Performing in the spirit of those champion iconoclasts from Oakland—the Raiders and the Athletics—Iowa State's wrestlers set aside their injuries, complaints and personal squabbles last week long enough to dethrone their bitter intrastate rivals, the Iowa Hawkeyes, as the NCAA's kings of the mat. Still, the Cyclones were not exactly claiming exclusive bragging rights to the state, because until almost the last match of the competition it appeared that Iowa State would be the first school in the tournament's 47-year history to win the team title without having at least one individual champion.
Then Cuban-born Frank Santana, gamely wrestling despite a shoulder separation and a left knee that after five operations looks even worse than Bobby Orr's and Joe Namath's, gained Iowa State some much-relished respect. Cyclone teammates Joe Zuspann and Kelly Ward had already lost in the 150-and 158-pound finals, respectively, as the 190-pound Santana, the No. 3 seed, prepared to grapple with the No. 1 seed, Minnesota's Evan Johnson, in a replay of their 1976 NCAA title match at Tucson. Santana had clearly lost to Johnson then and, while he seemed to have a genuine excuse for his defeat—he was competing just 26 days after another of his knee operations and four stitches had come loose during the bout—Santana offered none. "I don't make excuses for losing," he said.
Nonetheless, Santana had an excuse available to him in the event he lost his rematch with Johnson Saturday night. Three days before the NCAAs began, Santana was dropped on his shoulder during an Iowa State practice, and when he came up it was a mess. Cyclone Coach Harold Nichols understandably declined to make any public announcements about Santana's injury, but at the same time he privately doubted that the shoulder would permit Santana to make it through the tournament.
"My dad says that if it weren't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all," said Santana.
March 28, 1977
Back in Cuba, Santana's father Fernando was a violent anti-Communist in the days when Fidel Castro was taking control of the country, and that stance led to the machine-gunning of the Santana home. As Frank remembers, "Everybody was crying and running, and we went to the basement and somebody threw me in the bathtub and told me to keep my head down." Frank and his mother Daysi emigrated to the U.S., settling with relatives in Miami. Later Frank's father and his older brother Nando tried to flee from Cuba by running across a beach to a boat waiting to take them to the U.S. His brother was killed, but his father made it.
"All that makes me appreciate life a lot more," Frank says. As Nichols says, "Maybe Frank doesn't have a lot of natural wrestling ability, but he has an awful lot of resolve."
So he does. Unmindful of the injured shoulder, Santana aggressively went after Johnson from the start and scored two takedowns in the first period while building a 4-2 lead. For the rest of the match he remained a quick step or slip ahead of the frustrated Johnson, and when it was over Santana had his revenge with a 12-7 victory—and Iowa State had an individual championship to go with its team title.
Curiously, there was no real favorite team when the wrestlers from 119 schools arrived on the University of Oklahoma campus at Norman for the three-day tournament. Iowa State, Iowa and Oklahoma State all were rated as contenders for the championship; indeed, the three schools had a near-monopoly on the title, having won 35 of the previous 46 national tournaments. Iowa had taken the NCAAs the last two seasons, but nothing seemed to be going right for rookie Coach Dan Gable's Hawkeyes.
For starters, Gable got stuck in an elevator for 90 minutes. Then Steve Hunte, the country's best 134-pound wrestler, was upset by Lehigh's Bob Sloand in overtime in the first round. To compound Iowa's problems, Sloand suffered a knee injury during his victory over Hunte and had to default a later match, thus preventing Hunte from competing in the consolation bracket. In his pretournament calculations, Gable no doubt figured that Hunte would score a minimum of 12½ points, a maximum of 20, but, as it developed, Hunte came up with nothing. If he had gotten only 12½ points, Iowa would have finished first. As it was, the Hawk-eyes placed third with 84 points. Iowa State won with 95.5, and Oklahoma State finished second with 88.75.
"It's terribly disappointing when you don't live up to what you're supposed to do," Gable said. Indeed, the only Iowa wrestler who did what he was supposed to do was 177-pound Chris Campbell. As a sophomore Campbell had a nervous breakdown, or so he thinks, because he kept dreaming that trains were running over him. As a junior he regularly complained that he was tired of wrestling, but still won the 177-pound NCAA title. As a senior, though, Campbell had wrestled in a positive mood. "When you get to the end of something," he said, "you increase your pace."
Campbell was undefeated in 34 matches this season as he met Michigan's Mark Johnson in the 177-class finals. "Johnson's the only guy I can't outmuscle," Campbell said. "I've got to hit him slick and quick." Campbell did just that, scoring two takedowns and a near fall to run the score to 8-1 en route to a 12-6 decision. With the victory—and his second NCAA crown—Campbell also became Iowa's winningest wrestler ever with a 122-6-3 record.
Campbell expected that his undefeated season would convince the NCAA judges to name him the tournament's outstanding wrestler, but they gave that award to 126-pound Nick Gallo, the first Hofstra wrestler ever to win an NCAA championship. "Oh, well," Campbell shrugged, "I know I'm the best."
Oklahoma State avoided the opening-round disasters that hurt Iowa, but the Cowboys, who had won their dual meet with Iowa State this year 20-14, suffered three defeats in the semifinals. Paul Martin, the No. 1 seed in the 150-pound class, lost to Michigan's Mark Churella; Billy Martin (no relation) lost to Gallo in the 126-pound class; and freshman Lee Roy Smith was beaten on a referee's decision by Michigan State's Dennis Brighton in the 134-pound competition. "Aw, I could if and but this thing forever," said Oklahoma State Coach Tommy Chesbro. Nevertheless, the Cowboys did collect two individual titles as Steve Barrett beat Indiana's Sam Komar in the 142-pound final and 1976 Olympian Jimmy Jackson—seeded only No. 3—defeated Oregon State's Larry Bielenberg for the heavyweight title.
For a time it appeared that Iowa State would go the route of its Iowa neighbors. There had been discontent among the Cyclones all season. Some of the wrestlers thought Nichols had scheduled too many meets; Iowa State had 26 collegiate events this season compared to 21 for Oklahoma State and 23 for Iowa. Discipline was not a strong suit among the Cyclones, either. After a loss to Oklahoma State this year, Iowa State had a dual meet against California Poly, hardly a bastion of wrestling excellence. No reason for the Cyclones to get sweaty palms. So a bunch of Iowa State regulars turned up sick or lame, and Cal Poly scored the upset of the college season. "That loss," says Nichols, "is on the wrestlers, not me."
In another match Cyclone heavyweight Bob Fouts, bothered by a knee injury, needed only to avoid getting pinned to preserve an Iowa State victory over Iowa. Instead, Fouts was disqualified for stalling and the match ended in a tie.
Iowa State also seemed to have more than its share of campus characters. Last season Ward, then wrestling at 142 pounds, became so disgusted with everything that he quit the team. He packed his green knapsack, attached a sign that said EAST and started hitchhiking. A blue van passed Ward on the road, stopped and picked him up. Santana was driving the van, and he immediately made a U-turn for the Iowa State campus in Ames. On the way he talked Ward into staying. "It's a good thing I didn't go home," says Ward, the son of former Maryland Football Coach Bob Ward, "because my dad wouldn't have let me in the house. I'd still be on the road."
Zuspann, the Cyclones' 150-pound wrestler, harbors a strong affection for motorcycles and has been known to drive them at daredevil speeds. He also used to skip practice frequently and travel to Fort Dodge, Iowa, where his girl friend lived. They are Mr. and Mrs. Zuspann now, and he practices regularly.
Then there is Johnnie Jones, whose weight fluctuates between 118 and 142 pounds. When Jones balloons Nichols says, "John, you believe that God is a God of miracles. Believe in God for a miracle to get you down to 118."
Iowa State had troubles in the opening round at Norman as both heavyweight Fouts and 177-pound Dave Allen were upset by wrestlers from Princeton. (In all, 17 seeded wrestlers lost first-round matches.) After that, the Cyclones proceeded cautiously, piling up points as Santana, Ward and Zuspann advanced to the finals. Jones, down to an uncomfortable 118 pounds, struggled to a fourth-place finish, and 126-pound Mike Land placed third in his class. As things turned out, Iowa State clinched the team championship after Land's performance during consolation action on Saturday afternoon—hours before the final matches. That night Ward lost 9-5 to Wisconsin's methodical Lee Kemp (SI, Feb. 21), and Zuspann lost a 9-3 decision to Michigan's Churella.
But then Santana came along to win one for the Cyclones and gave them two things to brag about to the folks when they got back home.