Going to the NCAA wrestling championships last week to see which of the 112 teams would win was like sticking a paper clip into a wall socket to learn if the power company is awake and on the job. You are pretty sure of the answer in advance.
Which made it appropriate that the tournament was held at the University of Arizona in predictable Tucson, where sunny weather is almost a certainty (3,800 hours a year, more than any other resort city in the U.S.), where it is very likely that the pancakes will taste a little like tacos, where it is a good bet that mariachi music will fill the air and olive trees will fill the yards and, most of all, where it was nearly a sure thing that the University of Iowa was going to sweep down from the northlands and mop up all those other mat rats who fancy themselves to be quick of move and strong of body.
As it turned out, just about the only unpredictable thing that occurred in Tucson was the way the Hawkeyes won their national title. Iowa exceeded the fondest expectations of its most optimistic supporters by scoring a tournament-record 123.25 points, 37.5 more than runner-up Iowa State and almost twice as many as third-place Oklahoma State. And the Hawk-eyes not only took home the team trophy, they also clearly established themselves as a certified power in a sport heretofore considered the exclusive property of Oklahoma State (28 NCAA titles), Oklahoma (6) and Iowa State (6). Iowa, a member of the Big Ten, had won the NCAA championship last year. Its victory this time around made it the first school from outside the Big Eight to win the title more than once.
"All you can ever do is play the cards you're dealt," Iowa Coach Gary Kurdelmeier said with solemnity a few days before the meet, "but I must say we've got a good hand." Indeed, Kurdelmeier held all the trumps and all the aces, while the other teams were stuck with the Old Maid. When it was over the Hawkeyes had three individual champions, one second-place finisher, two thirds and a fifth.
March 22, 1976
Leading the Hawkeye assault was 150-pound Chuck Yagla, a champion for the second year in a row and the tournament's outstanding wrestler. Lounging around a motel pool under a canopy of orange trees, Yagla explained why he does so well, "I feel like God is watching, and I want to impress Him." God had to be mighty impressed with Yagla in the finals as he manhandled his nemesis, Pete Galea of Iowa State. Galea, who repeatedly told himself before the match, "Now don't get so nervous you do something dumb," did not wrestle stupidly; he simply was overwhelmed by Yagla's strength, speed and desire.
After two scoreless periods punctuated only by spectator yawns, Yagla pulled off a reverse for two points early in the last period. With 31 seconds left in the eight-minute match, he got a near pin and two more points. A point for riding time made his margin of victory 5-0.
Yagla's wife Darlyne said her husband followed his usual pattern for success: "He prays he'll do his best, I pray he'll do his best, and it turns out that his best is the best." Are your eyes filled with tears of joy? "Oh, no. I just looked at Pete, and I felt so sorry for him I could've cried."
If Iowa's wrestlers had similar compassion for the opposition, it was not apparent. In the 142-pound finals, Brad Smith turned his opponent, Gene Costello of Slippery Rock, every which way—and occasionally loose just for the sport of it—in an easy 12-4 victory. The Hawkeyes' third title went to 177-pound junior Chris Campbell, who outmuscled Mark Johnson of Michigan 9-4. When Campbell was a freshman, he would storm onto the mat, his eyes red and crossed. Now he wrestles far more conservatively and can fiddle away long stretches of a match, then make a timely move and win. In the semifinals he looked like a goner until he scored a takedown with 12 seconds remaining to pull out a 5-4 triumph. His final match was always in hand.
So, Chris, is it all worth it? "No. This sport has made me emotionally unstable for three years, but at least I can say I did it," he said. Campbell, the only underclassman among Iowa's individual champions, did not enjoy his victory for long. No sooner had he left the mat than he began worrying about the upcoming Olympic trials. In his fretful way, he has it figured out that if he tries out for the Olympics and fails, he will be plagued by instability for another four years, until he has another chance to make an Olympic team.
Campbell's thoughts suddenly drifted off and he brightened. "Do you know that just before I left home to come here, I found a girl friend who has a car and a color television?" he said. "It took me a long while, but there's something that was worth the trouble. That's a hard combination to find."
Iowa's fourth finalist was Dan Wagemann at 167 pounds. Like Yagla, he thinks it is important to have God in his corner. Since he aspires to become a movie stuntman, Wagemann may need divine help for a long time to come, and to that end he carries a Biblical quotation in his pocket that he considers appropriate for wrestlers and others who derive satisfaction from training and sweating and torturing their bodies. It says, "They shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint."
It was almost a miracle that Wagemann did not faint during a bruising 9-7 loss to Wisconsin's Pat Christenson that confirmed his mother's worst fears. "I wish so much he would win," she said. "He has been second so many times." Still, finishing as a runner-up was quite an accomplishment for Wagemann. He has made a long hike back from a couple of years ago when, he admits, "I did all the drugs. I'd come to practice really blitzed after drinkin' whiskey and smokin' marijuana." It was then that Kurdelmeier excused Wagemann from the wrestling program until he could put himself together.
Iowa's third-place finishers were 134-pound Tim Cysewski, who wrestled back from a discouraging early loss, and 190-pound Bud Palmer. Heavyweight Doug Benschoter, a football player by scholarship, got a fifth. He came out for wrestling in midseason when Kurdelmeier found himself without a heavyweight.
But while good things seemed to happen to Iowa every time one of its wrestlers set foot on one of the $4,000 mats, Iowa State was star-crossed. Perhaps the Cyclones, who had been expected to seriously challenge Iowa, should have known they were in trouble when they arrived in normally warm Tucson in the midst of a momentary snowstorm.
All three of State's finalists—Galea, 118-pounder Johnnie Jones and Frank Santana at 190—lost. Galea obviously was running in tough company, and Santana, who lost an overtime decision to Minnesota's Evan Johnson, has been troubled by an ailing knee.
But Jones, who was nearly upset in several earlier rounds, was tucked away firmly by unseeded Mark DiGirolamo of California Poly at San Luis Obispo. Jones has been fighting to keep his weight all season and is another member of the God Squad. One of his favorite passages from the Scriptures is, "The Lord will perfect that which concerneth me." Says Jones, "The Lord has perfected my weight a lot of times and delivered me from some narrow escapes at weigh-ins." Running miles in heavy sweat clothes may have helped, too.
Despite his defeat, Jones was exuberant over the prospect of a full load of strawberry-cheesecake ice cream to celebrate the end of the season. "Praise God, and hallelujah! I'm already getting ready for next year," he said as he headed for the dessert counter.
Even readier for next season may be Wisconsin, which posted a surprising showing with three national champions—Jack Reinwand (126 pounds), Lee Kemp (158) and Christenson (167)—and finished fourth in team scoring. The other winners were Lehigh's 134-pound Mike Frick, a repeater from last year, and Oklahoma's heavyweight, Jimmy Jackson.
At a party after the Iowa victory, Kurdelmeier was, as expected, thrown into the pool. So, of course, was the assistant coach of Olympic gold medal fame, Dan Gable. Then, naturally, the team members began throwing each other in the pool. It was a fitting close for a Hawk-eye season in which they lived up to—or exceeded—every prediction.