When listing the best wrestlers to wear the Cardinal and Gold robe, Ron Gray’s name will rise to the top. Gray was one of Iowa State legendary head coach Harold Nichols’ first stars on the mat, winning two individual NCAA titles, earning All-America honors three times and capturing three Big Eight crowns in his three seasons (1957-59) in Ames.
A native of Eagle Grove, Iowa, Gray was one of the most sought after high school recruits in the nation when he finished his prep career at Eagle Grove High School. Gray won three state titles (1952, 1953, 1955), owning the distinction as the first freshman Iowa state champion in 1952. Nichols, who started his outstanding wrestling coaching career at ISU in 1954 and was still in his early years with the Cyclones, lured Gray to Ames as one of his top recruits.
Gray sat out his first season because of the NCAA freshman ineligibility rule and found his way into the Cyclone lineup as a sophomore in 1957. Gray won every match that year, including a Big Eight title, until the NCAA Championship title bout at 147 pounds against Iowa’s Simon Roberts. Gray lost to Roberts in an overtime period to finish second at 147 pounds, which would be one of just two personal setbacks in his Cyclone career. Ironically, Roberts, who prepped at Davenport High School, defeated Gray in the 1954 state finals when he was a junior, preventing Gray from becoming the first four-time Iowa state champion and first three-time NCAA champion.
After his second-place finish in 1957, there was no stopping Gray on the mat. He dominated his weight class (147 pounds) for the next two seasons. Gray lost just once in 1958 to Oklahoma State’s Shelby Wilson, the 1960 Olympic champion, en route to his second Big Eight title and first NCAA crown. Gray defeated Cornell’s Dick Vincent (9-3) in the 147-pound NCAA title match, leading ISU to its first league title since 1947 and a runner-up finish at the NCAA championship, its best showing since 1933. Gray cruised through the 1959 dual season, winning every match except for a tie against OSU’s Wilson. He won his third Big Eight title with a pin in the championship match against Colorado’s Barney Bales, as the Cyclones finished second to Oklahoma State. Gray ended his career in perfect fashion, winning his second-straight 147-pound NCAA title with a 9-3 victory against Wyoming’s Jerry Frude, as the Cyclones were runner-up champs for the second year in a row. Gray’s overpowering performance in the NCAA Championship earned him the meet’s Outstanding Wrestler Award, the first of four Cyclones (Dan Gable, Tim Krieger, Cael Sanderson) in school history to achieve the coveted honor.
Gray, who finished his Cyclone career with a 53-2-1 mark, was voted ISU’s Athlete of the Year in 1959. He taught and coached wrestling in high school for a number years before leading the Franklin and Marshall College wrestling program from 1968-1971. He left F&M and served as the head coach at Kent State for 25 seasons (1972-96). He guided the Golden Flashes to nine Mid-American Conference team titles and was named MAC Coach of the Year five times. His Kent wrestlers won 46 individual MAC titles and earned All-America accolades six times. He is a member of the Iowa High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, the NCAA Helms Hall of Fame, the Kent State Hall of Fame and is a 2005 inductee to the Glen Brand Wrestling Hall of Fame at the International Wrestling Institute in Newton, Iowa.