HISTORY LESSON: SNIP NALAN
Michigan's Diminutive Superstar
By Leah Howard, U-M Athletic Media Relations
A man of diminutive stature, standing only 5-5 and weighing little more than his 130-pound weight class, Norvard Nalan resembled what many considered to be "just a little snip." Despite intitial appearances, "Snip" Nalan would prove a man of oversized heart, character and talent, and as Michigan wrestling's first multiple NCAA champion, the first of only eight to claim three Big Ten individual titles and a two-time captain, he will forever be remembered among the university's greatest Michigan men.
A native of Mason City, Iowa, Nalan was a valuable member of his high school's back-to-back state championship teams in 1949 and 1950 -- the only two years that Mason City was ever crowned state wrestling champions in Iowa. Nalan was a two-time state finalist, losing to Davenport's Gene Piersall at 105 as a junior and again as a senior at 115 pounds.
He imagined himself wrestling for Dave McCuskey at nearby Iowa State Teachers College -- the TC had just captured the NCAA team championship in 1950 -- but McCuskey instead gave the only scholarship he had available to another boy on the same recruiting trip. Nalan looked at the coach and said, "You're making a mistake. I'll beat that guy every time we meet and prove I'm a better wrestler." His words would prove prophetic.
Nalan sought advice from Davenport High School football coach George Allen, who, while earning his master's degree at Michigan, had served as Cliff Keen's assistant coach for Michigan's 150-pound football team. Allen, who would later coach the NFL's Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins, brought Nalan to Ann Arbor to meet Keen, and the two took an immediate liking to one another.
In Nalan's sophomore year (1952), his first opportunity to wrestle with the varsity team, the Wolverines suffered several setbacks due to injury and illness. With senior Larry Nelson forced to the sideline early in the dual season, Nalan was inserted at 130 pounds and, after a 12-5 decision over Indiana's Harry Arthur in his first match, claimed a permanent spot in the starting lineup.
Nalan lost three times in that first varsity season -- twice during the dual season and again at the NCAA Championships -- but never lost again, completing his career with a 44-3 record. His 35 consecutive wins, spanning three seasons, stood as a Michigan record for more than 34 years until John Fisher broke it in 1988.
Operating with a unique style and unorthodox fundamentals, Nalan would shoot single legs with his head on the outside, despite the constant warnings from Keen that his head would get taken off. Nalan merely responded that as soon as his head was taken off, he would change. He never did, instead developing the move into an early form of the high-crotch. He proved to be quite effective with it and was known for catlike tendencies on his feet, often taking down his opponents and letting them up, only to take them down again.
Deemed by the Michigan Daily as the Wolverines' "somersaulting wrestler," Nalan possessed innovative cradle series and pinning holds that captured the attention of the national wrestling audience. In his recap of the 1954 NCAA Championships, University of Oklahoma sport publicist Harold Keith wrote that Nalan's "tumbling warm-up didos in his corner prior to all his bouts rival the pregame antics of the Harlem Globetrotters in crowd-pleasing quality."
Perhaps more crowd pleasing for U-M fans was Nalan's dominance on the mat. He was a perfect 16-0 during his junior campaign and, omitting four falls, outscored his opposition 92-35. The Wolverines were equally strong, posting an 8-1 regular season before capturing the 1954 Big Ten trophy behind individual champions Nalan and Dick O'Shaughnessy, who repeated at 130 and 177 pounds, respectively.
Nalan formed an interesting combination with best friend and constant companion O'Shaughnessy, the 5-11, 190-pound football center and captain. The two were well known for possessing a good sense of humor and a flair for practical jokes. During one offseason, Nalan, O'Shaughnessy and teammate Dan Deppe had a summer construction job and spent a particular day digging a deep trench. The work day complete, Nalan and O'Shaughnessy climbed the ladder to the top and quickly pulled it up behind them, leaving Deppe stuck at the bottom. The pair hid behind trees for the next 20-30 minutes while listening to their teammate, convinced he had been left behind, scream for help.
After cruising past early-round opposition at the 1953 NCAA Championships in State College, Pa., Nalan was matched against Penn State's Dick Lemyre in the 1930-pound final. The Wolverine wrestler jumped out to a 4-0 lead behind a first-period single leg and a reversal midway through the second. After the wrestlers traded reversals and Lemyre was awarded a penalty point, the score was narrowed to 6-3 in Nalan's favor with both wrestlers on their feet midway through third period. With 10 seconds remaining in the contest, Lemyre scored a takedown on the edge of the mat and locked up a near-fall position as the wrestlers rolled out of bounds. Ignoring the pleas of the partial crowd, the referee signaled no predicament point, instead awarding Nalan an escape to give the Wolverine the final 7-5 advantage.
The following season, Nalan's senior year, the Wolverine lineup was again riddled with injuries, and as a result the returning NCAA champion wrestled much of the season a weight class heavier at 137 pounds. In just his second match, Nalan survived the greatest threat to his winning streak from Illinois freshman Bill Turner. Nalan had built up early lead, but Turner came back on him as the Wolverine appeared to tire. Nalan, however, rallied back in the third period to claim a 7-5 decision and keep his streak intact. He would record a perfect 18-0 record during his final season.
Nalan was not the only prominent wrestler to bump to 137 pounds during the 1954 season. Oklahoma State's Myron Roderick remained at the higher weight class to avoid facing Nalan in the postseason. Roderick captured the NCAA 137-pound title that season before dropping back down to 130 pounds and claiming two more individual trophies in the following years.
At the 1954 national event, Nalan pinned his way into the semifinals before repeating his win from the Big Ten championship match with a 4-1 decision over Michigan State's Jim Sinadinos, a future national champion. In the championship match, Nalan used a balanced attack to defeat Ithaca's Jim Howard 6-1. Nalan struck early and took the only lead he would need with a first-period takedown before adding a reversal in the second and riding Howard for the entirety of the third. Due largely to the Wolverines' injuries, Nalan was one of only three U-M representatives at the 1954 meet, and his performance accounted for nine of Michigan's 10 team points as the Wolverines' earned a share of seventh place in the team race.
Nalan (third from left) with the 1953 NCAA individual champions.
"I've always been perhaps more proud of the Michigan team of my senior year than any other I wrestled on," Nalan later wrote in a letter to Cliff Keen. "A close second would be when I was a sophomore. Maybe that's somewhat strange as it was when I was a junior that we won the Big Tens. However, in the other two years, the team came back and fought extremely hard after receiving physical setbacks that might have easily taken the fight out of them."
A member of the Air Force ROTC during his Michigan tenure, Nalan served a tour of duty in Germany as an Air Force officer upon graduation but never lost sight of his coaching aspirations. In a letter to Keen soon after the completion of his flight training, he expressed his anxiousness to begin the next chapter of his life and promised to send his former coach "some good boys."
Nalan returned to his native Iowa for his first coaching assignment in the small town of Postville. While spending several years coaching at the local high school, Nalan met his wife, Barb, and started a family that eventually included three children: Ann, Bob and John. In the summer of 1961, Nalan moved north to Grand Rapids in the heart of Minnesota's northern Iron Range. He took the head coaching job at Grand Rapids High School and remained in the post for 25 years, winning numerous conference, district and regional championships. Recognized with several coaching accolades through his tenure, Nalan is a member of the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame, the Grand Rapids Athletic Hall of Fame and Dave Bartelma/Minnesota Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was honored with the "Lifetime Service to Wrestling" award by the Minnesota chapter of the National Hall of Fame.
Nalan produced several Minnesota state champions and placewinners, and a number went on to claim All-America certificates among the various collegiate divisions, including Dave Allen at Iowa State and John Johnson and Ken Tinquist at North Dakota State. Shortly after arriving in Grand Rapids, Nalan fulfilled his pledge to his former coach when he sent Jim Kamman, whom Nalan referred to as the "best non-athlete" he ever coached, to his alma mater. Kamman carved out his own place in Michigan wrestling history, earning a pair of Big Ten titles before concluding his career with the 1967 NCAA crown at 152 pounds.
After Kamman won his first Big Ten title as a sophomore, he telephoned his parents and asked them to relay the message to Nalan. Later, he learned that when his former coach won his first NCAA title, he did not have enough money to call his own parents. As a child of the depression, Nalan waited fraternity tables at Michigan for his meals and often sent money home to his parents. He always felt that Michigan, Coach Keen and wrestling had provided him with so much that he would forever be indebted to the program. One of his favorite clichs about wrestling was, "You cannot just take. You have to put back in, or there will be nothing left for the next generation." He felt that by sending Kamman to Michigan, he had perhaps, in some small way, repaid some of that debt.
In 1998 Kamman repaid his own debt, endowing a scholarship in his former coach's name. In the nine subsequent years, Michigan's recipients of the Snip Nalan Scholarship for Wrestling have combined for two NCAA titles, 18 All-America certificates, six Big Ten titles, three World Championships appearances and a Greco-Roman world championship.
An avid outdoorsman, Nalan loved to hunt, fish and water ski and found the northern Minnesota wild a perfect companion. He took a position at Iowa's Drake University for two years in the mid-1960s, but, without adequate surrounding wilderness, he and his family were unhappy. They soon returned to Grand Rapids. Perhaps quite fittingly, Nalan passed away in 1989 while perched up in a deer stand during the fall hunting season.
Note: This story was featured in The Riding Times: an inside look at U-M wrestling.
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