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Former Univ. of Minnesota coach Wally Johnson, 91, passed away Wednesday



Former University of Minnesota wrestling coach Wally Johnson passed away Wednesday at the age of 91 in Edina from complications of Parkinson's disease.

Johnson, who coached the Golden Gophers from 1952-86, guided Minnesota to Big Ten titles in 1957 and ?59. The predecessor to current head coach J Robinson, Johnson is the school's all-time leader in wins with a 392-209-11 career record.

"Wally will be missed," Robinson said. "There was a fondness about him when people talked about him, which means he impacted a lot of people's lives in a very positive way. So when you come in and follow a legend, you want to make sure you fill those shoes. After he retired, he reveled in the fact that we took a next step and really enjoyed seeing the success of Minnesota Wrestling. The true measurement of a coach when he leaves is that he wants the program to continue to build and to get better, and Wally epitomized all of those things."

During his tenure at Minnesota, Johnson coached 28 individual Big Ten champions, including three-time winners Dick Mueller (1953, ?57-58) and Larry Zilverberg (1974-76). He also led 25 different wrestlers to 31 All-America certificates, including three wrestlers who won NCAA individual titles: Mueller (1953), Evan Johnson (1976) and Pat Neu (1977).

In 1976, Johnson earned national coach of the year honors after leading the Gophers to back-to-back runner-up finishes in the Big Ten.

Under Johnson's leadership, two-time Big Ten Champion and 1986 All-American Ed Giese became Minnesota's career leader with 159 wins, a mark which still stands today.

In 1985, Johnson received the highest honor in the wrestling profession when he was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.

Prior to becoming the head wrestling coach for the Gophers, Johnson coached at the University of South Dakota from 1947-50 and at Luther College from 1950-52. During the first 20 years of his tenure at Minnesota, Johnson also served as an assistant coach on the football team under Murray Warmath.

Johnson's impact on wrestling extended to the national level, as he was the executive director of the Pan-American Games Trials in 1967 and 1983. He was a co-founder of the U.S. Wrestling Federation in 1968 and served a stint as the president of the NCAA Wrestling Coaches Association. Johnson directed the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in 1972 and coached the U.S. team at the World University Games in 1973.

He was the 1977 USA Wrestling Coach of the Year.

"He was a great pioneer for wrestling in the state of Minnesota," Robinson said. "He started youth wrestling in the state and co-founded the original U.S. Wrestling Federation, which changed international wrestling and provided an avenue for college people."

A native of Detroit Lakes, Minn., Johnson competed in football, basketball and track in high school before enrolling at the University of Minnesota in 1937. He earned his bachelor?s degree in education in 1942 and added a master's degree in 1948. Johnson competed on the Gopher football team in 1937 but broke his leg the following year, forcing him out of the sport. He went on to earn letters on the wrestling team in 1941 and ?42 and also served as a team captain.

Funeral arrangements for Johnson are still pending.
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