Gagne set a standard for excellence in Minnesota wrestling that few have been able to match
It’s a sad day for Gopher Athletics with news of the passing of Gopher Wrestling great Verne Gagne. Gagne passed away Tuesday after an extended battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.
“Verne represents what’s great about the University of Minnesota and our wrestling program,” said Director of Athletics Norwood Teague. “He was an incredible athlete — Big Ten champ, national champ, Olympian — but he also selflessly served his country, took academics seriously and used the opportunity provided through college athletics to lead a successful life and give back to his alma mater. Verne’s legacy is a lasting example our student-athletes can all aspire to achieve.”
Gagne came to the University of Minnesota in 1943 after a standout prep career in football, baseball and wrestling at Robbinsdale High School in suburban Minneapolis. Following a rookie year during which he earned All-Big Ten honors as a football player and won the Big Ten title as a wrestler, Gagne enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in the military for several years. After his service was complete, Gagne returned to Minnesota and picked up his academic and athletic pursuits without missing a beat, particularly on the wrestling mat.
With one Big Ten title in hand from before his time in the Marines, Gagne swept through the next three conference tournaments (1947-49), making him the first and only Gopher to win four Big Ten championships. Gagne also earned all All-America honors in ’47, ’48 and ’49, first by placing third at heavyweight in the 1947 NCAA tournament before winning national titles in the next two seasons, at 191 lbs. in 1948 then at heavyweight in 1949. Gagne was Minnesota’s first three-time All-American, a feat that wasn’t matched until Larry Zilverberg accomplished it in the mid-1970s. Gagne also was Minnesota’s first two-time NCAA champion, a spot in Gopher Wrestling history he would hold alone for a half-century before Tim Hartung won titles in 1998 and 1999.
Gagne left a philanthropic legacy with Gopher Athletics as well. Specific to wrestling, the team’s leadership award is named after Gagne and a scholarship awarded annually to a Gopher wrestler also bears his name. Gagne also contributed to other areas of the athletics department, including gifts to the student-athlete weight room at the Bierman Field Athletic Building.
Though he had the opportunity to play for the NFL’s Chicago Bears following college, Gagne chose a career in professional wrestling instead. Gagne became well-known around the world for his professional wrestling exploits over the next several decades, not only as a 16-time World Heavyweight Champion across various pro wrestling organizations, but also as the owner and promoter of the American Wrestling Association (AWA). Gagne is credited with training and promoting many of the most famous names in professional wrestling from the 1960s, 70s and 80s.