“Do You Want to Fight?” -Larry Lee

  • Most everyone knows about your son Spencer, but tell us about the rest of your family?

Spencer’s mother Cathy and I got married for 33-years ago. We met in France before the start of the fall semester of my junior year in college. 

Funny, but true story… Cathy and I were athletes in the Olympic sport of Judo. I was picked up at the airport in France by one of the coaches. He drove me straight to a workout. Little did I know that during my first hour in France, I was going to meet my future wife. During that first workout, I rotated out after a hard go and was sitting on the side of the mat stretching. I was looking down at the mat, and I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t have a good practice. 

Cathy walked up to me, looked down, and asked in a strong French accent, “Do you want to fight?” 

I looked up, smiled, and said, “Sure.” 

It wasn’t until I stood up that I realized how small she was. Cathy competed at both 99lbs and 106lbs during her career. We started to randori or wrestle live. I looked around as we gripped each other. I was truly not giving her much respect; the next thing I knew, she exploded. She dropped to her knees between my legs and stood straight up, with me straddling her shoulders. 

I thought to myself, “Oh ##…”

She slammed me on my back. In Judo, it was an IPPON or a full point throw or in simple terms—match over. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. She let me have it on that first throw.  

Spencer has a twin sister Gabrielle (Gaby). She is a junior at Coe, is an excellent student, carries straight A’s, and is an impressive student leader. Gaby serves on our Student Senate and makes sure I do my job on behalf of our students. Matter of fact, during our first Student Senate meeting this year, she walked over to me and said, “Dad, at Senate, it’s all business, no father-daughter.” She smiled and walked off, such an incredible young lady. Gaby also enjoys singing, acting, and is a good artist.  

Cathy’s father recently passed away, but her mother and sister live in France. I have brothers that live in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.   

  • According to the Coe College Website, your title is Vice President for Finance and Administration. Can you tell us a bit about your job, how the job came about etc. ?

I’ve been in higher education administration since 1996, having worked at the University of Denver, Allegheny College, Carnegie Mellon University, and now Coe College. People ask how I arrived in Cedar Rapids. Everyone assumes that it’s because of Spencer, but in actuality, it’s not. It’s nice the way it turned out. I’m glad you asked.  

We love living in Iowa and Cedar Rapids. Cathy often tells me that of all the places we’ve lived, this is her favorite. The term “Iowa Nice “is real. We love everything about the community.  

To answer the question, I have to go back a few years. I got hired at Allegheny College, which was 3-hours from where my father lived. It was wonderful because he was in declining health. He was diagnosed with a terminal issue at the time of the job opening at Allegheny. I wanted to get closer to him to help support him during his last few years. That’s what got me initially interested in the position. I loved working at the University of Denver. I applied, and the individual that hired me for the job at Allegheny was David McInally. We worked together for almost 12-years at the school. I have deep admiration for him as a leader. When he was hired at Coe as the President, we started talking about the possibilities of me joining him at Coe if something became available. After Dave left Allegheny to assume the President’s position at Coe, I was recruited to a position at Carnegie Mellon University, a world-class institution in Pittsburgh. It was a great move for my entire family, and Pittsburgh was a great city as well. 

Over the years, Dave and I touched base a few times, and I visited the Coe campus a few times before formally joining the college. I truly fell in love, but I had a good position at Carnegie Mellon. The kids were still in high school, so the timing was bad. But I was always interested in working with him again, and I was really excited about Coe. It really is a special place that provides a world-class experience that is congruent with my own values.  

Dave contacted me about a role similar to the one I held at Allegheny during the kids Junior year. I decided I wanted to work for him again. However, it was important to me for Spencer to pick a school based on what he wanted. I tried to keep this decision to myself. We didn’t tell the kids that I was going to accept the position at Coe. Spencer narrowed his choices to Iowa, Penn State or Ohio State. I wanted to allow Gaby and Spencer to choose their schools in whatever part of the country they chose. We wanted to wait until they made their choices before I told them.  

Spencer chose Iowa. At the time of his decision, Gaby visited Carnegie Mellon and Penn State. She wanted to visit the University of Iowa after Spencer decided to attend. She was interested in the possibility of being near her brother.  

Gaby took a tour of the Iowa campus, but it didn’t feel right. We visited Coe that afternoon. She visited a mid-size school with Carnegie Mellon and two larger public schools with the University of Iowa and Penn State. Visiting a small school would give her a helpful comparison to determine what size or type of school she wanted. I also knew in the back of my mind, that I was going to be joining Coe, so one could only hope she liked it… After her visit to campus, she got in the car and announced the search was over. She loved the college, and it just felt right. She loved the study abroad options, the size, and the campus. She was as excited as we’ve ever seen her. We told her to take her time, to wait for a few weeks and see how she felt. It was early for her in the selection process, but she was convinced. So, about two weeks later at dinner, after Gaby told us she was interested in attending Coe. She already applied for admission. She asked us, with a very serious face, if we could make it work financially at Coe.  

On that day, I asked the kids if they minded us moving to Iowa, as a family. I asked Gaby if she would mind attending a school where her father worked. I told them about the job. 

Gaby smiled and said, “Dad, that would be awesome.” 

It’s been exactly that for all of us—awesome. It is ironic how it worked out. 

When I told my supervisor at Carnegie Mellon, she couldn’t believe it. She told me, “How could you pass this opportunity up?” It seemed like everything fell into place.  

  • You have a son that is one of the top high school recruits in the country– walk us through the END of the decision-making process–It gets narrowed down to a couple of different schools — what happens from there? What role did you and your wife play in the decision–or did you leave it entirely to him?

It was important to us that Spencer made his own decision. I’m a spreadsheet type of person, so I helped him do research on each school. I answered questions for him. We looked at academics, majors, graduation rates, rankings, etc. I put every factor he considered into a spreadsheet to refer to after each visit. When he would come home, he would talk, and I would type up notes so that he wouldn’t forget. He quickly narrowed his choices to Penn State and Iowa. I used to go for walks with Spencer, and we would talk about where he was at in the process. Again, to be candid, he waffled more than a few times. Toward the end, he would ask me, “what do you think, where do you think I should go, do you have a favorite?” I would tell him that it’s not my choice; it’s yours. 

He would often say, “Why won’t you tell me what you think.” 

I told him that I couldn’t because it has to be his decision.  

I do want to say that he was under so much pressure to pick Penn State. He heard it from his teachers, classmates, neighbors, etc. Coach Sanderson was relentless as well. Because Penn State was so close, Spencer visited the campus six times during the process. He visited Iowa three times. The Penn State staff often found their way to his school or Young Gun workouts to observe or to be a presence. Once, when Spencer visited Penn State, he walked into the practice room and found every athlete on the team, including the coaches, wearing pajama pants in recognition of his visit. As you know, in high school, Spencer always wore pajama pants to warm-up. It was a great move and spoke to how hard Penn State worked to recruit him.  

Because the rules aren’t what they are now, we paid for each visit to the schools. We wanted Spencer to have full access, so our role was to provide that access and support him as he went through his decision-making process.  

  • So obviously we know how the story ended up– and Hawkeye fans are thrilled to say the least- how did it play out– did Spencer come home from practice one day and say– Dad– I’m choosing the Hawkeyes?

No one knows this, but he did go back and forth. Every time he would lean one way or the other, I told him to sleep on it and give a little time.  

He would often come back and say, “I don’t know.” 

He truly struggled. One day he told me he had made his decision. He said something that I will never forget. I asked, “Which one?”  

He told me, “Choosing Penn State was the easy decision, but Iowa was the right decision.” 

I asked him what he meant, and he said, “Going to Penn State would make everyone happy. I love wrestling for the state of PA and I’ve always been a PA boy. I’ve wrestled for the state at every level, Schoolboy, Cadet, Junior, PIAA’s. Penn State has a great team and will be the favorites to win team titles. I know everyone on the Penn State team. I’ve been teammates with a bunch of those guys through Young Guns. I get along with all of them. I’d be closer to home and you guys. It would be so much easier for you to attend my matches. I was a roommate on my first world team with Bo Nickal, on another world team with both Mark Hall and Anthony Cassar. But for me to achieve my long-term goals, I know that Iowa is the right choice even if it’s not as comfortable. Terry and Tom coach each person to their talents and skills. When I visited and watched practices, it was apparent that they are the right coaches for me. I know that for me to have a chance at 4 NCAA titles, and World and Olympic Teams. The easy choice isn’t the right choice. Dad, I’m going to become a Hawkeye.”   

  • How have you liked living in Iowa so far and tell us from a parent perspective how it feels to basically turn your son over, in a way, to a coaching staff at the University?  

We love Iowa. We love the outdoors and easy access to parks, bike trails, and lakes. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City are both great cities, so it’s been a perfect fit. As far as turning over your son to a coaching staff—it’s easy when you trust them. We trust them unconditionally. 

The best compliment that I can give to the Iowa Coaching staff is that through the entire recruiting process and it was an intense process; they were the only staff that never, not one time, said anything derogatory or negative about another program or coach. 

They have always been totally transparent, honest, and are simply good people. They have the best interest of the student-athlete at the forefront of each of their decisions. So I sleep well at night with our son being mentored by that staff.  

  • With two NCAA titles in his first two years, they are many interviews, articles, accolades, and positive press that come along with that– As a fan that stuff is awesome to read. With that said– even a national champ gets questioned and sometimes the articles or “Internet chatter” are not slanted in such a positive way, particularly after a loss and such. How hard is that to block out as a parent? 

Great question. We talk about it often as parents.

 I love the increased coverage of the sport of wrestling. I love the reporting, the access to video and matches—it’s all wonderful and a step forward for the sport. I do believe that within the heightened coverage, it’s sometimes forgotten that these young men are not professional athletes in the UFC, NFL or NBA, etc. Many parents from many teams have told me that the harsh critiques are hard to listen to—especially when it gets personal and is mostly uninformed. My most significant disappointment is when the media goes negative, cast aspersions, and throws out accusations without the facts. They do this in an apparent effort to draw attention to their program or website. Last year, so much was said that was inaccurate, misleading, and sensationalized by the media that I firmly believe it crossed the line of being appropriate and responsible. It’s easy to say, ‘don’t read that stuff,’ but that’s easier said than done.  

Many of the most critical don’t have the experience or perspective to know what it’s like to lace up those shoes and wrestle at the highest level against the best competition in this nation; whether sick, injured or during finals week, staying up all night writing a paper or cramming for tests. We watch them on the computer or TV wrestle, but it’s easy to forget that they are, in fact, student-athletes balancing both school and sport. I wish the folks in the media that are providing great coverage for our sport would broadcast, report, predict, rank, debate who’s going to win etc., but do we need the negative aspersions or misleading headlines about these students to draw attention without the facts being known? I know many parents agree that the direction of the negative comments is not in the best interest of the sport nor the athletes.  

  • I have been there in the arena to watch Spencer win his two NCAA titles, and I can tell you I’m a bundle of nerves right before those title matches start. You are mat side and look so composed– How in the heck do you do it ?? 

My wife and I are the same when it comes to this point. When he’s healthy, we’re fairly relaxed. But I admit to being more nervous than Cathy. All we’ve ever wanted for him was for him to be able to compete to his full potential and then to let the results take care of themselves. In this sport, two athletes walk on the mat, and only one is going to get his hand raised. That’s the sport, and that’s beautiful. Of course, you want your son to win. But I think every young man wins, in a way, that walks in that circle, because it’s a great training ground for life after the sport. When we’re nervous, and a bundle of nerves is when we know he’s competing sick, injured or far less than 100% for a myriad of reasons. Spencer will never use anything for an excuse, it won’t happen, and he has never used sickness or an injury to explain a performance, but we know what’s going on behind the scenes, so that’s when it’s harder to watch.  

  • I have heard this story a couple times– but I don’t think a lot of our fans have heard it. Sounds like there was a time or two when Spencer grabbed his Mom in a playful way to wrestle– First tell us her background a bit–then describe what happened.

There are not many mothers that were a workout partner for their son, but Cathy was a great drill partner for Spencer when he was younger. She was awesome for him to work out with and they both loved it.  

I think most have heard about the time Cathy showed up to his high school practice. They started scrapping and Cathy caught him in an arm bar and tapped him out. I get this call in the afternoon from his high school coach during practice time. I was in a meeting, but Coach never called me. When I realized it was during practice, my first thought was something must have happened, so I took the call. As soon as I answered it, I heard yelling and screaming in the background and his coach, said, your wife just tapped Spencer out in front of the whole team! It was great, but the story no one has heard is this… 

Spencer’s sister Gaby played softball for years, and we were at a game in Saegertown PA. Cathy and sat on the bleachers behind the backstop watching the game. Spencer and a group of wrestlers walk by. Cathy was sitting in the first row. Spencer approached her and started playfully messing with her and pulling her to stand up. She did, and they started going a takedown right there behind the backstop, (Spencer was in Junior High at the time), well this was a big game and there were a lot of folks at this game. The next thing is they were both on the ground and Cathy comes up with a rear naked choke and tapped him out and everyone went crazy. So, he’s been tapped out twice by his mother in public with both an armbar and a choke.  

Lastly– I just wanted to mention that you have obviously done a great job raising your family– Spencer has a knack for saying the right thing at the right time and is a great ambassador for the University of Iowa and the sport of Wrestling! We look forward to seeing you matside again in March– #gohawks

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