When tracing back the birth of the Iowa State wrestling dynasty, the name Robert Hess arises as one if its true pioneers. Hess was ISU’s first three-time All-American and two-time national champion, dominating collegiate and international wrestling from 1931-33.
Hess was one of the first outstanding wrestlers to come from Cresco, Iowa, a town that produced many stars on the mat, including ISU Hall of Fame coach Harold Nichols. Hess led Cresco to the 1928 state title before bringing his wrestling expertise to Ames.
Hess found a spot on the varsity team as a sophomore in 1930-31, advancing to the 165-pound NCAA title match. He was an aggressive wrestler, going for the fall virtually every time he stepped on the mat. The young sophomore went for the pin against heavily favored Jack Van Bebber of Oklahoma A&M, getting caught on his back and losing by fall in the 1931 NCAA title match, the only loss by pin in his entire career.
ISU head coach and Hall of Famer Hugo Otopalik loved the fire and tenacity of Hess and envisioned great things from him in his final two years as a Cyclone. Hess wore down his opponents with his textbook wrestling and his signature key arm lock. He claimed his first NCAA title in 1932, defeating Oklahoma A&M’s LeRoy McGuirk in the 174-pound title match.
In the summer of 1932, Hess had a unique opportunity to compete at the pinnacle of international wrestling. The United States was to host the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and Otopalik was selected as the U.S. coach. Hess solidified a spot on the U.S. team at 174 pounds. Olympic rules in wrestling were quite different than collegiate guidelines at the time, and the U.S. wrestlers struggled to find the correct interpretations of the rules. In the morning of his first Olympic match, Hess finally received the rules, but they were in French. An interpreter dictated the rules, but it proved useless because he knew nothing about wrestling. The confusion cost Hess his first match, but the Cyclone quickly figured out the rules and was able to wrestle back to finish fourth at 174 pounds.
Hess still had one more year of eligibility remaining as a Cyclone in 1932-33 and he made the most of it. For the first time in school history, ISU had three wrestlers win individual crowns to help the Cyclones win their first-ever NCAA wrestling team title. In consecutive matches, Merrill Frevert (155), George Martin (165) and Hess (175) all won NCAA titles to give ISU the 1933 NCAA Championship and the first NCAA-sanctioned team title for Iowa State in any sport. Hess, who also won the 1933 Big Six Conference title, put an exclamation point on his incredible career by pinning Indiana’s Richard Voliva at the 5:47 mark for his second consecutive NCAA title.
Hess, who graduated from Iowa State with a degree in forestry, won the 1933 AAU national championship before heading to graduate school. He earned both his master’s degree and doctorate from Yale University and was a teacher and researcher in tropical woods at Yale for a number of years. He later became production manager for Mengle Furniture Products, research director for Georgia Pacific and general manager of Tnycol Chemical Corporation. He died at the age of 87 in 1998.