A year ago, Spencer Lee didn't get to win an NCAA championship after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. He did become a Hodge Trophy winner, though, winning wrestling's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy in runaway fashion by going 18-0 with bonus points in 17 of those wins (a 94% bonus rate), including four pins and nine technical falls.
Just over a week ago, Spencer Lee did get to win an NCAA championship (his third). And today he added to his already-prodigious trophy and award collection by winning the Hodge Trophy -- again.
He becomes the fifth wrestler to become a multi-time winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy, joining Cael Sanderson (2000, 2001, 2002), Ben Askren (2006, 2007), David Taylor (2012, 2014), and Zain Retherford (2017, 2018). Lee is the third Hawkeye to win the Hodge Trophy, alongside Brent Metcalf (2008) and Mark Ironside (1998). (The Hodge Trophy has only existed since 1995, in case you're wondering why none of Iowa's '80s or early '90s greats won the award, or why Dan Gable himself isn't a past winner.)
This year's Hodge Trophy competition appeared to be a two-man race between Lee and Minnesota heavyweight Gable Steveson, college wrestling's two biggest stars -- and its two most dominant wrestlers. No one else racked up bonus points and lopsided victories at the rate they did.
Lee went 12-0 this season and posted bonus points in 92% of his matches, which included five pins, three technical falls, and three major decisions. Only six of his matches made it out of the first period and just four went the full seven minutes. The only match he failed to secure bonus points in was the NCAA Tournament final, where he beat Arizona State's Brandon Courtney 7-0. Lee won his semifinal and final matches by a combined score of 18-0.
Steveson went 17-0 this season and earned bonus points in 88% of his matches, which included four pins, seven technical falls, and three major decision victories. The only two matches in which he failed to record bonus points where a 9-4 win over Penn State's Greg Kerkvliet in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals and an 8-4 win over Michigan's Mason Parris in the NCAA Tournament finals.
Given those highly similar resumes, it comes as little surprise that Lee and Steveson were named co-winners of the 2021 Dan Hodge Trophy. The last time the Hodge Trophy was shared was in 2001, when Cael Sanderson and Nick Ackerman (Simpson College) were co-winners. Exact vote figures were not released (to the best of my knowledge), but this was reportedly one of the closer races in the history of the Hodge Trophy, as noted by W.I.N. Magazine:
Last season’s winner Spencer Lee of Iowa and Gable Steveson of Minnesota wound up in a virtual tie, with Lee winning the Fan Vote (25,712 to Steveson’s 5,202 votes), but multiple members of the formal Hodge Trophy Voting Committee voting for co-winners with both Steveson and Lee having such similar Hodge Trophy voting criteria stats.
The Hodge Voting Committee is made up of all past winners of the award, several retired college coaches from each region of the country, and select national wrestling media.
“We have had fairly tight races before but nothing like this year,” said Mike Chapman, creator of the award back in 1995. “It’s an amazing year in so many respects. When you look at what COVID did, cutting the season at least in half and causing such chaos, it was a very difficult season for everyone.”
Lee and Steveson were both highly complimentary of each other's outstanding efforts this season:
“I’m absolutely proud to be sharing this award with Gable,” said Spencer. “I think he’s the best wrestler in the world. I think he’s going to be Olympic champion and then go on to be successful in whatever he chooses to do.”
For his part, the Minnesota star is proud to be sharing the award with the talented Hawkeye.
“It was a bit of a surprise when I got the news because Spencer Lee is such a great wrestler,” said Steveson. “But winning the Hodge Trophy is something I thought about all year. Winning the NCAA was first but then I wanted to win the Hodge, too. It was a childhood dream and now it’s crazy to see that it’s happened.”
Its an honor to be selected a Hodge Trophy winner for a second time! Congrats to @GSteveson for winning as well! It is an honor to be a co-winner with you. Good luck in your future endeavors man!— Spencer Lee (@LeeSpencerlee36) March 29, 2021
It is a great honor to share this Hodge Trophy with @LeeSpencerlee36 He is the epitome of greatness and to add myself into this category with him is a truly mind blowing! What a great year it was for us! pic.twitter.com/SQKf8CiUKx— Gable Steveson (@GSteveson) March 29, 2021
They had an amusing back-and-forth on Twitter as well:
I want absolutely nothing to do with you I need about 200 yards and a long range weapon of some sort then we can wrestle— Spencer Lee (@LeeSpencerlee36) March 29, 2021
Lee and Steveson were clearly the two best wrestlers in college this season. They manhandled their opponents like no one else and rarely, if ever, wrestled a close match (as evidenced by the fact that just three of their 30 combined wins were regular decisions and the closest of those still featured a four-point margin of victory). When two talents stand so completely above the rest of the field, it makes sense to honor them both with an award like this. They're certainly both highly deserving winners and worthy champions. Congratulations to Spencer and Gable on tremendous seasons.