbs in 1998. Ironside finished his career with a 67-match winning streak, fifth-best in program history.
T.J. Williams (1999, 2001)
Williams was another wrestler who came very close to being a three-time champion. A JUCO transfer, Williams made his debut in 1999 -- and went 40-0 and won a national title at 157 lbs. He won his first 27 matches as a junior in 2000 -- but got upset in overtime in the NCAA Tournament semifinals and ultimately finished 3rd. He rebounded as a senior in 2001 to go 29-0 and win his second national title. His 67-match winning streak to start his Iowa career ranks fifth-best in program history and he has the best winning percentage in program history (.990, 98-1), a mark that is unlikely to be topped in the future.
Eric Juergens (2000, 2001)
Juergens finished 3rd at 118 lbs in 1998 and despite moving up to 133 lbs, was 3rd again in 1999. Juergens won his first national title in 2000 at 133 lbs and repeated as national champ at 133 lbs in 2001. He won 65 of his final 66 matches.
Mark Perry (2007, 2008)
Mark Perry finished as runner-up (to longtime nemesis Johny Hendricks) at 165 lbs in 2005 and was 3rd at 174 lbs in 2006. Perry moved back down to 165 lbs in 2007 -- and finally got his breakthrough win over Hendricks, beating him 4-3 in the finals to claim his first national title. Perry repeated as national champ at 165 lbs in 2008.
Brent Metcalf (2008, 2010)
If not for Darrion Caldwell, Brent Metcalf would be a member of the three-time national champions club. After losing a year of eligibility in the Virginia Tech transfer imbroglio, Metcalf debuted as a sophomore in the Iowa lineup in 2008 -- and tore through the field, winning a national championship at 149 lbs in one of the most loaded weight classes of all time (including Metcalf, six wrestlers in that weight class ended up winning national titles during their careers; one of them was future two-time champion and possible best U.S. freestyle wrestler ever, Jordan Burroughs). Metcalf's 69-match winning streak (3rd longest in program history) was snapped in the 2009 NCAA finals by Caldwell, but he rebounded with a second national title in 2010.
Matt McDonough (2010, 2012)
Matt McDonough made a blistering debut as a freshman in 2010, going 37-1 and winning a national title at 125 lbs. He returned to the national finals in 2011, but lost in the championship match to Arizona State's Anthony Robles. McDonough rebounded from that loss to win his second national title as a junior in 2012. Unfortunately, McDonough's bid to win a third national title in 2013 was derailed by a shoulder injury.
Spencer Lee (2018, 2019)
And, finally, Spencer Lee became the newest member of the multi-time champions club this past weekend. He demolished the field at 125 lbs as a true freshman in 2018 and followed that up with another strong display, and a second-straight title at 125 lbs, in 2019.