Legendary Penn State Wrestling Coach Bill Koll dies at 80 in State College
State College, Pa., Sept. 29, 2003 - Legendary for his exploits on the mat and revered as a patriarch of the Penn State wrestling program after 14 seasons as the Nittany Lions head coach, Bill Koll died Saturday in State College at the age of 80. Koll guided the Nittany Lions to a 127-22-7 record from 1965-78, and the Penn State coaching tree traces directly to him with the last three head coaches having direct ties.
An inductee to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, before sowing the seeds of his wrestling legend, Koll served his country during World War II. From 1943-45 he served in the U.S. Army's 149th Combat Engineers Battalion. Koll was with that unit when they landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 during the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
An Olympian, three-time NCAA national champion and undefeated Iowa state champion his senior year in high school, Koll succeeded on every level. He returned from his tour of duty to compete at Iowa State Teachers College (now known as the University of Northern Iowa) where he compiled a magnificent 72-0 record and was taken down just once in a three year career. Freshmen were ineligible at the time.
Koll won three NCAA Championships from 1946-48, wrestling at 145 and 147.5 pounds and was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler at the NCAA Tournament in 1947 and 1948, becoming the first man ever to earn the award twice. His performance helped lead Northern Iowa to runner-up NCAA team finishes in 1946 and 1947. Koll went on to compete for the United States in the 1948 Olympics held in London where he earned a fifth place finish, losing to the eventual gold medal winner in the semifinals
Koll spent three years as the wrestling coach at the University of Chicago while earning his master's degree from Northwestern University and eventually would earn a doctorate from Oregon State in 1965.
"I think the greatest thing about coach Koll was that he was so intense and driven and such a fierce competitor, but he also had such a balanced life and was very well rounded and intelligent," former Penn State Head Coach and 1975 NCAA Champion John Fritz said. "He was a great technician and a master psychologist. He was tough on us and didn¡¯t dole out a lot of praise, but he always got the best out of his wrestlers and he always tried to teach us something outside of wrestling. I can remember trips were he would take us to Civil War battlefields before the match. He always tried to make sure we had balance in our lives and I feel so lucky to have been coached by someone like that."
He returned to his alma mater as head coach of Northern Iowa from 1953-64. During his 11 seasons at the helm, he guided the Panthers to a 71-42-6 record (.622). His teams garnered four top 10 NCAA Division 1 Tournament finishes and two NCAA Division II top 10 finishes, including a third place finish in 1963. Northern Iowa wrestlers earned three NCAA individual titles and 12 All-America honors under his direction.
In 1965, Koll took over the Penn State program from the legendary Charlie Speidel, who was retiring after 34 seasons. Koll would set a standard for producing tenacious and superbly conditioned athletes that would be a hallmark for the program followed by the three succeeding head coaches to the present day.
"He was somebody the guys in our class always looked up to through the things coach (Rich) Lorenzo learned from him and instilled in us," said current Penn State Head Coach and three-time Nittany Lion All-American Troy Sunderland. "How tough he was and the level of commitment he expected from his wrestlers is what Lorenzo wanted from us and that expectation has been passed down through each coaching generation. His legacy still very much influences what our program represents."
Koll's teams posted unbeaten dual meet campaigns in 1967, '70, '71, '72 and '74 and compiled still standing records of a 41-match home-unbeaten streak (1969-76), a 38-match unbeaten streak (1969-73) and a 28 consecutive home victory streak (1969-74). His 127 victories rank third all-time at Penn State and his 85.2 winning percentage is the highest among any Penn State coach with more than two seasons at the helm.
Koll's Nittany Lion teams posted six top 10 NCAA Tournament finishes, including a tie for fourth in 1971, and 12 top 20 finishes. The Nittany Lions earned 20 All-America titles under his direction and three NCAA individual championships. Koll coached two-time NCAA national champion Andy Matter (1971-72) and 1975 national champion John Fritz, who would serve as head coach for the Nittany Lions for six seasons (1993-98) following in the mold Koll laid forth.
Koll's teams won two Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association titles (1971 and 1973), before he led the Nittany Lions into the Eastern Wrestling League as a charter member in 197 6 . He was evantually inducted into the EWL Hall of Fame. One of his outstanding prodigies was 1968 EIWA Outstanding Wrestler of the Tournament, Rich Lorenzo.
Lorenzo would take over the program from Koll in 1979 and lead the Lions into a very successful period over the next 14 seasons. Fritz was named head coach in 1993 and passed the torch to Sunderland, himself coached by Lorenzo and Fritz, in 1999.
Koll, whose grandfather fought in the Civil War, was known for his fierce intensity, straightforward nature and sense of humor. He once said, "Any boy who hasn't cussed me under his breath isn't worth his salt as a wrestler in my book. Whether a boy wins or loses is unimportant, but I have no compassion for someone who does not want to win. He's got to try. He's got to do the best he can. He's got to go way beyond his threshold of pain. I'm an absolute fanatic about this."
Affectionately referred to as "SOB" by the Penn State wrestling community, Koll said it stood for "Sweet Old Bill" while his many wrestlers would point to a less jovial meaning. A photo of Koll inscribed with "SOB" still hangs in the Penn State coaches' office suite to serve as both inspiration and motivation.
"Coaches from all over the country had so much respect for him," Fritz said. "I remember they would come up to me and say, ¡®Oh, you wrestle for the toughest wrestler ever. That¡¯s great.¡¯ Coach Koll was like Clark Kent. You¡¯d see him in those dark rimmed glasses and he wouldn¡¯t look that tough, but then he¡¯d take them off and he had that unbelievable intensity and fierceness."
He is survived by his wife, Barbara, six children and 10 grandchildren. Visitation will be from 4-8 p.m. Tuesday at Mark D. Heintzelman Funeral Service, 226 S. Pennsylvania Ave., Centre Hall, Pa.
A celebration of life will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Grace United Methodist Church, 127 S. Pennsylvania Ave., Centre Hall. Burial will be in Reformed and Lutheran Cemetery, Centre Hall. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Habitat for Humanity, 206 S. Burrowes St., State College, PA 16801, or to a charity of the donor's choice. To sign the guest book or to express condolences, visit www.heintzelmanfuneralhome.com and click on obituaries.