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Hall of Fame official David Frisch set to complete storybook career at NCAA Championships

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - When David Frisch pulled on a black-and-white striped shirt and draped a whistle around his neck for the first time his goals as a wrestling official were fairly modest.

He didn't see this as a steppingstone to someday officiating at the NCAA Division I Championships. Or even as a path toward working the state high-school tournament in his native Minnesota.

"I was just trying to make a little extra money," he said.

What started out as a way to earn some extra cash has evolved into a Hall of Fame career for Frisch, long regarded as one of the best collegiate wrestling officials in the United States.

Frisch's officiating career will fittingly come to an end at next month's NCAA Championships in St. Louis. Frisch, who turns 54 next week, is retiring at the end of this season.

"I want to get out while I'm still doing a decent job - I don't want to stay in it too long," Frisch said. "I also want to use the vacation time I take for wrestling to have for me and my wife to spend time together. And it's time to step aside to give some of these younger guys an opportunity to work the Division I tournament."

Frisch, a resident of Colorado Springs, has been a fixture at the NCAA Championships the past quarter of a century. He is scheduled to work his 24th NCAA Division I tournament in the past 25 years on March 20-22 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. He worked his first NCAA Division I finals in 1984.

The only year he missed came in 1991, when he was selected to officiate at the event but pulled out of the tournament after his wife, Becky, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Frisch has been ranked among the top 10 officials at every NCAA tournament he has worked. He's been ranked No. 1 on 15 occasions, including 11 of the last 14 years. He has been a lead official each year he has worked the NCAA finals, where the top 10 officials are each assigned a championship bout.

"Dave Frisch is one of the best college referees ever," said Pat McCormick, the NCAA's supervisor of officials. "I could assign Dave to the toughest matches at the Division I Championships, knowing that he would do an outstanding job. He has reached the top level of refereeing through hard work, dedication, good judgment, and an innate sense of fair play. I am going to miss him, both as a friend and as someone I could always depend on."

Lynn Dyche, who coordinates the group of evaluators who rank the officials each year at the NCAA Championships, calls Frisch a "man of total integrity."

"Dave has said to me, 'Lynn, let me know if I ever start slipping.' I have never had to do that," Dyche said. "Dave's still at the top of his game. He's a very intense, very hard-working official and I can't think of a better one. If I had to pick a referee, he would be at the top of my list."

Frisch has been assigned to officiate some of the biggest matches in NCAA history.

The most memorable was the 2002 finals in Albany, N.Y., when Iowa State's Cael Sanderson defeated Lehigh's Jon Trenge at 197 pounds to become the first NCAA wrestler to complete a four-year career unbeaten. Sanderson went 159-0 and won four NCAA titles.

"There wasn't much saliva in my mouth and trying to blow the whistle was tough because of nerves," Frisch said. "My heart rate was definitely the highest it had ever been for a match. I was happy the match didn't come down to a judgment call. It was an amazing moment."

Sanderson, now the head coach at Iowa State, went on to win an Olympic gold medal in 2004.

"Of all the wrestlers I've seen over the years, I would have to say Cael is the greatest," Frisch said. "Cael was so tenacious and aggressive. I never refereed one of his matches where he ever took a break. It was a treat to referee his matches."

Frisch worked the stunning 1995 finals bout in Iowa City where heavily favored Iowa junior Lincoln McIlravy, on pace to become a four-time NCAA champion, was upset by Steve Marianetti of Illinois at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

"I loved the way Lincoln wrestled - he was one of the best wrestlers I've ever seen," Frisch said. "I was just flabbergasted that he got beat. I couldn't believe it. During the match, I was like, 'Wow, is this really happening?'"

He also worked two of the three NCAA titles won by Fresno State's Stephen Abas, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist, and two of the three NCAA titles won by North Carolina's T.J. Jaworsky. He also was the official for both of the titles won by Oklahoma State's Johnny Thompson.

Last year, Frisch worked the closely-contested, 165-pound finals where Iowa's Mark Perry knocked off two-time NCAA champion Johny Hendricks of Oklahoma State.

"I always liked Johny Hendricks - he's a great competitor and a great kid," Frisch said. "It was not an easy match to call because of all the different positions they wound up in."

He officiated at the 1997 NCAA Championships in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where the Hawkeyes broke the tournament scoring record in Coach Dan Gable's final year at Iowa. Frisch called the 133-pound finals bout when Oklahoma State's Eric Guerrero beat Iowa's Mike Mena in double-overtime to win his first of three straight NCAA titles.

"It was a pretty amazing tournament," Frisch said. "It was a great way for a legend like Gable to go out. During the years I did the NCAA tournament when Gable was at Iowa (from 1984 to 1997), there was no parity. Iowa just dominated."

He also worked the 1992 dual meet in Iowa City between No. 1 Iowa and No. 2 Iowa State.

"It was close to a sellout and was one of the biggest crowds ever for a college dual," he said. "I had a highway patrolman who ushered me back and forth to the locker room, and sat outside my locker-room door. I called the Iowa 190-pounder three times for stalling and I can honestly say I was booed by almost 10,000 fans at one time. I do remember Gable saying in the Iowa City paper the next day that Iowa State caught us in our kind of match at 190, so I felt better about that."

In recent years, Frisch has witnessed Oklahoma State's return to prominence after the Cowboys won four straight NCAA titles from 2003-06.

"John Smith is a great coach," Frisch said. "Quite a few years ago, he said he changed the way he coaches and it's really been evident the past few years. As a referee, you get to hear coaches tell wrestlers to do things and hearing John coach you can see what a great technician he is."

Dyche calls Frisch "the consummate referee."

"Dave makes my job as an evaluator pretty easy," Dyche said. "He's always in position, he always hustles and he has excellent mechanics. He's phenomenal. He really knows what he's doing and knows the rules. When he walks onto the mat, coaches don't have to worry about the official because you know there will be no bias or favoritism toward anyone. And he keeps himself in great shape. He has great stamina and never looks tired. That's why he's always in position to make the right call."

Fellow referee Jim Ramirez, who has worked numerous NCAA tournaments with Frisch, said that Frisch has an amazing ability to not get distracted when he's on the mat.

"Dave is totally focused and totally committed to his match," Ramirez said. "Sometimes it's hard to stay focused at the NCAA tournament when you hear a big roar come up from another mat and you have a tendency to look away for a second. That total concentration is what separates the real quality referees from the others. Dave is very level-headed and can really manage a match with integrity and high principles.

"Dave lets the athletes determine the outcome of the match and doesn't get caught up in the drama of it. He's the consummate professional and great to work with. Some guys get on ego trips and don't want to change a call. He will change a call if he feels his assistant had a better look at it than he did. He just wants to get the call right. He's very fair and impartial."

Former Iowa State and Arizona State coach Bobby Douglas, who will serve as an officials' evaluator at this year's NCAA Championships, had plenty of chances to observe Frisch's work over the years.

"There is probably not an official in the country I haven't been nose-to-nose with arguing a call, but I have a lot of respect for Dave Frisch and the job he's done," Douglas said. "He works exceptionally hard. Of all the officials I've observed over the years he's made very few mistakes. There is a lot of pressure on these guys to get it right. It's a tough, tough job trying to make split-second decisions without the benefit of instant replay. But Frisch has done a real good job for a long time."

Frisch reached the pinnacle as an official after falling just short of some of his goals as a wrestler.

He was a three-year starter at St. James (Minn.) High School. He did not place in the state tournament, but was a member of a state championship team in 1972.

Frisch went on to wrestle for Worthington Community College and St. Cloud State, both in Minnesota. He came up one win short of All-American honors for both schools.

Frisch did not fall short as an official. By his third year of officiating, in 1979, he was working both the Junior College National Championships and the NCAA Division II Championships

He was standing on the center of the mat calling NCAA Division I tournaments as an official by the time he turned 30.

Frisch was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla., in 1998.

Frisch said he adheres to the same basic guidelines as an official that he did when he first started.

"The biggest key is to hustle and always be in good position to make a call," he said. "You need to really stay focused and don't ever take your eyes off the wrestlers. You can't get distracted by what the coaches or the fans might be saying."

So how does Frisch deal with calling a NCAA finals match when all eyes from a sellout crowd of 18,000 fans are fixed on the elevated platform on Saturday night?

"It's really nerve-wracking walking up on that stage," he said. "But once you blow the whistle, for the most part, you can tune everything out and just focus on the wrestling. You just have to focus on the two guys who are wrestling, on red and green, and keep your attention right there."

Being a top collegiate official is not easy. Especially when you realize you can't make a living as an official, since the work is part-time and seasonal.

Frisch works as a consultant for an engineering firm in Colorado Springs, where he has been a resident for the past 25 years. He burns up about one-third of his vacation time each year so he can travel to officiate at wrestling events.

Free time has been a precious, and rare, commodity during wrestling seasons for Frisch. He's been involved in the sport for more than 40 years as a wrestler and official.

A recent weekend saw Frisch fly to Nebraska on a Saturday, work the Nebraska-Oklahoma dual on Sunday afternoon in Lincoln, fly back home on Sunday night and then be back in the office at work on Monday morning.

Frisch and his wife, Becky, who have been married 33 years, have three children and six grandchildren.

Their daughter, Stephanie, 30, is a teacher and is the head girls basketball coach at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs. As a player, she led Doherty to a state championship and was named most valuable player of the state tournament. She played for New Mexico State and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

Their son, Tony, 28, was a Combat Search and Air Rescue Swimmer in the U.S. Navy for 10 years. He did three tours in the Middle East. He now works for Colorado Springs Utilities.

Their daughter, Heidi, 24, graduated from Northern Colorado and now works at a drug and alcohol counseling center in Colorado Springs.

It will be a homecoming of sorts this weekend for Frisch at the Junior College Nationals in Rochester, Minn. A number of his family and friends, including his wife, will be on hand for the event.

"I can't say enough about the support of my wife," Frisch said. "We got married in college, so I've been involved with wrestling the entire time we've been together. My wife definitely deserves a break from wrestling."

Frisch said he will miss the camaraderie with the other officials.

"It's a great fraternity," he said. "I still have ongoing friendships with officials who retired 15 or 20 years ago. I've developed a lot of great personal relationships where it's even more fun to go to Division I nationals to see the guys than it is to referee the tournament."

Frisch's demeanor has rubbed off on other officials.

"Dave doesn't have an ego at all - he's very selfless," Dyche said. "You see a lot of younger officials seeking out Dave for help and instruction because he's a great official and because he is so supportive of the other officials. He's a class act all the way. We're sure going to miss him."

Frisch will call his final match at his 24th and final NCAA Championships on March 22 in St. Louis.

"I feel blessed by God to have the opportunities I've been fortunate enough to have in this sport," Frisch said. "When I started out doing this, I never dreamed I would have the opportunities to do what I've been able to do in wrestling. Being an official is something I've always been passionate about and something I've always enjoyed doing."

Frisch's last bout as an official is scheduled to take place in the NCAA finals on an elevated platform before a sellout crowd on a Saturday night.

Not a bad way to go out for a guy who started officiating wrestling matches just to make a little extra cash.

"The wrestling mat has been my home for a long, long time," he said. "It's a place where I feel comfortable. I'm going to miss it."
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