College wrestling has moved out of low gear in recent years, much to the relief of the sport's long-suffering fans. As a result, a record 67,874 of them roared their approval of the full-speed-ahead action during the six sessions of last week's NCAA championships at Iowa State. Quite naturally, since the crowds consisted mostly of Iowans, most of them were also pleased with the continuation of the power shift that has seen the fortunes of Oklahoma State and Oklahoma sag, while Iowa State's and Iowa's have been on the rise.
During the first 30 NCAA tournaments, from 1928 through 1964, Oklahoma State won 22 times, Oklahoma five. Then, with the help of rules revisions, Iowa State took six titles between 1965 and 1978. And at Ames last week on State's home mat, Iowa, led by Bruce Kinseth, who pinned all five of his opponents in the 150-pound class, won for the fourth time in five years.
For years there have been efforts to jazz up wrestling, give it more action and make it more appealing to spectators. An expert on this topic is Dale Thomas, the Oregon State coach, whose 412 dual-match victories are a collegiate high.
"I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the rules changes in wrestling," Thomas said. "One important change was in 1940 when a point system was brought in to settle each match. Until then, all bouts were decided by riding time, with the man who controlled his opponent longer being the winner. The big thing in recent years has been to cut down on stalling by the wrestlers, which has always been the sport's main problem."
It has become less and less of a problem during the '70s. Today, if a wrestler is not aggressive enough, the referee can warn, penalize and even disqualify him for stalling. A few people feel this has given excessive power to the referee. To be sure, there are still bugs to be worked out.
Among those echoing Thomas' opinion at Ames was Iowa State Coach Harold Nichols. In 30 seasons, 25 with the Cyclones, Nichols has had 391 dual-match victories.
"After we won our first nationals in '65, lots of people commented that they were glad to see good basic wrestling take over," Nichols said. The "good basic wrestling" Nichols taught was in contrast to the take-'em-down, let-'em-up tactics that had long been in vogue. Simply put, fans got more of a kick out of 9-7 bouts than 3-2 yawners and preferred seeing pins rather than lots of riding.
Nichols, Thomas and others on the rules committee saw to it that stalling was forestalled. No longer can wrestlers consistently win by scoring a two-point takedown and letting their opponents get a one-point escape to set up another takedown. Now they must rely on a wider range of maneuvers.
"The rules against stalling have been around a long time," Nichols said. "They just were not enforced. What we did was interpret the rules so officials and coaches could see that stalling had to be called more and that that was the way wrestling was meant to be."
Nichols was also largely responsible for ending the dominance of the Oklahomans by building a powerhouse at Iowa State. And now his No. 1 powerhouse, the fabled Dan Gable, is keeping the state of Iowa in the forefront. Gable, a 1972 Olympic gold medalist who won two NCAA titles while wrestling for Nichols, has been the coach at Iowa for three years, but he is still revered in Ames, where a street has been named after him. Adding to his prestige was his team's 19-0 record in dual matches this season and a triumph in the Big Ten championships, at which the Hawkeyes tied the record they set in 1978 by having six individual winners.
"Some people told me we peaked too early," Gable said. "But you can peak more than once."
The Hawkeyes were certain they could peak again at Ames, where they wanted to prove themselves not only by winning again, but also by winning big. At last year's NCAAs they edged Iowa State by half a point, the narrowest margin in the history of the event—and they might not have achieved that had it not been for outside help. The assistance came from J. Carl Guymon of The Daily Oklahoman, who caught a one-point error in the official scoring on the first day.
There was something else the Hawkeyes felt they had to accomplish at Ames. As Gable said, "If we don't have any individual champs, it'll take the edge off our team victory." The reason for this concern also goes back to last year, when Iowa became the first NCAA champion without a first-place finisher.
As soon as last week's wrestling began—with 351 competitors from 125 schools—it was apparent that it would be one of the liveliest of tournaments. Aware that they could be penalized heavily for stalling, the contestants waged furious battles. More than that, they exerted extra effort to pick up precious added points and fractions. In the past few years rules have provided for bonus points by awarding a full point for a pin, three-quarters of a point for a superior decision (winning by 12 or more points) and half a point for a major decision (winning by between eight and 11 points).
Most dynamic of all were the Hawkeyes, who won 16 of 17 bouts in Thursday's first two rounds. Their only loser was heavyweight John Bowlsby, a three-time NCAA place winner, who was pinned. Wisconsin kept early pressure on Iowa and briefly led 13-12 on the first day. From there on, however, the Hawkeyes stormed through the field. When the tournament was over, Iowa had won 31 of 38 bouts, 13 by falls, two by superior margins and seven by major decisions. Also two individual titles. All of this gave the Hawkeyes 122½ points, 34½ more than runner-up Iowa State.
Lehigh, which qualified only five men for the tournament, was third with 69¾ points and also had two champions, Mark Lieberman, who won at 177 pounds for the second straight time, and 134-pounder Darryl Burley, the first freshman titlist since 1973. Lieberman was leading 7-0 when his opponent was disqualified for stalling, the first such ruling in the NCAAs. Burley was a 9-7 victor over Iowa State's Mike Land, who won last season at 126 pounds and had an 84-match winning streak going, the longest in the country. Oklahoma State wound up sixth, equaling its worst showing, and Oklahoma finished ninth.
"Now we're going to celebrate the same way we did last year, by having a pig roast at Jim Tucker's farm back home," said J. Robinson, an assistant coach at Iowa. "Tucker is a big Iowa supporter. Last year Gable dug the pit for the roast and he'll probably do it again because he always likes to do the hard work. Bowlsby will probably be the chef again. After he got pinned, he was really down, but the kids on the team did all they could to make him feel better.
"This team is closer knit than any we've had," Robinson said. "It's like a fraternity. There's also a looseness that keeps the kids going. If anyone gets too high on himself, the others cut him down to where he belongs. You need that kind of closeness and attitude because everyone on our team works out all year round and there gets to be a lot of physical and mental strain."
"So much of wrestling is mental," Gable said. "My kids are so tough mentally. Being mentally tough means battling from beginning to end. I think I generate that attitude in the kids because I don't think they've ever seen me quit at anything.
"I still work out with the kids a lot, but I have to watch out for Kinseth. If I don't wrestle him smart and make him wear himself down, he'll run me into the ground. He just keeps going and going."
Kinseth kept up his non-stop ways at Ames, and his five pins got him the Outstanding Wrestler award.
"The reason I can go, go, go is because I'm in really good condition," Kinseth said. "I beat a lot of guys because I keep coming at 'em. I'm not the most polished wrestler, or the strongest, but I wear people down. The first time I went to a wrestling camp was when I was in ninth grade. Gable was there. I saw how he never let up on the mat and I decided to model myself after him. At practice, I get myself as tired as I can and then I push myself more. Then, after the other guys have left, I like to stay and work more with Gable."
All that work paid off. Kinseth closed out his career by becoming the first since Gable in 1969 to pin his way through the NCAAs. That gave Kinseth falls in his last nine bouts, including all four of his matches at the Big Ten championships.
Iowa's second champion was sophomore Randy Lewis. Like many of the Hawkeyes, Lewis enrolled at Iowa largely because of Gable.
"He's my hero," Lewis said. "I like his style of wrestling."
Lewis made his—and Kinseth's and Gable's—style pay off with a rousing 20-14 victory in the 126-pound final in which he scored half his points in the third (final) period of the eight-minute match. There were a lot of other fast-paced bouts on Saturday night, with an average of about 20 points being scored in the six that were settled by decisions.
Gene Mills of Syracuse, like Lewis, finished strong, piling up eight points in the last period as he took the 118-pound title with a 16-13 decision. For the second year in a row the winner at 142 pounds was Oregon State's Dan Hicks, this time on a referee's decision. Kelly Ward of Iowa State won 7-2 at 158 pounds. Mark Churella of Michigan, who finished first at 150 pounds last year, moved up two weights to 167 and won on a pin. The winner by a 12-5 decision at 190 pounds was Oklahoma State's Eric Wais. And, despite being outweighed by about 100 pounds, Fred Bohna of UCLA took the heavyweight championship with a 9-5 victory over 325-pound Dave Klemm of Eastern Illinois, who had pinned his first four opponents.
Among the fans in Ames last week was Harold Higgins of Traer, Iowa, who competed for Iowa State in the first NCAA tournament in 1928. "That was right here in Ames," Higgins recalled. "I lost a 21-minute match at 115 pounds to Harold DeMarsh. After we were all even on riding time after the first 15 minutes, we went another six minutes of overtime."
So much for the good old days.