Remembering All-American Wrestler Ernie Gillum
AMES, Iowa – Ernie Gillum helped set the gold standard for what it meant to be an Iowa State wrestler.
Gillum came to Ames in 1962 from Ypsilanti, Mich., not knowing anything about the state of Iowa except that it was west of Chicago. In high school, Gillum was a star athlete excelling in cross country, track and wrestling. His five state championships (3 track and cross-country, 2 wrestling) garnered interest and collegiate offers for all three sports.
Legendary Iowa State head coach Harold Nichols showed up at Gillum’s door, telling him that if he wanted to be an NCAA champion, he needed to come to Ames. Gillum took a visit to campus and the rest was history.
“I came to Iowa State and with the wrestling and the people I met, It was not a hard choice at all for me,” Gillum said in a 2007 interview with longtime ISU sports information director Tom Kroeschell. “I was coming to Iowa State to find out how good I really was and to be a part of something special.”
While wrestling in cardinal and gold, Gillum earned All-America honors twice, taking third at 115 pounds in 1965 and second at 115 pounds in 1966. Gillum was the Cyclones first Midlands champion in 1965 at 115 pounds; three more Cyclones joined Gillum on top of the podium that year as ISU took home its first Midlands team title.
In 1965, Gillum was an integral part of Nichols’ first of an eventual six NCAA team titles. The team title came in dramatic fashion, as the Cyclones rallied from 22-points down on the final day to defeat perennial power Oklahoma State 87-86. ISU won 15 of 18 consolation round matches en route to its first NCAA title ever in any sport.
Gillum’s 6-5 overtime win in the third-place match gave Iowa State a slim lead over Oklahoma State, and then Tom Peckham put the icing on the cake with a 5-3 win in his NCAA title bout at 171 pounds.
After graduating from Iowa State, Gillum took what Harold Nichols taught him and instilled it in his everyday life and community activism. He earned a master’s degree in education from Eastern Michigan, then went on to teach and coach in the Ann Arbor Public Schools system for 30 years.
Gillum became the first African-American wrestling coach in the state of Michigan at Huron High School. Using the toughness and girt instilled by Nichols, Gillum went on to coach many state champions, including future Olympians and World Champions.
Gillum met former Cyclone head coach Bobby Douglas (1992-2006) at the 1965 NCAA meet and credits him, as well as Dr. Nichols and longtime Iowa State assistant coach Les Anderson, as one of his mentors in life.
“Bobby Douglas is a legend,” Gillum said. “He’s been an inspiration to me ever since the moment I met him in 1965 at the NCAA Championships in Laramie.”
After college Douglas moved to Michigan to wrestle for the Michigan Wrestling Club with Gillum. Douglas lived with family friends or stayed with Gillum and his family. Gillum, Douglas and a former teammate of Gillum at Ypsilanti High School drove to Detroit on a regular basis to practice at historic White Hall.
“We had a long history together,” Douglas said. “It wasn’t just a wrestling history either. We built a strong friendship and he became one of my best friends.”
Gillum credited a lot of his development both as a wrestler and coach to Douglas.
“I was fortunate enough to get to wrestle with Bobby”, Gillum said. “He taught me technique and the mental preparation that goes into wrestling. Bobby has had a great impact on my life and he still does to this day. I’m honored to call Bobby Douglas my friend and he’s been very helpful in my life.”
Gillum would return the favor to his good friend, aiding him in the recruiting of some of his high school athletes.
“I worked with Ernie a lot on wrestling technique,” Douglas said. “He was always in my ear consistently when he was a high school coach. Ernie was a major contact of mine from a recruiting standpoint as I recruited several of his wrestlers.”
Wrestlers like three-time All-American Zeke Jones (current head coach of the U.S. Freestyle National Team) and Midlands champion Andy McNaughton were products of Gillum. Both would go on to have strong college careers at Arizona State under Douglas, where they were members of the 1988 NCAA champion Sun Devils. Jones would go on to have an outstanding international career highlighted by a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games.
“Ernie gave a lot to the American wrestling program,” Douglas said. “Not only as a coach, but as a teacher too. He loved his work and was loved by so many.”
Gillum was one of the first advocates for female wrestling, and coached one of the greatest female wrestlers of all-time in Tricia McNaughton.
“I put a lot of pressure on him and some other high school coaches I knew well to encourage female wrestling,” Douglas said. “I believed it was a life raft for the sport.”
McNaughton, who likely would have earned Olympic Gold if female wrestling was a part of the Olympics, won four world championships and 11 national championships. With the help of McNaughton, Gillum became the first American coach to have a female state champion, female national champion and female world champion.
Douglas, who wrestled for the 1965 Oklahoma State Cowboy team the Cyclones defeated, joked that Gillum never let him forget about what happened in Laramie.
“He loved the Cyclones,” Douglas said. “Even though we were always friends, he was a Cyclone and I was a Cowboy. He never let me forget that they beat us by a single point for the national championship in 1965.”
On May 14, Gillum lost a year-long battle with cancer. He passed away peacefully in his home surrounded by family members.
“Ernie is responsible for so many kids getting their high school diplomas and college degrees,” Douglas said. “He was a real advocate for diversity and was a great mentor to the kids that he was around. Ernie was truly one of Iowa State’s greatest contributions in teaching and coaching young men and women.”
Ernie Gillum will be remembered not only for his many accomplishments on the mat at Iowa State, but for the many lives he touched in his teaching and coaching career. Whether it was the classroom, wrestling mat or at his church, Gillum lit up the room wherever he went. He will forever be a part of an elite fraternity of men that learned about life and wrestling from the great Harold Nichols.