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Minnesota, Cal State Bakersfield will be forever linked

Andrew Hipps

11/27/2009
Andrew Hipps, InterMat Senior Editor
andrew@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @InterMat

On Saturday night, two programs from two completely different worlds, two thousand miles apart, will meet in Minneapolis. On one side of the mat will be Cal State Bakersfield, a small school (less than 8,000 students) that is Division II in every sport except wrestling, which is Division I, and operates its wrestling program on a shoestring budget with limited resources. On the other side of the mat will be the University Minnesota, a Big Ten school with a student enrollment of 60,000, a national wrestling powerhouse that has won three national titles over the past nine seasons.

T.J. Kerr
While it's not hard to mistake the two programs for one another, it is hard for some to mistake the two head coaches, T.J. Kerr of Cal State Bakersfield and J Robinson of Minnesota, for one another. Aside from their laundry list of coaching accolades and short first names, the two coaching legends, who have known each other longer than their wrestlers have been alive, have some physical resemblances.

"People say we look like brothers, which isn't true," said Kerr, who is beginning his 26th season as head coach at Cal State Bakersfield. (Robinson is embarking on his 24th season at Minnesota.) "We've got the grey hair. We've been in the business for a long time. He's been through his battles. I've been through mine."

Saturday night's battle between Cal State Bakersfield and Minnesota will mark the first time the two programs have met since the 1997-98 season. Minnesota leads the all-time series 8-0, but that's not to say the matches between the two programs have always been one sided. It was just over 10 years ago, at the 1999 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, that Cal State Bakersfield played a key role in preventing Minnesota from winning its first NCAA team title. There were two pivotal head-to-head matches between Cal State Bakersfield and Minnesota wrestlers, both matches won by Cal State Bakersfield, which helped Iowa finish two points ahead of Minnesota in the final team standings.

Mike Mendoza
One of those Cal State Bakersfield wrestlers that played a key role in preventing Minnesota from capturing its first NCAA team title in 1999 was Mike Mendoza, who is now on the coaching staff at Cal State Bakersfield. Mendoza entered the 1999 NCAA Championships unseeded at 149 pounds after an injury-plagued senior season. He drew fourth-seeded Troy Marr of Minnesota in the opening round. Marr, a Big Ten runner-up that season, was a wrestler Minnesota was expecting to reach the semifinals and ... if the stars aligned, possibly the finals.

"For me, my mentality was, 'I didn't wrestle all season, so people don't know who I am,'" said Mendoza. "I thought it was a good draw for me. My goal was to place. It didn't matter who I had to wrestle or who I had to beat to get there."

Mendoza used a first period takedown to help pace him to a 5-4 victory over Marr, which not only sent the Gopher senior to the consolation bracket, but also helped Mendoza gain some new fans.

"I remember at the end of the match a lot of Iowa fans became Bakersfield fans," said Mendoza.

While wrestlers, coaches, and fans can only speculate on the true impact that match had on the final NCAA team standings in 1999 (Marr went on to win four matches in the consolation bracket to place seventh and become an All-American), Mendoza is still reminded of the impact he had on the Gopher wrestling program.

"I've done some wrestling camps for the J Robinson Camps ... and (Minnesota assistant coach) Joe Russell brought it up," said Mendoza. "He said, 'You're the guy that cost us the team title.' I laugh. It's kind of funny that he says that."

Brock Lesnar
While Mendoza played a part in dashing Minnesota's national title hopes in 1999, another Cal State Bakersfield, Stephen Neal, played an equally as big a part. Perhaps bigger (no pun intended).

At the time, Minnesota's heavyweight, Brock Lesnar, was a phenomenon to the college wrestling world. Standing 6'4" and weighing 265 pounds, Lesnar looked like he belonged in the World's Strongest Man Competition on ESPN, not on a wrestling mat competing in the NCAA finals on ESPN. As wrestling icon Dan Gable put it on an Iowa Public Television (IPTV) broadcast, "When Lesnar strips off his warmups, he turns more heads than Cindy Crawford in a thong." Lesnar had been dominant against virtually every other Division I heavyweight.

But Stephen Neal, a senior at Cal State Bakersfield, wasn't every other Division I heavyweight. Riding an 82-match winning streak, Neal was the best college wrestler in the country regardless of weight class, and ... as he would prove later that year, the best wrestler in the entire world by winning a gold medal at the 1999 World Freestyle Championships in Turkey and earning the FILA International Freestyle Wrestler of the Year award. The previous year, in 1998, Neal won by technical fall in the NCAA finals, 20-5, over Iowa State's Trent Hynek. Heavyweights don't put up 20 points, especially not in the NCAA finals. Neal was the complete package ... big, strong, fast, athletic, technically sound, and, as Kerr is quick to point out, super intelligent. Neal's patented freight train double leg had become unstoppable even for his opponents who knew it was coming.

Stephen Neal
The Lesnar-Neal showdown was a match the college wrestling world had been eagerly anticipating ... ever since Lesnar strapped on the Gopher singlet. To add to the excitement and drama of the event was the fact that the NCAA team title hung in the balance as the two behemoths stepped out on the mat in the final match of the 1999 NCAA Championships. The script couldn't have been written any better. Minnesota sat in second place, only two points behind Iowa. It was simple for even non-wrestling fans to follow ... if Lesnar wins, Minnesota wins its first NCAA team title ever. If Neal wins, Iowa wins its fifth consecutive NCAA team title.

"Right before the match, I remember they had Brock Lesnar on the jumbo screen up top," recalled Mendoza. "It showed him jumping up and down. It just showed his enormous traps and no neck. You could hear the crowd ooing and awing. There was a lot of hype for that match. People thought if anybody could beat Steve Neal, that would be the guy who could do it."

Lesnar, a native of Webster, South Dakota (a town of less than 2,000), had never been in an environment like he saw in the 1999 NCAA finals. One could surmise that there were about as many Iowa fans at Bryce Jordan Arena in 1999 as there were total fans in the arena when Lesnar captured his national junior college title in 1998. The pressure to win a national title for yourself is one thing, but the pressure to win a national title for an entire program is another thing.

"Everybody says that the pressure doesn't bother them, but it does for everybody," said Minnesota coach J Robinson. "You can't help but think about it. You're going out and wrestling the defending national champion and if you don't win, your team loses. Would it affect you? It's got to."

Fifteen seconds into the match, Neal shot his patented freight train double leg ... only to be stymied by Lesnar. Lesnar may not have scored off Neal's attack, but he sent a statement that he was ready for anything Neal was going to throw at him. Twenty seconds later, Neal attacked again. This time he used his quickness to get in deep on a single leg and switched off to a double leg. It looked like Neal was going to secure the takedown, but Lesnar sunk in a whizzer and powered out of it ... and the two wrestlers went out of bounds. It was on ... and the crowd erupted.

Brock Lesnar and Stephen Neal faced off in one of the most anticipated NCAA finals matchups ever
The two wrestlers went back to the center of the mat. As soon as the referee blew the whistle, Lesnar got overly aggressive and took an ill-advised shot that Neal easily countered to go up 2-0. As it turned out, that would be the only takedown of the match. The rest of the points scored in the match were off escapes and Neal held on for a 3-2 victory, which gave the Hawkeyes the team title over the Gophers. It was obvious to everyone who watched the match that there was a great deal of mutual respect between Lesnar, who is the current UFC heavyweight champion, and Neal, who now plays in the NFL for the New England Patriots and has won three Super Bowl rings.

"Steve Neal always respects everybody," said Kerr. "He knew what was on the line. Iowa came up to him afterwards and said, 'We're going to get you a letter jacket for winning the tournament for us.' Of course, that never happened, which was kind of disappointing."

J Robinson (Photo/The Guillotine)
Robinson admits that Mendoza and Neal played a part in the Gophers not winning the national title in 1999, but their victories were only part of the equation.

"There were any one of probably 20 things that could have changed the outcome of that tournament," said Robinson.

So does Minnesota harbor any animosity toward the program that played a part in denying the Gophers their first national championship?

Said Robinson: "Other than us not speaking to Cal State Bakersfield and me not talking to T.J. for the last nine years, or Mendoza, or Neal? I don't want anything to do with any of them ... No, I'm kidding. That's a joke. It's just part of the story. I don't think there is any great animosity."

T.J. Kerr (Photo/Kirby Lee, Image of Sport)
Not only is there no animosity between the two programs, but there is respect and admiration between the coaches.

"I have a lot of respect for J," said Kerr. "One of the things that he has been able to do is be real innovative. He figures stuff out. He has done things to put his program in the elite. It's amazing."

Robinson has high praise for Kerr.

"I think T.J. is a great example of what a wrestling coach needs to be," said Robinson. "The phrase I would use is actively involved. Not only actively involved in the wrestling room, but outside the wrestling room. I've preached this for years. It's the one thing that wrestling needs. If there were more coaches like T.J., wrestling wouldn't be where it is."

On paper, Minnesota is heavily favored over Cal State Bakersfield. But Saturday night's event is about much more than who wins and loses a college wrestling dual meet. It's about two programs from two completely different worlds, two thousand miles apart, under the leadership of two legendary coaches, coming together 10 years, 8 months, and 8 days after an event that will forever link the two programs.

Saturday's dual meet between Minnesota and Cal State Bakersfield is set for 7 p.m. CT at Williams Arena in Minneapolis. All tickets for the dual meet are $1. Call 612.624.8080 or visit GopherSports.com.

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