Winning 28 individual national titles throughout program history, Lehigh wrestling has been one of the strongest programs in the country.
As a team, the Mountain Hawks consistently rank nationally among the top collegiate wrestling programs and hold 38 Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) team titles — the most of any program in the conference.
When asked how the program has sustained success, owner of LUWrestlingNews, Dennis Diehl, ‘70, said, “Frankly, we created the sport.”
Lehigh wrestling began in 1910 and gained membership to their present conference, the EIWA, in 1913. At the time, the league was comprised of exclusively Ivy League schools, including Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University and Cornell University.
Diehl said it made sense for Lehigh, one of the first collegiate wrestling programs, to join the region’s premier conference.
Billy Sheridan, Lehigh’s first wrestling coach, coached for the program for an unprecedented 41 seasons until 1952.
Diehl said Sheridan deserves to be called “a founding father of wrestling.”
Though Sheridan struggled upon first arriving, Eugene Grace, a member of Lehigh’s board of trustees, urged other board members to recognize Sheridan’s coaching prowess to further develop the wrestling program.
“This is the first time the board of trustees realized that we had this unique coach, and we could be unique in wrestling,” Diehl said. “We will never be a top 20 football school or a top 20 basketball school, so why don’t we become excellent at wrestling?”
Lehigh Archives manager Robert Kaufman, ‘69, said Lehigh’s long-standing status as an EIWA program allowed the team an early access point to the upper echelon of the wrestling world.
“We’ve cemented a spot and we continue to support it,” Kaufman said. “Just because you cement a spot doesn’t mean you don’t have to maintain it. We’re at the top of the EIWA.”
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Lehigh wrestling earned the reputation of a modern powerhouse. The program won 13 conference titles from 1950 to 1990 — the most of any EIWA competitor.
Diehl said this came after Ivy League schools decided that winning in sports took a toll on academic performance.
“Any kid that wanted to be a good wrestler in college realized that none of the Ivies cared about winning,” Diehl said. “They would look at the next best academic school.”
During this time, Lehigh developed its strong wrestling culture and fandom that persists today. Engagement in the sport was crucial in keeping the program among the best in the nation.
Kaufman said wrestling is important to alumni because it is associated with the university’s success.
He said alumni still show up to Grace Hall to watch the Mountain Hawks compete against storied rivals, which helps raise money for scholarships.
Diehl recalls watching dual meets when he was a student. From 1965 to 1967, Lehigh averaged 3,600 attendees for matches in Grace Hall, a building that had a capacity for 2,775 people.
He said students often sat a mere 3 feet away from the circle to accommodate the number of spectators, a far cry from the 10-feet restriction the NCAA imposes today.
Lehigh’s fraternities also played a role in motivating students to support the team.
“We had fraternities to develop comradery, to teach each other that wrestling mattered,” Diehl said. “You needed a pool of fraternity brothers to say ‘Let’s go to Grace Hall.’”
Diehl said this fervor resulted in a 1966 on-campus wrestling tournament: an intramural event that included a record 650 wrestlers.
This excitement and Lehigh’s status as a premier wrestling school in the nation persists.
First-year 141-pounder Owen Reinsel said Lehigh caught his attention because of its rigorous academics. He said he has a good understanding of what makes this program so special.
“Everyone in the Lehigh Valley loves wrestling,” Reinsel said. “Lehigh has been a top-20 program in the nation.”