Through no fault of his own, Tim Hartung wasn’t an eye-catching prospect as a high school wrestler. Rather, Hartung was recruited by baseball and football coaches from smaller schools during his final year of high school.
But the Gophers senior wanted nothing more than to be recognized as a Division I athlete, and he realized that only wrestling could raise him to this level.
Five years later the late bloomer has achieved his goal — and then some. As No. 2 Minnesota battles for the Big Ten title this weekend, the returning 190-pound national champion will look to earn his third conference title and a place in the program’s record book as the only wrestler to do so.
“You can’t look past anybody, but it seems to be a two-guy race,” said Hartung, referring to 2nd-seeded Lee Fullhart from Iowa. “It would be real surprising if one of us didn’t win it.”
A third Big Ten crown would complement the rest of Hartung’s career. The nation’s top-ranked 197-pounder brought home a national title last season and has gone undefeated at 31-0 this season.
The only goals left for Hartung to meet seem to be a second national title (the last Minnesota wrestler to repeat was Verne Gagne in 1948-49) and to guide Minnesota to its first team trophy.
“That would put him in a real elite field,” Gophers assistant Joe Russell said. “You could label him as one of the all-time greatest wrestlers in the history of collegiate wrestling.”
The notion of Hartung as a national icon seemed improbable, if not impossible, during his high school years. He passed for over 1,500 yards as a quarterback at Durand High School in Wisconsin, and was offered a full football scholarship to St. Cloud State.
But a strong showing at the high school national tournament in Pittsburgh added to Hartung’s options. Hartung attracted collegiate wrestling suitors by defeating competitors who had already earned full rides and finishing third.
In 1994, Hartung entered the Gophers wrestling room and built his own reputation among the nation’s top-ranked incoming class.
“There wasn’t anybody pushing and teaching me in high school. When I got here, there was this source of knowledge that I’d never been around,” Hartung said. “I can remember taking a thumping everyday and thinking, ‘Man, the next five years are going to be pretty damn hard.'”
Hartung debuted as a Gopher starter during his freshman year. Filling in for Zac Taylor, who was vying for a spot on the Olympic team, Hartung pulled together a successful season — posting a 24-18 mark, placing sixth at the Big Ten tournament and splitting four matches at the NCAAs.
“I was always second-guessing myself,” said Hartung of the 1995-96 season. “I was wondering where I should be. I didn’t earn the spot; I was thrown into it.”
Over the next summer, Hartung bulked up 20 pounds and escaped mediocrity. As a sophomore, Hartung earned All-American honors, winning the conference title and finishing third at the national tournament.
“He’s like one of my favorite stories,” junior Delaney Berger said. “He had a successful high school career, but he wasn’t a complete blue chip. If I were a kid I’d be thinking, ‘Gosh, man, you really can do it.'”
Over the seasons, the kinesiology major has found a way to pad his credentials. While he might not be overpowering on the mat, Hartung’s need to excel as a high school competitor has led the way to a career as one of the nation’s most accomplished collegiate athletes.
“If anything, I’m a solid performer,” Hartung said. “I wear my guys down. I’m not flashy. I just do what it takes.”