CEDAR RAPIDS — Bill McNiel deflects much of the credit to the athletes, parents, administrators and assistant coaches.
But the fact remains, McNiel was at the helm when Cedar Rapids Jefferson put together arguably the most sustained stretch of wrestling excellence in Metro history.
In the early and mid-1970s, the J-Hawks had six straight finishes in the top 10 at the state tournament, including a four-year period of second, first, first and fourth. They had a 48-match dual meet winning streak. They captured six Mississippi Valley Conference titles in a seven-year period. The junior varsity team went 43-0 in four years.
Even 40-plus years later, Jefferson is the only Metro program to win back-to-back state wrestling championships.
“Thinking back on it, I guess what impressed me was the amount of parents who supported those kids, not just wrestlers but athletes in general,” said McNiel, who still lives on the west side near Jefferson in a house he has shared with his wife Judy for years. “And we had really good administrative support from people like (athletics director) George Hidinger and (principal) Bill Jacobson.
“I look at those kids going through at that time and look at them today, pretty much the vast majority have had successful careers. That kind of reflects what they did in sports as well. It seems to me part of why they were so good was because of who they were, with the accomplishments they’ve had since high school.”
Junior high schools Roosevelt, Wilson and Taft fed Jefferson but at the time wrestlers weren’t eligible for varsity competition until their sophomore season.
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“John (Weld) was our sophomore coach and he kept pretty good contact with the junior highs,” McNiel said. “There were some pretty darn good coaches at the junior high level, like Russ Winey, Gene Harkness, Dick Trotter and others. And Chuck Swore and Herb Richards ran an Ellis YMCA program. We didn’t have kids tournaments like we do today.”
McNiel landed at Jefferson for the 1967-68 season. He had coached at Harlan High School and at Wayne State (Neb.) University. When he received a phone call about coaching wrestling in Cedar Rapids, he thought it would be at Kennedy, which opened in fall 1967.
But it was for the Jefferson job. Gary Kurdelmeier was the head wrestling coach at Jefferson in 1967, then the next year became an assistant coach at Iowa under Dave McCuskey. The first call McNiel made when he landed the Jefferson job was to Bo Cameron.
Cameron, a two-time state champ at Cresco who wrestled at Michigan in the 1930s, was head wrestling coach at Jefferson from 1958 to 1963. He led the J-Hawks to the 1962 state championship. Cameron had retired by the time McNiel got the J-Hawk job.
“When I got back, Jefferson had two assistants and one was going to leave,” McNiel said. “Bo was the coach at Wilson when I wrestled at Franklin. I went over to Bo’s house to see if he’d be interested in coming out of retirement to be an assistant. He said, 'OK, I’ll do it for a year.’”
A year turned into several for Cameron and with Weld also serving under McNiel, the threesome had quite a run in the 1970s.
McNiel got his first state champion with heavyweight Henry Banke in 1969 and added a second the next year with Dan Rowray. Two years later, in 1972, the program really took off.
The J-Hawks finished a distant second to Waterloo West (by 23 1/2 points) in the state tournament, including champions Mike Gallagher (98 pounds) and Brad Suma (126). Gary Bentrim finished second, Kent Miller third and Steve Riess sixth.
Bentrim’s runner-up finish in 1972 was unexpected and perhaps served as motivation not only for him, but for the J-Hawks next season. Bentrim was undefeated in 28 matches and was leading West Des Moines Valley’s Dave Leon, 3-0, in the second period of the title match. Bentrim put Leon in a cradle but got out of position and was caught and pinned by Leon.
“What I remember is that Gary had a very good cross face cradle and was successful at it,” McNiel said. “It never happened to him all year. When he rolled through, his hold got broken and when that happens you basically put yourself on your back.
“At the time it was heartbreaking for Gary. A lot of the support for him came from Bo, who was like a father figure to not only the kids but other coaches on the team.”
Bentrim came back with a vengeance in 1973, winning the 126-pound state title with an 11-1 decision over Jim Kinney of Ames. It sparked Jefferson to the state crown, but by only 1 1/2 points over Cedar Rapids Washington, which had state champs in Glynn and Chuck Jones.
Don Zimmerman sealed the state title by winning the 130-pound championship. Howard Johnson, 31-0 going into the title match but fighting a knee injury, finished second while Don Hittenmiller and Larry Harkness were fourth. Jefferson also had state qualifiers that year in Paul Viktora, Dan Kruse, Terry Lutz, Tom Cornally and Scott Smith.
Bentrim went on to become a three-time NCAA Division II champion at Northern Iowa.
Could the J-Hawks repeat in 1974? Most weren’t considering them to be a contender for the state team title. But without an individual champion, Jefferson won its second straight by 3 1/2 points over Waterloo East.
Cassim Igram was the unlikeliest of heroes at 185 pounds. Igram entered the state tournament with a modest 14-9 record, but beat two undefeated wrestlers on his way to the finals. He lost to another unbeaten foe, Mark Johnson of Des Moines Hoover, by a 5-2 count, but provided enormous points for the team.
“He had the worst record of anybody at the state tournament,” McNiel said. “But he had a single leg (takedown) that they couldn’t stop. So we just decided at the time to hit the single and let the guy go and do it again.”
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Jefferson had five other medalists in 1974 with Hittenmiller second, Viktora and Jed Brown each third, Dick Briggs fourth and Jim Comried sixth. Glen Zenor, who wrestled with some of the J-Hawks during his junior high days at Taft, captured Kennedy’s first individual state title that year.
“This team really didn’t figure to be a title contender when the season started,” McNiel said in a 1974 interview. “Realistically speaking, we thought 1975 could be the next big year. The feeling is almost too difficult to explain.”
Meantime, Jefferson’s junior varsity put away opponents with regularity, even winning at some varsity tournaments. Some contended there were potential state medalists in the room that simply couldn’t make the lineup.
“For example, we had a kid named Balvanz (Dan) who beat everybody, including the runner-up at the state tournament,” McNiel said. “But he couldn’t beat out Don Zimmerman. Bo took the JVs to Fort Madison that year to a varsity tournament and Dan ended up winning that one.”
Jefferson’s 48-match dual meet winning streak ended in December 1974 when Washington, under coach Rich Bleakley, prevailed, 23-20.
Could Jefferson possibly hit the state title trifecta later that season? The J-Hawks had a great 1975 season, going 11-1 in duals and winning the MVC title. But despite five medalists, including state champ Comried, the J-Hawks could manage only a fourth-place showing. Brown finished third again, Bruce Feuerhelm fourth, Tom Sadler and Tom Chapman each fifth and Dave Johnson sixth.
McNiel was taken into the inaugural Jefferson Athletic Hall of Fame last year. This Friday, he will be joined by Cameron, who died in 2003, and Bentrim in the school’s second class. Appropriately, McNiel will be a presenter.