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CarusoMike Caruso, uncaged at Lehigh

Crusoe or Caruso?

No offense to Daniel Defoe, but I thought the correct spelling of the last name of the hero in his 1719 novel was “Robinson Caruso.” My high school English teacher, Mr. George, disapproved of my carelessness and lowered my grade for the spelling error, which I repeated throughout the blue book exam essay I wrote about the novel.  Mr. George circled each mistake with his red pen. He did not appreciate my understanding that Crusoe was spelled the same as the last name of my favorite Eastern collegiate wrestler, Mike Caruso, from Lehigh. The homonym not withstanding, I was ignorant of both noble savages and operatic tenors (Enrico Caruso) at the time. So it goes.

Witness Post: Mike Caruso

One of the best collegiate wrestlers of the late 1960’s was a kid from New Jersey named Mike Caruso. He was a three-time EIWA champion and a three-time NCAA champ from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Caruso beat Michigan’s Bob Fehrs in the finals for all three of his National Championships (1965 -1966 -1967).  Many fans feel that Caruso could have been a four-time champ had freshman been allowed to wrestle varsity at the time.

During that era, Caruso was joined as an All-American twice by his Lehigh teammates, Billy Stuart and Joe Peritore. The trio made for strong early leads in dual meets. Their success on the mat established this small college in Eastern Pennsylvania as a powerhouse, which could compete head-to-head with the likes of large state schools like Michigan, Iowa, and Oklahoma, which all had outstanding wrestling legacies.

The Caruso-Fehrs rivalry actually dates back to 1964, when they were in high school. Though they did not meet in a match, Fehrs was voted the Outstanding Wrestler (OW) as a National Prep Champion, while in his senior year at Milton Hershey Prep. Caruso, also a National Prep Champion, wrestled at a different weight class for St. Benedict’s in Newark, NJ. Caruso was runner up to Fehrs among the coaches voting for OW.

Their fates soon intertwined two years later, when as the two sophomores they each had impressive dual meet records going into the NCAA’s. They were both seeded high in the 123# weight class and met in the finals. The match that season and for the next two years were nail-biters, with the margin of victory quite narrow. The first two finals were decided by three, then four points. Caruso earned back points, but could never pin Fehrs.

Going into the third head-to-head battle, it had the trappings of the most storied rivalries in college wrestling. Fehrs had wrestled at 130# for most of his senior year, but dropped to 123# for the NCAA tournaments saying, “I did not want to finish my career by conceding that I couldn’t beat him!” The wrestlers, coaches and fans were all exhausted as the finals went back and forth between the would-be champions. In the end, their final collegiate match was decided on “riding time.” After a 6-6 tie score in a ferocious regulation bout, the wrestlers and coaches prepared for overtime. However, the mat judge scored that Caruso had been on top for 1:14 longer than Fehrs and had earned an additional point for the win.  Caruso later admitted, “I really wasn’t sure I could beat him had we gone into overtime.”

Seeing Caruso on the mat in that era was a thing of athletic beauty. He was a cocky, spark plug of a wrestler and had the speed, endurance and moxie to back it up. He often started his matches with his patented barrel roll, which earned him a take down and back points against most opponents. He usually racked up a huge score in the first three minutes and ground down his opponent in humiliating high scoring wins or pins. Although there was a 115# weight class in the tournaments, the first weight class for most dual meets was 123#. Caruso was the first wrestler in the Engineer’s powerful lineup, which helped bring the Lehigh fans to their feet. Hearing the crowds at Grace Hall during Lehigh home matches was both thrilling and deafening. The decibel rating alone scared the crap out of opposing teams.

GracevPSUGrace Hall match Lehigh vs Penn State

Grace Hall

One match in particular is lodged in my memory bank. My father and brother cannot corroborate the story, and there seems to be no other record of the pre-match warm-ups, so take this story with a block of salt.

The Naval Academy wrestling squad was undefeated in early 1967, when it headed to Bethlehem for a dual meet. We had watched the Midshipmen wrestle in Annapolis many times and believed that Coach Ed Peery had another powerhouse team. Amateur Wrestling News in their annual mid-season rankings had favored Navy to win the EIWA tournament that year.  A few teams, like Penn State and Lehigh, thought otherwise. Lehigh’s 167# wrestler, Jon Rushatz, had bragged to a reporter from Sports Illustrated, “We’re going to chew [Navy] up.  They are overrated and they know it!”

Lehigh hosted Navy that February night, and we got some of the last seats at Grace Hall. Our friend, Joe Aton, who was a high school math teacher and rabid Lehigh fan, secured us some tickets in the “Visitors Section” of the Hall. It was not only a sell-out crowd, it was also a fire code buster. Somehow the users stuffed Grace Hall with 4,650 spectators. Fire code listed capacity at 2,800.  We arrived when the Naval Academy team was warming up and we shoe horned into the spaces that were designated for us. My brother, Ned, and I had small butts at the time and were squeezed together into a splinter-rich bleacher seat for one. We were just settling in, when the Navy Midshipmen cleared the mat. The home crowd took over.

The cheerleaders pantomimed foot stomping which the crowd imitated on the wooden bleachers. They started rhythmic clapping as the Engineers took the mat. The team was dressed in their distinctive brown robes with LEHIGH emblazoned in white on the back. One by one the Lehigh wrestler’s names were announced over the loud speakers, citing the high school he attended, plus his high school and college win-loss-tie records. The home crowd seemed to get louder with each introduction, up to the point where all but one wrestler had been announced. Then the public address announcer asked for attention.

As a drum rolled, the announcer recited the pedigree of Mike Caruso: National Prep Champ at St. Benedict’s Prep, high school record undefeated, Lehigh record 135-1 with two EIWA and two NCAA trophies (at the time) … Etc. Etc.[1] Despite the recitation, Caruso had not appeared. Next, the crowd went suddenly silent, as the home team retreated back into the shadows. The cheerleaders and home town fans restarted their rhythmic clapping as the tension heightened. Ned and I could make out the sound of rolling wheels near the bleachers, but as people stood up and chanted, we were too short to see what was happening.

Mighty Mouse in a Cage

Then we spotted Jon Rushatz the 167#, and Butch Paquin, the Lehigh heavyweight, pushing a huge cage toward the mat. Hopping against the side bars and pacing around the center of the cage was Mike Caruso. His muscles bulging and face fiercely growling, the scene was like a circus midway. The smallest wrestler was the biggest crowd draw, and the Lehigh team was taking full advantage. My dad, grinning ear to ear, gave his distinctive “Hee-Hee” laugh, proving he was enjoying the moment to the fullest.

Caruso, after pounding his chest like a gorilla and giving a roar, bounded out of the cage and on to the mat. The home crowd went nuts.

The gamesmanship of the coaches was soon apparent. Despite weighing in at 123#, Caruso moved up a weight class to 130# and was paired against Steve Comiskey, who was one of Navy’s best. The teams shook hands and headed to their respective benches. After the National Anthem, the fans barely sat down, as they were in a fever pitch from the first whistle.

The 123 pound match ended in a tie. Next up was Caruso vs. Comiskey. Caruso emerged briskly for his match ready to wrestle. At the whistle he took off in a flash, never letting up. He executed a perfect barrel roll and near fall as the crowd roared. Caruso went on to overwhelm Comiskey 22-4. The final score doesn’t capture the drubbing, as all four of Comiskey’s points were scored on escapes, when Caruso let him up to take him down again.[2]

The Engineers were on a roll, winning the next five bouts in a row. Navy never caught a break that night, losing individual matches they should have won. The Engineers could have written a book on how to accentuate home field advantage, because they took it to an extraordinary height as the team caught fire. What a crowd pleasing performance!

The Lehigh team channeled that fire through to the regional EIWA tournament that season and finished first with 85 team points and two champions. Navy was second with 79 points and two champions.[3]  Caruso was the OW and Fletcher Award winner for the tournament.[4] He went on to Nationals owning the hearts and minds of his Lehigh fans, teammates and opponents.

Caruso Complex

In 2014, forty-seven years after that historic third Caruso-Fehrs match, it seemed fitting that the new wrestling complex on the top two floors of Grace Hall at Lehigh had been named in honor of Mike Caruso. He was a fierce competitor his entire wrestling career and a real champion. He was fun to watch on the mat and even more fun to remember, caged and uncaged.

ScanItemCaruso & Fehrs in front of Grace Hall summer of 2013 [5]

13720470-standardCaruso Wrestling Complex, Lehigh University

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[1] Mike Caruso was undefeated in high school and finished his Lehigh college career with a record of 141 – 1. Caruso’s lone loss was a 7-2 decision to Bob Steenlage from Army. (As a side note, Steenlage was no slouch. He was a member of the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame and was a 4-time Iowa state high school champion. He was the captain of the US Military Academy team at West Point and never lost a dual meet in college. Steenlage is also the only person ever to defeat NCAA champion Mike Johnson from Pitt in a dual meet.)

[2] In today’s scoring methodology, the match would have counted as a ‘technical fall’ when Caruso secured a 15 point differential.

[3] The Naval Academy had two champions in the EIWA’s that year, Pete Vanderlofske at 145# and Dick Mies at 152#. Navy’s Captain, Steve Comiskey, proving he was no push-over, placed third in the EIWA’s at 130#, winning the Sheridan Award for the most falls in the least aggregate time. Comisky lost in the first round of the NCAA’s to a sophomore wrestler from Iowa State, named Gable.

[4] The Outstanding Wrestler award was voted on by the coaches. The Fletcher Award went to the EIWA wrestler with the most pins in the least aggregate time.

[5] Photo c/o Sheila Dietrich, Milton Hershey School, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

3 thoughts on “Witness Post: Mike Caruso

  1. I had the pleasure of attending Lehighs’ wrestling camp when attending high school in Edison, New Jersey and met Gregg Surenian and Coach Turner. I’ve always been in awe of the Lehigh wrestling traditions. I had the pleasure.of attending a wedding between my neice, Rachel Levey, and a man named Andrew Caruso last night. I remembered the Caruso name as being “the man” at Lehigh and looked him up. I found your witness post.
    My uncle, Jules Balon, wrestled for Springfield College in the 60’and became an EIWA conference champion twice.

  2. I was lucky to have attended Lehigh the same years as Caruso. I can vouch for this enthusiastic article. (Well, I don’t remember the cage part…pretty sure that didn’t happen. But who knows, time helps mold our memories to match our dreams.) Over 60 years as a sports fan, I’ve had the good fortune to attend quite a few “all-time great” sporting events. In 1961, at 14, I sold hot dogs at Yankee Stadium. That’s the year Maris hit 61 homers and that Yankee team is one of the greatest baseball teams ever. In the 1980’s, I had season tickets to the L.A. Lakers games. That’s the “Showtime” Lakers, led by Magic Johnson. I saw many an incredible battle between those Lakers and Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. And lots more. But no sports memory touches me as does that Lehigh’s wrestling scene of the late 1960s and the chance to watch one of the greatest wrestlers to ever live. Thanks for the memories.

    • Thank you, Jeff. My brother, Ned, does not remember the Lehigh cage either, but it makes for good wrestling folklore. Your recollections of great sports figures in action are outstanding. I hope you have many more ahead. Happy New Year.

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