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Silver and golden: How Herb Carlson and an array of heavy hitters led Idaho’s 1950 boxing team to national glory

Herb Carlson unwrapped his future at the age of 6.

It may not have been conventional for young boys to find boxing gloves under the Christmas tree, but it’s also important to consider both time and place: 1931 in the Silver Valley of North Idaho. Carlson had a pair of fresh gloves and two sparring partners in his younger brothers, so it was easy to catch the boxing fever that spread like smoke through the small community of Wallace in the 1930s.

Now 96 years old, a resident of Nampa, Idaho, and one of the last living ties to the golden era of boxing at the University of Idaho, Carlson still remembers how he found the sport that placed on him the center of a national stage less than 15 years later as one of the most dominant and decorated boxers in NCAA history.

“I had two brothers and my dad gave me a set of boxing gloves for Christmas,” Carlson said by phone earlier this week. “That was our present and of course we all used it for a long time.”

Web archives, newspaper clippings and grainy photos can fill in most of what Carlson doesn’t remember about Idaho’s 1950 boxing season – one in which the school shared the team national championship with a nearby rival, Gonzaga, and one in which Carlson captured his third NCAA individual title. Only eight others in the short but rich history of intercollegiate boxing (1932-60) won at least three titles and Idaho’s success as a program stacks up with the best of them, too. The Vandals won three team crowns, second only to Wisconsin’s eight.

Without the financial means to support the program, Idaho dropped boxing as a varsity sport in 1954 and the NCAA eliminated it for good in 1960 when a Wisconsin boxer died in the ring.

“It was to me, it was very sad to me,” said Frank Echevarria, a member of the 1950 team who won an individual championship at 119 pounds two years later. “Everybody knew me as a fighter. That’s the only reputation I had was a boxer, I should say. Because there’s a difference between boxing and fighting and my reputation was as a boxer. I got a lot of recognition for it and all my friends around here knew me as that.”

Even though the sport ceased to exist, both in Moscow and across the country, the legacy of the Vandals’ boxing program remains robust, and Hall of Famers like Carlson and Echevarria never miss an opportunity to weigh in on a distant, distinguished era of UI boxing.

•••

Competitive boxing took a backseat for Carlson from 1943-47, a few years before he donned UI’s satin robes.

Well, to some extent.

During that time, Carlson served as a bomber pilot in World War II, spending most of his time in Florida. While he completed basic training, Carlson had occasional opportunities to box on the side – “four or five fights and (I) won all of them,” he recalled. Then, worrying pilots would be unfit to fly if they sustained boxing-related injuries, the Air Force introduced rules that forced Carlson and others out of the ring.

“You’d get hurt,” he said, “and they said they had too much money involved in it so they had to end it.”

As soon as Carlson returned home, UI coach Frank Young wasted no time adding him to his 1947 squad. When Carlson left the service, one of his first side gigs included helping coach Wallace’s high school boxing team and tutoring a pair of brothers named Leonard and Norman Walker, who’d later team with Carlson to win the 1950 championship.

The glory that UI’s boxers captured during the school’s golden era was the result of Young identifying the area’s best talent, often in small Idaho towns like Wallace, Potlatch and Jerome. Equally, it was a product of the dogged work Vandals boxers put in behind the scenes – and before sunrise.

Carlson’s mornings began early with long, chilly runs that conditioned him for the marathon boxing matches he’d have to slog through during the season.

“I think running is the most important thing in college,” he said. “I did it and some of the other guys, we’d get up at 6 or 7 a.m. and run and go to class after that. I ran every day for four years. And I was glad when I quit.

“If you’re not in good shape, you don’t stand a chance. I tried to always be in good shape. I didn’t drink or anything in those days. I made up for it later, but I didn’t (then).”

The morning cardio sessions also represented a love-hate relationship for Echevarria, who vowed to never lose a match on account of exhaustion. Fighting at 125 pounds, and later at 119, Echevarria strung together eight consecutive wins to open the 1950 season, losing only to San Jose State’s Mac Martinez and Minnesota’s Neil Oftshun – the boxers who’d combine for the next three 125-pound NCAA titles.

“It wasn’t real easy at all,” Echevarria said. “I’d run 10 miles every day. Nobody could see me in the morning when I was out running and they were still sleeping or drinking coffee.

“It wasn’t just a jog. I’d sprint just as fast as I could then jog till I got my wind back, then sprint again just as long as I could, so when I crawled in the ring, whatever pace the guy wanted to go, it didn’t matter.”

Carlson was a powerful, offensive-minded boxer who attacked opponents in a way that “a defense was rendered unnecessary,” according to the book “Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team.” In 1950, the slugger employed a more intuitive approach to beat Syracuse’s Jim Rollier for the 165-pound championship, providing his account of the match in the novel “The Six-Minute Fraternity.”

“When you’re young, you get cocky,” he said. “I knocked out a few guys and then, pretty soon, I was trying to knock out everybody. That particular year Frank Young, my coach, tried to convince me that I was wrong, and I was. I started trying to box, not trying to hurt anybody, just win the fight. And winning was easier then and I felt better about myself, and that’s the way I tried to fight (Rollier).”

Wisconsin scraped by Idaho in a Feb. 17, 1950, duel that was held in the Badgers’ gymnasium, but the Vandals won every other regular-season match. If there was ever any debate as to which of the eventual co-national champions was a more worthy recipient of the crown, UI handed Gonzaga 5-2 and 5-3 losses earlier that winter.

Still, history books designate both as national champs. UI’s boxers, who’d developed a rivalry with GU that was healthy when they were away from the mats and passionate when they were on it, found it was difficult to settle for the shared crown.

“Of course it was,” Echevarria said. “We were rivals right there, 98 miles apart from Gonzaga to the University of Idaho and we had many fights. Every time we teamed up with them, they were tough, tough, tough.”

The NCAA awarded a split title because UI and GU scored 18 points apiece at the national title, hosted that year by Penn State. Idaho sent a five-man contingent to the 1950 tournament, featuring Echevarria (125 pounds), DeForest Tovey (130), Norm Walker (135), Len Walker (145) and Carlson (165). Len Walker and Carlson both advanced through to the semis and eventually claimed national titles, but they were matched by Gonzaga, which had individual champs in Eli Thomas (155) and big Carl Maxey (175).

•••

Around the same time Carlson found his first pair of boxing gloves under a Christmas tree , Echevarria suffered a life-altering accident 400 miles south in his hometown of Blackfoot, Idaho.

At 5 years old, Echevarria was helping out on the 220-acre farm his family owned when he got his left thumb stuck between the cable and pulley of a hay derrick. The accident ground all five fingers off his left hand. Because the bone on his thumb didn’t completely tear off, that was the only finger that grew back.

“Well, I did (adapt).” Echevarria, now 92 years old, said. “You do what you have to do. I got used to it. First, it was because I’d never used my left hand at all. Everybody would make fun of my left hand, so I’d cover it. Kept it covered. And nobody knew I even had it when I went to college.”

It made Echevarria anxious in social situations and he routinely avoided school dances, explaining, “That’s the hand you held when you danced, to the girl.” But it never made Echevarria vulnerable in the ring. He needed only six fingers to conquer the NCAA’s featherweight division in 1952, outlasting longtime nemesis and previously undefeated Martinez of San Jose State en route to winning the national crown.

Echevarria always aspired to box collegiately at Idaho State, the hometown school, but legendary coach Milton “Dubby” Holt – the namesake of ISU’s Holt Arena – refused to come watch him at local matches.

“Idaho State were the Intermountain champions and stuff, but Dubby Holt lived right here and didn’t waste his time of day to ever come and talk to me at any match or nothing, ever,” Echevarria said.

“I really wanted to go here, but they didn’t spend time to even talk to me at all. … Frank (Young) was good to me. … He came to the house and talked to me and my parents and talked me into coming up there, and I’m really glad he was. He did it and he was good to me and put up with a lot of bunk from me and vice versa, but we made it through.”

The 1950 roster was littered with boxers who’d pick up national acclaim and three who’d go on to win individual NCAA crowns, but pound-for-pound, none was more heralded and talented than Carlson.

“I always said (the toughest) was Herb and we had several good fighters,” Echevarria said.

Carlson, whose college education was funded by the GI bill, relished fight nights not only because opponents rarely stood a chance against his big hooks and quick jabs. Boxers adhered to strict fasting measures through the week in order to make weight – “if you were a half-pound over, you were out,” Carlson said – which meant they didn’t skimp on meals when weigh-ins finished.

“The only thing good about the fighting was we always got a big nice high-priced steak before the fight,” he said. “It would be early in the day because it would have to digest.”

With UI’s football and men’s basketball teams mired in mediocrity, Carlson and the Vandals’ boxers became the school’s top attraction. If Memorial Gym allowed 5,000 fans into UI home boxing matches, it wasn’t uncommon for 5,300 to show up. The Spokane Armory, home to Gonzaga’s nationally prominent boxing team, would fill up in a similar manner, especially if the Vandals were in town.

“Of course, the gymnasium in Moscow is only (5,000) or 6,000,” Carlson said, “but it would be filled right to the roof and same in Spokane.”

•••

Life after boxing came quickly for many of UI’s leather-pushers. Carlson declined opportunities to box professionally, but while he trained to try out for the Olympics, he spent a summer living and sparring with GU’s Maxey in the basement of a Spokane home owned by former Bulldogs coach Joey August – the brother of legendary UI coach Louie August.

“We’d box in the morning and we’d box in the evening,” Carlson said. “I thought I had him down pat in a fight in the ring at the Gonzaga stadium and he was a completely different guy. He was pretty good. He was way bigger. I’m not that big.”

Echevarria had pro boxing aspirations, but those were shot down by his father, who instead urged him to take over the family farm in Blackfoot. Turning down the chance to operate a larger farm in Moscow, Echevarria, the last Idaho boxer to win an individual championship before the sport was cut, moved home and still resides in the small southern Idaho town with his wife, Norma. The two own one home downtown and have another on their 220-acre farm.

“The most important thing I learned (from boxing) was respect for the other guy,” Echevarria said. “It didn’t matter who I was going to fight. I made it a point never to brag.”

Len Walker moved home to Wallace and eventually died in a mining accident. His brother, Norman, died in 2011 at 83 while living at the Life Care Center of Post Falls.

Carlson turned 96 earlier this year. He still shovels his own snow, mows his own lawn and, every once in a while, the most decorated boxer in school history will try to summon a few memories of Idaho’s banner season in 1950.

“I occasionally have memories of it. Some will pop up in your mind or you’ll hear it or something,” Carlson said. “Most of the guys, they were real good. All the boxers, as far as I was concerned, were real nice guys.”

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