Rich Lawinger, former Pointer and UW’s first NCAA wrestling champion, passes away

Rich Lawinger, who was the first University of Wisconsin wrestler to win an NCAA championship and then became a respected high school coach, died Tuesday. He was 67.

Lawinger recently suffered complications from heart surgery, his friend and former Badgers coach Duane Kleven said.

A member of both the UW Athletics Hall of Fame and the Wisconsin Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Lawinger followed his competitive wrestling career by coaching at River Valley High School from 1974 to 1980.

He came to UW with the goal of becoming the wrestling program’s first national champion, said Kleven, who tried to recruit Lawinger to UW-Oshkosh but then coached him with the Badgers after taking over for late coach George Martin.

Lawinger was the national runner-up at 150 pounds in 1972-73, then dropped down to 142 pounds for his senior season. He defeated Steve Randall of Oklahoma State for the 1974 NCAA championship, completing a 39-1 campaign.

“He was very focused on what he came for,” Kleven said. “Everything was pointed to that.”

A Big Ten Conference champion in both his junior and senior seasons, Lawinger was a three-time team MVP and ranks fourth in UW history with an .882 career winning percentage (130-17-1).

He also won a bronze medal in freestyle at the 1973 World University Games.

Born July 30, 1952, Lawinger grew up on a dairy farm near Mineral Point, according to a feature written ahead of his 2016 hall of fame induction. He didn’t start wrestling until joining the powerhouse Mineral Point High School program led by Al Bauman, but he finished an undefeated 1969-70 senior season by winning the state title at 145 pounds.

As a coach at River Valley, Lawinger had the state’s No. 1 dual meet team in 1978 and 1979. The team finished as state runner-up in 1978.

He was inducted into the George Martin Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1983.

Lawinger was a “terrific coach” at River Valley in Spring Green who could have one day become the Badgers’ leader if he stayed in coaching, Kleven said.

“He changed the entire town,” Kleven said. “They had big crowds for matches. He promoted the crowds. All their boosters had black hats.”

Lawinger’s 1974 NCAA championship started the Badgers on the path to seven more in the following four years, three of them by Lee Kemp, the school’s first four-time All-American and only three-time NCAA champion.

To Kleven, who coached UW from 1971 to 1982, Kemp was the only comparison to Lawinger in terms of focus and drive, sometimes to the point of stubbornness.

“He knew it from the minute he stepped in the door at Wisconsin that he was going to be their first national champion,” Kleven said of Lawinger. “No doubt about it.”

Story written by Todd Milewski and originally published in the Wisconsin State Journal.