The computers had just spewed out the grades earned by University of Iowa wrestlers for the semester, including the efforts of one student-athlete who had a D and three Fs. The team's academic adviser was ready to fold, spindle and mutilate the young man, but Coach Gary Kurdelmeier was calm. "I knew he was spending way too much time on that one course," he said. "I told this kid, 'If you don't take the final exams, some professors will count that against you.' "
Even though Kurdelmeier could allow himself a bit of black humor in this instance, since the youngster in question is not a leading member of his team, it is illustrative of the uncertainties that have dogged him as he has worked to turn Iowa into a big-time wrestling power. Proof that he is succeeding despite some lackadaisical classroom performances and injuries came last week when collegiate wrestling in general—and Iowa wrestling in particular—had one of its most glittering moments.
It occurred when Iowa, ranked No. 1 in the nation, faced No. 2 Iowa State in front of what officials of both schools believe was the biggest crowd (14,293) ever to watch a college wrestling match. Hundreds of other would-be spectators were left outside the packed ISU Hilton Coliseum to enjoy the wonders of a January night on the plains. The hero was Iowa farm boy Mike McGivern, who wrestled better than he can. Competing at 158 pounds, he managed a dramatic 6-6 tie with State's Pete Galea, a tough New Yorker who was supposed to dust McGivern without breaking a sweat. McGivern's draw propelled Iowa to a 19-14 win and left him positively stunned. "Gee, I'm pretty surprised," he said. "In fact, I'm very surprised."
So was Iowa State, which had figured to show the upstarts from down the road what wrestling is all about. State long ago became accustomed to winning; in the last seven years, it has won the NCAA championship four times. On seven other occasions, ISU has finished second. Iowa has won the NCAA only once—last year—and folks at Iowa State do not hide their feeling that it probably was a fluke. Now it is time to junk that theory. Iowa is for real.
January 19, 1976
Merely winning another national title would not entirely satisfy Kurdelmeier, who wants an Iowa-style wave of wrestling popularity to sweep the country. "What I hope is that wrestling will get important enough that they'll start firing coaches," he says. And the aforementioned problems of building a repeat winner have offered plenty of chances for Kurdelmeier to get a pink slip.
Last year the Hawkeyes had a freshman heavyweight, John Bowlsby, who amassed a 31-6-2 record and placed second in the Big Ten and third in the NCAA championships. Understandably Kurdelmeier did not bother to recruit any new heavies for his squad. Now he wishes he had, since supremely confident Bowlsby—he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team when he was a high school sophomore—decided to play a little varsity football this season. A troublesome knee was aggravated, and shortly thereafter it was wrecked during a wrestling match. Now Bowlsby is picking up towels. He may be back later in the year but that is small consolation for Kurdelmeier, who said before the season began, "Injury at heavyweight would be a big blow."
As a sophomore, 190-pounder Greg Stevens had finished second in both the Big Ten and the NCAA championships. So 190 was a secure position for the Hawkeyes, right? Of course not. Stevens also tore up a knee.
But wrestlers' problems are not all injuries, and they are not all at Iowa. State has had its share. Hotshot freshman Kelly Ward was doing splendidly in a weight class (142 pounds) at which the Cyclones are thin. He was undefeated in four early-season dual meets, went home to Maryland for Christmas vacation and returned 27 pounds overweight. He had difficulty finding any clothes in his closet that still fit, much less getting back down to his wrestling weight. Against Iowa, Ward's replacement Dean Sherman was whomped 16-1.
All this does not mean that the two Iowa schools have wrestling teams populated exclusively by the lame of limb and halt of mind. Quite the contrary. Both have so much talent that such adversities are generally overcome.
To push the Hawkeyes to the top, Kurdelmeier has recruited some of the country's best talent, including an assistant coach named Dan Gable. The Fabled Gable, who won a gold medal at the Munich Olympics and 181 straight matches during his high school and college careers, competed at Iowa State. But when it came time for him to find steady work, State suddenly came down with a case of the check-with-us-tomorrows. "I waited three months, then I just had to find something else," says Gable. Iowa was glad to oblige. Iowa State subsequently tried and failed to get him back.
The star of Iowa wrestling is Chuck Yagla, who won the NCAA title at 150 pounds last year and agrees that he could be described as an all-conference goody-goody. "Yeah, well, I guess I don't party as much or drink as much as some of the others," he says. "I try to wrestle for the glory of God."
Yagla admits there is also a more earthly reason he wrestles. "There's a lot of satisfaction grabbing somebody and doing something to him that he doesn't want you to do and him not being able to stop you," he says. Yagla gets his way almost every time out. He lost twice in 37 matches last year, only once this season. Although a mite short on talent, he's long on conditioning and smarts. After winning the NCAA championship, Yagla sheepishly concedes that he went nuts. He drank two glasses of sloe gin and orange juice at a party. But he left the gathering early and got to bed at a respectable hour. "Chuck is the kind of guy you would like your daughter to marry," says Kurdelmeier, forgetting that Yagla is already married.
Then there's Chris Campbell from Westfield, N.J., who wrestles at 177 pounds and says he comes from a "classic ghetto situation—no father, a mother who works for white people, the whole bit." So what is Campbell doing at Iowa? "I was the best and I wanted the best," he says. He may be right. Campbell was second in the NCAAs last year, has an excess of natural ability and thinks he is changing for the better.' I used to be conceited," he says. "Fortunately, I lost that. The coaches here kept telling me, 'You're not as great as you think you are.' They really got on my case. Now I believe them."
Iowa State has no returning NCAA titlists, but there are a number of Cyclones who could be waving their index fingers above their heads later this year. The most likely to do so is Galea, a senior who normally wrestles at 150 pounds and was fourth in the national championships last year. He admits to inconsistency but says, "You ought to see me when I really whale on somebody." Galea came west with his buddy, 126-pounder Bob Antonacci. What did his friends back home in New York think about his choice of schools? They first confused it with Ohio, then they teased him by saying, "There's nothing out there but cornfields and farm girls." Says Galea, "Neither of them is so bad."
State also has 177-pound Willie Gad-son, another New Yorker, who got so worked up before the Iowa match that he ripped an arm off a practice dummy, and 118-pound Johnnie Jones, the Cyclones' biggest surprise. He called all over the country begging schools to give him a chance to prove he deserved a scholarship. "Nobody wanted me," Jones says, and Coach Harold Nichols admits, "I didn't know how good he was." Jones, who is in his first season at State after two years at Michigan's Schoolcraft Junior College, is 27-0 this season.
His 27th victory came against Iowa. He ran to the mat hollering, "I'm gonna get me some fried Hawkeye." And he certainly did, winning a 9-3 decision over Mark Mysnyk to give the Cyclones an early 3-0 lead.
In a strategic move earlier in the day, State decided not to have its star, Galea, wrestle Yagla at 150 pounds. Nichols replaced him with Joe Zuspann, conceding that weight class to Iowa, but freeing Galea to wrestle at 158, where he was considered a certain winner. Thus the Cyclones seemed sure of only one loss in the two weights. When Yagla triumphed easily to give Iowa an 11-6 lead, the plan seemed to be a good one.
Then Galea came out amid roars from the Cyclones' fans. "Man, this is what wrestling should always be about," he said, before running confidently onto the mat. But Galea did not allow for the possibility that McGivern might know the difference between a full Nelson and a hot shower. McGivern did.
With 29 seconds left in the bout, Galea had a two-point lead and seemed to be heading for a nothing-special win. Then McGivern pulled off a reverse to tie the score. Galea grappled back into the lead with a one-point escape with 14 seconds to go, and Nichols' plan again looked good. But with eight seconds remaining, McGivern scored a startling standing arm drag takedown for two points. So although Galea was awarded one point for riding time, the match was tied. "I was trying too hard for a pin," said Galea. "I didn't notice that," said McGivern, who was raised along with 1,000 hogs on a farm near Marengo, Iowa.
Then came the feature match, State's Gadson against Iowa's Campbell at 177 pounds. When push came to shove, Campbell prevailed 7-6. "But as the match went on, he felt stronger and I felt weaker," Campbell said later. "My stomach cramped. I was so tired. I need a break."
It was State that really needed a break after Campbell's victory put Iowa ahead 19-8. The Cyclones had to get two pins in the remaining two bouts to win. The victories came, but only by decisions.
That left the members of State's team feeling a little like the three almost-made-it wrestlers pictured on Kurdelmeier's office wall. Their names are Kooda-Ben, Wooda-Ben and Shooda-Ben. Iowa and Iowa State have another dual meet in February, and they are sure to encounter each other in the NCAAs. But at least for the moment, it is the Hawkeyes who should finish the season thinking how extraordinary '75-'76 has-ben.