The foundation of the storied Iowa State wrestling program was set by the contributions of Hugo Otopalik, who was the engineer of the Cyclone wrestling juggernaut from 1924-53. His influences were not only felt at Iowa State, but at the international level as well, where he was a pioneer in promoting wrestling in the United States.
A native of David City, Neb., Otopalik was one of the University of Nebraska’s first superstars in athletics, lettering in wrestling, football and track. He was named All-American in football and was the 175-pound Western Conference champion under his mentor Raymond Clapp in 1916 and 1917. Following graduation, Otopalik served under General Pershing in his European army duty during World War I. After his army service, he became the athletics director at Kearney State (Neb.) for a couple of years before accepting the assistant wrestling coaching position at Iowa State for Dr. Charles Mayser in 1920. He had not planned on becoming a coach, but when Mayser resigned in 1923, he took over head wrestling coaching duties.
Otopalik quickly made his mark on the program and on collegiate wrestling. His first two Cyclone teams were undefeated in dual action and finished second in the tough Missouri Valley Conference. Otopalik helped initiate the first NCAA wrestling championship, held in 1928 in Ames, Iowa, after his AAU-sanctioned 1927 national collegiate wrestling championship was a rousing success. He tutored Arthur Holding, ISU’s first NCAA champion, who won the 135-pound title to help the Cyclones to a second-place finish. Otopalik’s involvement internationally in wrestling helped him earn the head coaching responsibilities for the 1932 United States Olympic team. His squad won three gold medals and two silver medals to pace the U.S. team to the team title at the Los Angeles Olympics. Iowa State national champion Robert Hess joined his coach at the Olympics, placing fourth.
Riding on the success of his Olympic accomplishments, Otopalik’s Cyclones were one of the favorites to win it all in 1933. Hess became ISU’s first two-time national champion and was one of three Cyclones to win national titles (Merrill Frevert, George Martin), as ISU captured the school’s first NCAA national championship in any sport. During this time Otopalik took on a more active role in collegiate wrestling. He was the first secretary of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, serving in that role from 1932-36. He also played an active part in National AAU Wrestling and was the secretary for the Pan American Games Wrestling committee.
Otopalik continued to produce talent on the mat throughout his entire tenure as wrestling coach. In his later years, Otopalik helped mentor one of the greatest wrestlers in ISU history in Glen Brand. Brand was a three-time All-American and became Otopalik’s eighth wrestler in school history to win a national title. Brand represented the United States in the 1948 Olympics, becoming the first of five Cyclones in school history to win a gold medal. Otopalik ended his illustrious career with a 159-66-5 mark while tallying seven league titles and one NCAA championship.
Otopalik was also the ISU’s head men’s golf coach in the 1930s and early 1940s. He was a pioneer in the early days of collegiate golf. He was tournament director at the first NCAA golf championship held at the Wakonda Country Club in Des Moines in 1939 and was the first chairman of the NCAA golf committee. Otopalik fielded some outstanding golf teams while at Iowa State. His 1940 squad was Big Six champion and finished seventh at the NCAA Championship, the highest placing for a Cyclone golf team in school history. Two of his star players on the links were brothers Billy and Max Hall. Billy was conference medalist in 1939 and Max won the Big Six individual title in 1941.
Otopalik, who passed away in 1953, was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1976.