March 21, 2012 by David Gillaspie
(also posted on oregonsportsnews.com)
Oregon State wrestling is the only men’s Pac-12 winter sport competing with the best of the best this year.
Yes, there are other accomplishments. The University of Oregon women’s track team winning their third indoor title matters, but that’s for another day.
Colorado, the hot-bed of Pac-12 basketball, earned their way to the Big Dance before the music died, but their story waits for someone else.
The Beavers are a reason to celebrate. They are a top ten team from the NCAA D1 championships following their Pac-12 title. Coach Jim Zalesky pushed his athletes higher than their twenty first place team finish last year. Who would have guessed wrestlers had such hops?
Next year the goal is breaking into the top five. This is where legends of wrestling call home, and Zalesky is one of them as coach and competitor.
As a wrestler, Coach Z left the University of Iowa a four-time all-American with three national titles. He went undefeated during his last two seasons. His effort on the mat earned him the Outstanding Wrestler award after the 1984 championships. With his college career finished, Amateur Wrestling News named him Wrestler of the Decade for the 1980’s.
He wasn’t finished.
Once in place on the University of Iowa Hawkeye staff, Zalesky won awards as assistant coach of the year, then twice named Coach of the Year as the top man. But his three team championships back to back to back weren’t enough for Iowa, not when the legend before him won nine team titles in a row.
OSU’s Jim Zalesky is one of Dan Gable‘s guys. This is the Dan Gable who coached Iowa to fifteen national titles in twenty one years. He is the standard all other college coaches in any sport are measured by, even if they don’t know it.
Part of the Gable legend is his college wrestling career at Iowa State. He lost only one match, his last one. Larry Owings from Canby, Oregon ruined the party. To show it was a fluke, Gable won the gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He did it without giving up a point. Legends do those things.
Legends also leave a long trail of people who echo their achievements. Coach Jim Zalesky is one of them. Getting free from Iowa where you’d better win everything all the time like Dan Gable, Zalesky started building a wrestling force in the west centered in Corvallis. Another force is building in Pennsylvania.
Pushing the Beavers to the top means facing another legend of epic proportion, Coach Cael Sanderson and the Penn State Nittany Lions. They left the NCAA D1 tournament with their second title in a row and seem primed for next year, and the year after.
Coach Zalesky knows how steep that mountain is to climb year after year. He knows how to prepare his teams, but Cael takes a different approach.
Sanderson attended Iowa State, like Gable. Instead of matching the one loss career, he finished four years undefeated, collecting four national titles to Gable’s two. Like Gable, he won Olympic gold. Unlike Gable, who left their school to coach rival Iowa to greatness, Sanderson took the reins at Iowa State. He was a young legend ready to make his mark, except he didn’t play the coaching game like everyone else.
Tradition says find the dream job and run with it. Sanderson got the dream job, then ran away from it. He moved closer to his recruits instead of bringing them further away from home where their families and friends wouldn’t see them compete as often.
He did it for his sport.
After three years at Penn State, Cael Sanderson’s teams bagged the last two team titles back to back. He only has seven more to match Gable’s string. Legends see that as possible. Jim Zalesky has his sights on the same goal from the opposite side of the country.
Sanderson wrote a new chapter in the legend book when he traded Iowa State for Penn State. Then he did something unheard of in the legend club. Last year, he promised his team he’d enter a local wrestling tournament if they won a team title. They got it by one point.
Seven years after his last competitive match, Sanderson entered a tournament and won. Then another. His team watched their coach win a national freestyle championship. He made the world team and took fifth at the World Championships. Even more incredible, he cut to a lower weight class to make room for a guy he coached at Iowa State.
Is there a head coach in any college or professional team able to move from instruction to competition at the highest levels? It’s as rare as Gable’s string of success; as rare as Zalesky lifting wrestling in a state where big colleges like Portland State and University of Oregon dropped their teams.
By learning his profession in the wrestling room of Dan Gable, and extending his sport where it needs to go like Cael Sanderson, Jim Zalesky works to make wrestling in the west as important as it is in the Midwest and East coast. You’ll know he’s done his job when the Beavers go back to back to back and the Ducks fly forward to reinstate their own long wrestling tradition.
Dan Gable may be the greatest coach in NCAA sports history, but Cael Sanderson looks to take him down. Don’t be surprised to see Jim Zalesky and his Oregon State Beavers blocking the way. Legends do these things.
Every high school wrestler on the best coast is watching; sports fans in Oregon hear the words ‘Oregon State wrestling’ and see another legend from Iowa, former OSU coach Dale Thomas. What will it take before they see an image of Jim Zalesky, coach of the national champion Oregon State Beavers?