Flowrestling caught up with former Oklahoma State wrestler Mark Branch recently which got me interested in digging into his freshman NCAA title run. It happened in 1994, so at 7 years old I hadn’t even got into wrestling yet and even if I had I probably wouldn’t have remembered much about it.
As Mike “Mal” Malinconico describes a bit in the interview, the legend of the story transcends beyond just the people of that generation who witnessed it. For fans my age and younger it has its own mystique. We’ve all heard of it, but don’t really know a ton about it.
It’s something that had never happened before and I’m going to step out on a pretty strong limb and say it will ever happen again. In 1994, Oklahoma State freshman Mark Branch entered the NCAA tournament with a losing record of 8-9. He then proceeded to shock everyone and go on to win an NCAA title.
Here’s the bracket from the tournament
Branch spoke about the team meeting with Coach Smith in the hotel the night before to go over the brackets in his Flo interview.
“This was the last year that the guy that beat you had to win or you were out of the tournament. It wasn’t a true double elimination. John got to my weight and said “it’s good”. So I’m like “hey, I must’ve got another guy with a losing record?”. Then he goes “you got the 2-seed” I’m like ‘what’s good about that?’ then John says ‘I’m going to tell you right now you can beat him, but if you don’t beat him (Branch starts laughing as he tells the story) he’s at least going to pull you into the consolation side and you’ll get to wrestle twice’.” [Flo Wrestling]
Smith was right about one thing, Branch could and did beat Renner. He went on to major the tournaments 2-seed 12-2. The interesting thing is that usually with a big upset like that your path can often open up and be a somewhat easier one. Even though he fairly comfortably won his way to the final, on paper his path really wasn’t that easy. He still had to rattle off upset after upset to win the thing.
In the next round he wrestled Jim Brasco. I’ll be honest and say I don’t know a lot about Brasco. What I do know is in the round prior to wrestling Branch he beat eventual Olympic Gold medalist Brandon Slay. So Branch not only won this thing coming in with a losing record. He won it in a bracket where an Olympic gold medalist didn’t even make it past the first round. Slay lost one match and was done. That says something. It’s not like this weight was a bunch of pushovers. A gold medalist didn’t even win a match!
In the quarterfinals Branch edged 7-seed Chris Studer of Boston University 6-3, then went up against the 6-seed, OU’s Jason Leonard, in the semifinals. Leonard had finished second to Branch’s third-place finish at the Big 8 Tournament just a few weeks prior. Branch upset Leonard 9-2 to move on to the final.
Incredibly, the final was one of only two matches where Branch wrestled an unseeded wrestler. In his closest match of the entire tournament he beat Laszlo Molnar 4-2.
No scoring in the first, a quick escape for Branch in the second, a stall point, and a takedown in the third was all he needed to lock up his title.
Branch finished off an insane run that that helped propel Oklahoma State to a team title, an understated point about his individual championship. If Branch doesn’t shock the world and win this the Cowboys may not have brought home the team title.
Branch, now the head coach at the University of Wyoming, and reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year has had a pretty incredible knack for passing this along to his pupils. Jake Rosholt won an NCAA title in 2003 with Branch in his corner and as a double-digit seed. Just a week earlier he was majored by the wrestler he beat in the final. Bryce Meredith lost in the finals of the NCAA tournament to Dean Heil a few years ago. His run came out of nowhere with Meredith coming in as the 14-seed.
Coming in with a losing record and winning the NCAA tournament is one of the most remarkable things to ever happen in college wrestling. His uncanny ability to coach up his wrestlers to do similar is unbelievable.
— Mark Branch (@Branch9497) March 10, 2017