On Montell Marion, Matt McDonough, And The Question Of Legacy

The end of a season is always a good time for looking back and taking stock of what has come before and when it coincides with the end of a career, it feels even more appropriate. Which is how I find myself reflecting on the career of Montell Marion, Iowa's controversial 141-lb. wrestler. Marion's career came to an end last Saturday night in the finals of the NCAA Wrestling Tournament. He faced a long-time nemesis, the #1 seeded Kellen Russell of Michigan, and wrestled a smart, exciting, and cagey match. Tied up at 4-4 after three periods, the match headed to sudden victory and a one-minute quest for a winner-take-all takedown. Given Marion's struggles with riding (both riding opponents and getting escapes of his own), a takedown there seemed essential if he was going to have any hope of winning the match. But when he made his move and took a half-shot, Russell stuffed it and was able to quickly spin around and score the walk-off takedown of his own. Match over, tournament over, career over.

It was a bitterly disappointing loss for Marion, who like so many wrestlers before him (particularly Iowa wrestlers) came thisclose to beating Russell... only to come up short. But it was still an excellent tournament for Marion, who wrestled with the focus and determination that had often seemed lacking from his matches. And that got me thinking: it was a good tournament performance for Marion, an (almost) satisfying final chapter to his career. Looking back at his career, he's actually done quite well: being a two-time NCAA finalist and three-time All-American is nothing to sniff at. Since Tom Brands took over as head coach, Iowa has had four three-time All-Americans: Brent Metcalf, Matt McDonough, Phil Keddy... and Montell Marion. Come NCAA Tournament time, Marion proved to be a more consistent performer than Jay Borschel, Ryan Morningstar, Dan Erekson, Charlie Falck, Dan Dennis, or Alex Tsirtsis, among others.

And yet he feels significantly less beloved than several of those wrestlers. Obviously Borschel won a national championship (and went undefeated!) in 2010, which trumps any lack of consistency issues he may have otherwise had. But none of the other guys won titles. They did win team titles, though, and in some cases they played a key role in securing that team triumph (see: Dan Erekson's huge pin of Iowa State's David Zabriskie in the Saturday morning consolation matches at the 2009 NCAA Tournament). In other cases they're lauded for their valor (see: Ryan Morningstar gutting his way to an All-America finish on a torn-up knee) or empathized with for their brush with greatness (see: Dan Dennis' agonizing come-from-ahead last-second loss to Jayson Ness in the NCAA finals).

Marion had several dramatic, heart-stopping wins, especially in the NCAA Tournament (like this year's semifinal win over Kendric Maple in SV)... but none of those wins ultimately led to titles, either for himself or for the team. In fact, Marion never won an individual title of any significance at Iowa: not an NCAA title, not a Big Ten title, not even a Midlands title. Of course, Marion also had the misfortune of rising to prominence at the same time as Kellen Russell was ruling the Big Ten (and, at least in 2010, when Kyle Dake's superfreak train was leaving the platform), which made it considerably more difficult for him to win a title.

So how will Montell Marion be remembered? He was a very gifted, talented wrestler with tremendous natural ability... but he was also immensely frustrating. He never seemed to improve as much as he "should" have, rarely seemed to push for bonus points as much as he could have, and struggled for years with certain things (like getting escapes or riding guys). And, as noted, he never won individual glory -- he never got the asterisk (signifying a championship victory) he said he was seeking at the start of the year. And yet... his final results weren't bad. He was a three-time All-American and he never finished lower than fourth. He made the NCAA finals twice. He had a gift for wrestling his best come NCAA Tournament time, which is very commendable. He'll never be remembered as an all-time great at Iowa -- there are too many multi-time champions in our history for that -- but he probably deserves a little more love than he gets.

* * *

Mcdominance_medium

Speaking of multi-time champions... let's spare a few words for Matt McDonough, who's now entering some pretty heady territory in terms of Iowa wrestling excellence. Through three years, he's a three-time All-American, a three-time NCAA finalist, and a two-time NCAA champion. And, of course, he's a junior, meaning he has one more year of eligibility remaining. I'm not going to list all of Iowa's three-time All-Americans (it's pretty damn long), but the other two categories constitute more rarefied air.

Three-time NCAA finalists:
Joe Scarpello (1947, 1949, 1950)
Randy Lewis (1978, 1979, 1980)
Ed Banach (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983)
Barry Davis (1982, 1983, 1985)
Jim Zalesky (1982, 1983, 1984)
Marty Kistler (1984, 1985, 1986)
Jim Heffernan (1985, 1986, 1987)
Brad Penrith (1986, 1987, 1988)
Tom Brands (1990, 1991, 1992)
Terry Brands (1990, 1991, 1992)
Chad Zaputil (1991, 1992, 1993)
Lincoln McIlravy (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997)
Joe Williams (1996, 1997, 1998)
Mark Perry (2005, 2007, 2008)
Brent Metcalf (2008, 2009, 2010)
Matt McDonough (2010, 2011, 2012)

Two-time NCAA Champions:
Joe Scarpello (1947, 1950)
Terry McCann (1955, 1956)
Chuck Yagla (1975, 1976)
Chris Campbell (1976, 1977)
Randy Lewis (1979, 1980)
Ed Banach (1980, 1981, 1983)
Lou Banach (1981, 1983)
Jim Zalesky (1982, 1983, 1984)
Barry Davis (1982, 1983, 1985)
Marty Kistler (1985, 1986)
Royce Alger (1987, 1988)
Tom Brands (1990, 1991, 1992)
Terry Brands (1990, 1992)
Lincoln McIlravy (1993, 1994, 1997)
Jeff McGinness (1995, 1998)
Mark Ironside (1997, 1998)
T.J. Williams (1999, 2001)
Eric Juergens (2000, 2001)
Mark Perry (2007, 2008)
Brent Metcalf (2008, 2010)
Matt McDonough (2010, 2012)

McDonough is already tied with Metcalf for Iowa's second-most decorated wrestler since 2000 (Perry has a slight edge over both as a four-time All-American). But unlike those guys, McD's career isn't done... which means he has a chance to burnish that resume. Iowa's never had a four-time NCAA Champion (and McD's loss to Anthony Robles in the NCAA Finals last year ended his hopes of being the first to do that), but the group of three-time NCAA Champions is still a pretty exclusive club.

Three-time NCAA Champions
Ed Banach (1980, 1981, 1983)
Barry Davis (1982, 1983, 1985)
Jim Zalesky (1982, 1983, 1984)
Tom Brands (1990, 1991, 1992)
Lincoln McIlravy (1993, 1994, 1997)
Joe Williams (1996, 1997, 1998)

Six wrestlers. That's it. And no one in the last fifteen years. And there's one group that McD could join that's arguably even more exclusive:

Four-time NCAA Finalists
Ed Banach (1980, 1981, 1982, 1983)
Duane Goldman (1983, 1984, 1985, 1986)
Lincoln McIlravy (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997)

Three guys. That's it -- that's the list of Iowa wrestlers who made the NCAA Finals every year they were eligible. (Goldman had a strange career: three runner-up finishes before finally breaking through as the champ in '86.) Banach and McIlravy are the only guys who would have comparable careers to McDonough if he wins a title next year. Three titles, four Finals appearances? That's the stuff of legends.

It's also putting the cart way before the horse, of course -- McD isn't invincible and he's not immune to thinks like illness or injury that could derail his quest. But the opportunity is there, which is more than we've been able to say about any Iowa wrestler in a long, long time (since, well, McIlravy, I suppose). Metcalf might have been able to equal that feat if not for butthurt Virginia Tech administrators, but what's done is done: he made the most out of his three years of eligibility, but that's all he had.

McD is already in pretty heady territory and he's already done things in an Iowa singlet that relatively few guys before him have ever done. He's already had a wonderful career. But that career isn't done, either, and he has the opportunity to write a final chapter that would put him among the all-time greats at Iowa. Which would be pretty damn cool.

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