InterMat Rewind: Tribute to Doug Blubaugh

Mark Palmer

6/27/2011
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler. NCAA mat champ. Long-time wrestling coach and clinician.

All of these describe the wrestling career of Doug Blubaugh, who was killed in a motorcycle accident Monday, May 16, 2011 in Tonkawa, Okla. at age 76. However, there is so much more to the life of Douglas Morlan Blubaugh, on and off the mat.

A quick look at an incredible life and career

Doug Blubaugh was born December 31, 1934 in north-central Oklahoma, growing up on a farm between Tonkawa and Ponca City. Competing on the Ponca City High wrestling team, Blubaugh won the 141-pound title at the 1953 Oklahoma state championships. He then wrestled at Oklahoma State, where he was a three-time NCAA All-American (1955-1957), winning the 157-pound title his senior year at the 1957 NCAAs in Pittsburgh with a decisive 9-3 finals win over Mike Rodriguez of the University of Michigan.

Doug Blubaugh
After graduating from Oklahoma State in 1957, Blubaugh focused on his freestyle career, winning two National AAU freestyle titles, and earning gold at the Pan-American Games in Chicago in 1959. Securing a place on the 1960 U.S. Olympic team after defeating Phil Kinyon in a series of bruising battles, Blubaugh made a name for himself at the Rome Olympics, pinning the undefeated world champion from Iran, Emam-Ali Habibi, and ultimately going on to win the gold medal at 160.5 pounds in freestyle. Blubaugh was named the World's Most Outstanding Wrestler in 1960.

Having concluded his on-the-mat career, Blubaugh chose to share his knowledge and expertise in wrestling with future generations, as a coach, and as a clinician at wrestling camps across the nation. The Oklahoma native served as an assistant wrestling coach at a number of colleges before becoming head wrestling coach at Indiana University 40 years ago. He also was head coach of the U.S. team at the 1971 Pan American Games in Cali, Columbia. Later that year, he was awarded the Wrestling Coach of the Year by the U.S. Wrestling Coaches Foundation.

Doug Blubaugh was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Member in 1979. Last fall, he and fellow Olympic gold medalist Shelby Wilson were honored by their alma mater, Ponca City High School, with the unveiling of life-size bronze statues in their Olympic singlets which are now on display at the school.

On the evening of May 16, Blubaugh was riding his motorcycle when he was struck by a pickup truck that ran a stop sign in Tonkawa, the town he called home. He was knocked off the bike, fully conscious, and initially refused medical treatment, insisting he could walk home. He died on the way to the hospital in Blackwell, Okla. He was survived by five children -- a first set of twin sons, Dale Edward Blubaugh and Dean William Blubaugh; a second set of twin sons, Dann Morlan Blubaugh and Dana Owen Blubaugh; and one daughter, Dawn Marie Blubaugh Hawkins, along with their spouses, and ten grandchildren.

Doug Blubaugh
"Doug is a treasure to the wrestling history and heritage in the United States," said National Wrestling Hall of Fame Director Lee Roy Smith. "We suffered a great loss."

Doug Blubaugh was eulogized at a funeral held Saturday, May 21 at First Baptist Church in Ponca City. The Rev. Dr. Clyde Glazener -- a friend of Blubaugh's -- presided over the service, assisted by Shelby Wilson, a fellow 1960 Olympic gold medalist wrestler who is also an ordained minister.

After the funeral and burial, there was a dinner at the Ponca City High School. Among the guests who shared their memories of Doug Blubaugh: Grady Peninger, his high school wrestling coach who went to take the helm at Michigan State; fellow Olympian and former mat coach at Wisconsin and Ohio State, Russ Hellickson; and Jim Shields, former Oklahoma State heavyweight All-American, now a high school wrestling coach.

Legendary coaches weigh in

Upon learning of the death of Doug Blubaugh, some of the greatest coaches in college wrestling offered their thoughts.

Dan Gable
Dan Gable, 1972 Olympic gold medalist and all-time great coach at the University of Iowa for more than two decades, told Scott Casber in an audio interview for Takedown Wrestling, "I had nothing but the most respect for Doug Blubaugh. He was immensely important to me in my transition from one level to another as far as getting good. All the time since that, we have both respected each other to the highest end."

"Doug Blubaugh was a true Oklahoma State wrestling hero," according to John Smith, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, an NCAA champion wrestler and current head coach of the Cowboys. "He was a tough farm kid who overcame adversity to become the best wrestler in the world. He was a good friend who will be greatly missed."

Jack Spates, recently retired head coach at the University of Oklahoma, said this of Blubaugh in an audio interview with Takedown Wrestling's Scott Casber: "He was one of the icons of our sport. He touched a lot of lives. He accomplished things as a competitor that so very, very few people in history could only dream about. So in many ways he was a rich man."

Grady Peninger knew Doug Blubaugh as his coach, then as his boss. Peninger was wrestling coach at Ponca City High School when Blubaugh won the Oklahoma state title in 1953 ... then was head coach at Michigan State when his former pupil was an assistant. "Doug was a great person. There wasn't a bad bone in his body," said the former Oklahoma State wrestler-turned-Spartans coach. "He was honest to the point that some people took advantage of him. I felt like he was my own son. Doug always felt hard work would settle everything ... He couldn't have been closer if he'd been my son or my brother. He was just a great friend."

The wrestler: Impressive physique, strength ...

Ask wrestlers of Doug Blubaugh's era to talk about their late friend, and there are universal comments that seem as if everyone is singing from the same songbook. One issue that many addressed: Blubaugh's impressive physique ... and even more impressive strength.

"When I first met him, he was a physical specimen. Carved out of rock," said Jack Duncan, who was introduced to Blubaugh in 1961 at a Grady Peninger-run wrestling camp at Michigan State where the gold medalist was a clinician.

Wayne Baughman, a three-time Olympian, NCAA champ for the Oklahoma Sooners, and, for nearly three decades head coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy, said, "The first time I remember seeing Doug was when he came to OU to train for the '60 Olympic team. He looked like he was chiseled from a block of granite. He had muscles everywhere, even on his fingers."

"I thought I'd been sentenced to death when Port Robertson [Oklahoma wrestling coach] made me Doug's primary workout partner even though I weighed 180 compared to Doug's 160," Baughman continued. "Doug's style was extremely aggressive. He had the hardest head literally, and somewhat figuratively, of anyone I've ever wrestled; and, because of his poor vision, he kept in right in your face. I walked off the mat after every workout feeling as if I'd been the beat up with a jackhammer. I had continuous scrapes, cuts and bruises. He also had the toughest bottom defense I have ever encountered. He was like trying to turn or move a fireplug."

Doug Blubaugh pins Emam-Ali Habibi
Russ Camilleri, who wrestled on the U.S. Greco-Roman team at the 1960 Olympics, said of Doug Blubaugh, "Strongest guy in the world. In that match with Habibi, (Blubaugh) went into a high bridge, put Habibii on his back, and squeezed, squeezed, squeezed. There was no way Habibi could've gotten out of it. Doug was just too strong."

"I wrestled him one time," said Camilleri. "I was 171, he was one weight class down from me. Man, was he strong!"

Shelby Wilson, who was a teammate of Blubaugh at Ponca City High School, as well as at Oklahoma State, and then at the 1960 Olympics -- and was a fellow gold medal-winner in freestyle -- described his long-time friend's wrestling style compared to his own: "He was a freight-train guy, very much a physical-type wrestler. I was more of a finesse guy. He used leverage with more power. That said, coming from the same background -- same schools, same coaches -- we both had been brought up on the importance of good, solid position wrestling."

One prime example of Doug Blubaugh's toughness: his series of freestyle matches with Phil Kinyon, a U.S. Navy veteran who was enrolled at Oklahoma State. The two Cowboys of different eras (mid 1950s for Blubaugh; early '60s for Kinyon) were on a collision course to see who would wrestle for the U.S. at the 1960 Olympics.

Doug Blubaugh wrestles Phil Kinyon
Russ Camilleri described the two rivals as being similar in a number of ways beyond college alma mater. "Both were compact, muscular and strong. Phil had dark hair, Doug had sandy hair ..." said Camilleri. "They had wrestled each other so often, they knew each other well. Despite the matches ending in draws without a score, they were NOT boring matches. Plenty of tough action."

Here's how Wayne Baughman described the Blubaugh/Kinyon battles in his tribute to the late gold medalist in the June 15, 2011 issue of Amateur Wrestling News: "After having battled to numerous draws in previous matches, a winner/U.S. team member had to be determined. The mat was placed under the biggest shade tree on campus, removed from the entire athletic complex. The battle was waged. It was not pretty, or a disappointment to anyone in attendance, except Kinyon and (Myron) Roderick [Oklahoma State head coach]; and they certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. It was like two raging rams charging directly into each other over and over. At the end of the match, Doug was bleeding profusely from his face and forehead and Kinyon's eye was swollen shut. Doug won but it could have gone either way."

A muscular work ethic

Another aspect that those who knew Doug Blubaugh always mention is his incredible work ethic. Blubaugh himself cited it in an interview with this writer for an InterMat Rewind feature commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Olympics.

"Thank God I grew up on a wheat farm in Oklahoma that didn't have electricity or running water 'til during World War II," Blubaugh disclosed. "Doing farm chores built a work ethic. It was hard work. I never lifted weights -- couldn't afford them -- but hefted bales of hay. Strength from working on a farm is different; you get 'endurance strength' from farm work."

"His work ethic was unbelievable," said Fran McCann, younger brother of Blubaugh's Olympic teammate Terry McCann. "He did everything for his wrestling camps, and, I mean everything, himself. It came from his farming background."

"He would not let anything interfere with his work. He never complained."

"He overcame so much," said Shelby Wilson. "He was definitely not a quitter."

"We were both Oklahoma farm boys. Things like integrity, honesty, hard work were essentially who you are."

Jack Duncan put it very directly: "Doug's work ethic? Second to none."

The master clinician

After winning the gold medal in 1960, Doug Blubaugh started the next chapter of his life -- sharing his knowledge and love for the sport as a coach, and as a clinician at wrestling camps.

Jack Duncan enjoyed a 50-year friendship with Blubaugh that started at the Michigan State wrestling camp run by the Spartan head coach Grady Peninger ... and continued through decades of wrestling camps throughout the nation.

"I took 17 kids to that wrestling camp," said the former high school wrestling coach in Pulaski, Va. "We became really good friends in just a week-and-a-half."

"I asked if he'd come to Pulaski, he said he would, and he did. People really loved him."

"Wherever he would hold camps, we'd go," said Duncan. "Because of Doug, my kids were very successful. We had a record of 220-something and 18."

Duncan and Blubaugh formed a partnership to start camps in both northern Virginia as well as in the Richmond area. "We had kids from everywhere -- Cuba, California," according to Duncan.

While coaching at Indiana University, Doug Blubaugh established his Top of the World wrestling camp outside Bloomington.

Fran McCann, who was head wrestling coach at Indiana State at the time, said, "I had kids at ISU who worked at Doug's camps, and they thought the world of him."

Doug Blubaugh and Shelby Wilson
"No doubt about it, he was very much a hands-on coach," said McCann. "He loved to see kids improve."

Shelby Wilson worked with his friend as a fellow clinician at wrestling camps as recently as this past year. "He trusted me to teach the way he taught," said the Ponca City native. "We both focused on the basics."

"Doug traveled the country to help people with wrestling. That was very much his life."

"Even though he was 76, he continued to conduct his camps," said Chuck Ford, a former Indiana high school coach who worked at Blubaugh's camps. "He had a huge group of followers that just wouldn't let him go."

Jack Duncan gave another reason why Doug Blubaugh was still in demand as a clinician: "Doug could really relate to kids. Likewise, they knew who he was, and respected him."

One of the thousands of young wrestlers who participated in a Doug Blubaugh wrestling camp was Matt Hamill. The Cincinnati area native was a three-time NCAA Division III champ at Rochester Institute of Technology who is now a big name in the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championships), despite being born deaf. Here's what Hamill said upon learning of the death of the man he had first met at a clinic a quarter-century ago: "Doug Blubaugh, my great friend, mentor and master since 5th grade passed away in a tragic motorcycle accident ... Doug dedicated all his sweat and blood to see me become successful. To this day Doug has been influential in my life and most recently spent a week at my house sharpening up my wrestling for my last fight."

Ken Chertow, former U.S. Olympic wrestler, and currently one of the most successful operators of wrestling camps in the nation, wrote this in the foreword of Matt Krumrie's 2010 book The Ultimate Guide to Wrestling Camps: "Though I attended a variety of camps, I chose to attend one specific camp consistently every year from seventh grade through high school and that was Doug Blubaugh's camp. I connected well with coach Blubaugh and chose to work with him every summer. As an NCAA and Olympic champion he was clearly a dominant athlete, but he was also an outstanding teacher of wrestling and a no-nonsense man. He had a clear understanding of what techniques he wanted the campers to focus on and we drilled them repetitively and intensely daily. He also gave us a camp notebook that was very helpful to retaining and developing the moves I learned at camp. To this day I have clear recollections of learning many different techniques at coach Blubaugh's camp ...I successfully executed many of the moves that coach Blubaugh taught me throughout my career at the highest levels of competition. I have also passed along these moves to my students."

As Shelby Wilson said, "He was a great coach. He chose to make wrestling his life. He was very much a professional wrestling coach -- he took it very seriously, and gave it his all."

Blubaugh's wrestlers speak up

Doug Blubaugh came to Indiana University in 1971, serving one year as assistant coach to long-time head coach (and two-time NCAA champ for the Hoosiers), Charlie McDaniel ... then taking the helm for twelve seasons (1972-1984).

Blubaugh's time at the Big Ten school in Bloomington was a challenging one. While at Indiana, his teams compiled a 102-144-8 record, for a .415 winning percentage.

Fran McCann
Fran McCann can offer unique perspective on Doug Blubaugh. In addition to being the brother of the late Terry McCann, Fran was head wrestling coach at cross-state rival Indiana State University who coached against Blubaugh and his Hoosiers.

"I think he must have been frustrated by some kids' lack of effort," said Fran McCann. "They didn't give him the respect he deserved, and took advantage of his good-naturedness."

That said, a number of Hoosier wrestlers who competed for Blubaugh publicly stated their appreciation for their college coach after his passing.
Sam Komar was arguably the most accomplished wrestler during Blubaugh's tenure at Indiana. He was a two-time Big Ten champ (1975, 1977) and two-time NCAA All-American, placing fourth at 134 pounds in 1976, and making it to the 142-pound finals at the 1977 NCAAs.

"In my opinion, he affected more people to aspire to the sport of wrestling than anybody I've ever known," Komar told the Indianapolis Star. "He was timeless with his knowledge of the sport. Anytime something new and creative came along, he was always right there to take advantage of it."

"I wrestled for Doug at Indiana, and he was a great man, coach, and friend," according to Rod Chamberlin, who now resides in Florida. "Without question or debate, Doug was absolutely the best clinician. He had a knack for breaking it down and showing the proper technique. I loved you Doug, and you will be missed."

"I am a better man today because of all the love and butt whuppings on the mat with Doug," said former IU wrestler Brent Lee Biddle. "He was like a second father to me and always had time for me even years after I was gone and no longer wrestling. Today there are three beautiful blonde young ladies in the world and if it not for Doug inadvertently introducing me to my future wife, they would never have been. I will miss that man with the hard shell about him and the heart as soft and pure as gold. I love you coach!"

Herbert Danica emphasized Blubaugh's ability to shape his wrestlers in positive ways beyond wrestling: "I had the privilege of being a member of the Indiana wrestling team, 1971 - 74. Unfortunately, I did not possess sufficient skills to be successful as a collegiate athlete. Even still, Coach Blubaugh had a major impact on my life as he taught me how to be a man. He treated me and every other team member with the same level of respect. He was a true mentor and a friend. He led by example and always made his expectations clear. Every young man who had the same honor as I in spending time with Coach Blubaugh benefited from the experience in that he grew a person and learned how to conduct themselves with honor, dignity and self-respect."

Danica had a special message for the children of his college coach: "As an adult, I can count on one hand the number of people who had a positive influence on my life, changing the course of what could have been. Of those, your father was one of the most important. Be assured, I am only one of many. You have much to be proud of. Cherish your memories and legacy."

A beloved figure

Doug Blubaugh had a way about him that won over individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Whether you first met him 50 years ago or 15 minutes ago, you felt as if he had been a friend for life.

Doug Blubaugh at the 1960 Olympic Games
"I first met Doug Blubaugh last year, when he and my friend Shelby Wilson (his 1960 Olympic team mate) visited New Jersey for a coach's clinic," recalled Dennis Damm, who also counted the late Terry McCann among his friends. "I was surprised by Mr. Blubaugh's quiet, initially shy demeanor. However, during our lunch together, he became animated and humorous as he told stories about the golden days of amateur wrestling. He obviously loved his sport."

"After I sent him photos of us taken on that day in March, 2010, he responded with a letter of appreciation. I sent him a Christmas card in December and he replied with a letter which said, 'Thank you for your kindness to me. Your friend, Doug.' I thank God for granting me the opportunity to become acquainted with this great man before he was taken away. He was a gentle giant who was not only an amateur wrestling legend, but also a fine human being."

Blubaugh's thoughtfulness was also cited by Mike Wolinsky, who posted the following at a website for the Indiana University community to express condolences: "Doug Blubaugh touched my life as a sophomore at Indiana University when I was assigned the task of publicizing the Indiana wrestling program. I worked with him for three years and he took me under his wing like part of his own family. Doug went out of his way to call Ohio University on behalf so that I could pursue a Master's Degree in Sports Administration. He was all that was good about coaching and how he treated people. I always appreciated the fact that he was so humble and had a terrific work ethic. I am a better person today because of my time spent with Doug."

"Obviously Doug Blubaugh will always be remembered as a great wrestler," former wrestler/coach Wayne Baughman told Amateur Wrestling News. "However, Doug's wrestling accomplishments are far overshadowed by the wonderful person he was. Doug was a great coach, clinician, role model, mentor, hero and friend to many wrestlers, coaches, officials and fans. I don't believe any other wrestling personality has had more influence on so many wrestling people as Doug Blubaugh."

Baughman continued, "Where Doug was really most successful, and at his best, was as a wrestling clinician and an ambassador for wrestling. Doug Blubaugh loved the sport of wrestling and all the people involved ... Everyone I know loved and respected Doug, from little kids to we 'old has been's' and everybody in between."

"Doug is so much more than his accomplishments," said Wayne Boyd, the 1969 NCAA champion wrestler from Temple University. "He was a National champion, Olympic champion, coach, clinician and celebrity. But he should be remembered for the man he was at the time of his passing: humble, strong ... A human being I've known, loved and respected for over 40 years. Smart, trusting, kind, generous and a Superman with Coke bottle lenses that allowed him to see the world just a little differently than the rest of us."

One of the most touching tributes came from Terry McCann's widow, Lucille, who traveled from California to Oklahoma for Doug Blubaugh's funeral. She told of an incident at the 1960 Olympics that speaks to the character of the man who passed away in May: "Doug Blubaugh was the warmest and most sensitive man I have ever met. He was very instrumental in helping Terry to win a gold medal. The night before his final's match, Terry was depressed and unsure he would be able to win. Doug followed Terry all night and talked to him and reassured him he could do it. Doug told him he couldn't let everyone down who had helped him get this far. Doug had given Terry the confidence he needed to get the job done. I'm happy to have had Doug in my life. I will miss him."

Fran McCann echoed the sentiments of his sister-in-law Lucille McCann. "Terry was an aggressive-type guy. Doug was always there as a calming influence. When we'd be working out, Terry tended to be impatient, while Doug was very positive, very reassuring."

"Doug was a big, strong guy, very tough on the mat," Fran McCann continued. "Off the mat, a complete gentleman."

"Doug never felt he was bigger than the sport," said McCann. "He respected the sport. People identify with that, regardless of their age. They saw that in him, and held him in high esteem because of it."

"He had the respect of just about everyone he came across," said Shelby Wilson. "He was a very humble guy."

Doug Blubaugh
Friends described Doug Blubaugh as being incredibly generous ... and not just with his time, as he worked wrestling camps and made appearances for the sport.

"Even if he wasn't rich, he would share what he had," said Wilson. "He'd give you the shirt off his back."

More than one individual interviewed for this tribute said, if you needed a place to stay, Doug Blubaugh would insist you stay at his home.

His generosity extended to sharing friendships. "Thanks to Doug, I met Shelby (Wilson), Myron (Roderick), and so many other wrestling greats," said Jack Duncan. "He didn't drop names or brag about who he knew. Rather, he was modest about who he wrestled and his accomplishments."

Walter Jenny, who knew Blubaugh through Tau Kappa Epsilon said of his fraternity brother, "He exemplified the fraternity's ideals of Charity, Esteem and Love in everything he did. He has been an inspiration to our alumni as well as our younger members as they work their way through college."

Retired wrestling coach Jack Duncan said of his friend of 50 years, "He was the greatest ambassador for wrestling, for the state of Oklahoma, and for Oklahoma State."

Shelby Wilson may have summed it up best: "He has given more to wrestling than he got from it."

To learn more about the three U.S. gold medalists at the 1960 Olympics -- Doug Blubaugh, Terry McCann, and Shelby Wilson -- check out this 2010 InterMat Rewind feature.

To see Doug Blubaugh in action, watch this video of the 1956 NCAA finals ... and of the former Cowboy pinning Iran's Habibi at the 1960 Olympics.

LINKS: 1956 NCAAs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYdiJxH78oo; 1960 Olympics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9DJ2KVNSTk
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