Shortly before Iowa wrestling Coach Dan Gable led his Hawkeyes onto the mat at the Myriad Convention Center in Oklahoma City last Saturday for the NCAA finals—which they (ho-hum) won again—he was sitting in his motel room. His feet were on the bed, and he was sipping Hawkeye Gold—"Iowa's own soft drink"—and thinking about whether the Hawks' domination of college wrestling was hurting the sport.
"Naw," Gable concluded. "It gives others something to look up to and strive for. I think people who criticize us are the ones hurting the sport, because they are talking against excellence. The way I feel is, if you lose it's not O.K."
These observations speak volumes about the Iowa philosophy and how it came to pass last week that the Hawks carved their superiority in stone. And, further, why the Hawks are planning to improve in the future. It's all terribly depressing for the rest of college wrestling. Iowa's latest national title was its sixth straight and its eighth in the last nine years. Not since Oklahoma State won nine out of 10 war-interrupted competitions between 1934 and 1946 has the sport had to endure such a monopoly.
The Hawks last week also had four individual national champs, each of whom had won at least once before, which ties a record equaled six times—though the last time was 1942; their victory total of 155 points demolished their own mark of 131¾ set at the 1982 NCAAs; their winning margin of 53 points (Oklahoma State was second with 102) was an NCAA record; Gable's sixth straight national title breaks the record of five straight for a coach, which Gable set last year. The Iowa victory was so over-whelming that it was assured before the final round. Said Wyoming Coach Joe Dowler, surveying the wreckage, "All the rest of us are scrambling hard to close the gap, but what seems to be happening is that Iowa's widening it."
But Gable isn't resting easy. "You should never look forward to your past," he says. Others in wrestling are not looking back on—or forward to—much of anything.
"This is no national championship," groused Yale Coach Bert Waterman. "It was sewn up before it started and that's harmful to the sport." Michigan Coach Dale Bahr, who in the past had blasted Gable for pouring it on, snorted, "I don't even want to talk about Iowa."
No wonder. The Hawks won nine of 10 weight classes in the Big Ten tournament as they won the league title for the 10th straight time, and they blitzed Michigan 44-0 in a dual meet. In seven years, Gable's conference dual-meet record is 47-zip. Bill Nelson, coach at Arizona until the school dropped the sport two years ago, added, "I think this is the worst thing that could happen to wrestling. Iowa's so dominant that people lose interest. Something has to be done." Dynasties don't earn a lot of affection.
Maybe, went the whispering around the tournament, a limit should be set on the number of coaches a team can have; Gable has three full-time assistants, while other head coaches have at most one. Perhaps wrestling clubs—Iowa has the best one, of course—made up of wrestlers who have completed their eligibility but want to keep training for international competition, should be barred from working out with underclassmen. And what about putting a limit on how long you can practice?
The idea there was to do something about what happened at Iowa in mid-January. Gable, whose own high school and college record of 181-1-0 is burned in every wrestler's mind, sensed that his 190-pounder, Ed Banach, was in trouble, having already been beaten twice (and subsequently a third time) in early-season meets by Iowa State's Mike Mann. Gable also thought his 142-pounder, Harlan Kistler, needed more work. So, two mornings a week for six weeks. Gable set his alarm for 4:20 a.m. He would then pick up Kistler at 4:40, Banach at 4:50, and by 5:05 he'd have them working, out at the Iowa field house. Then they'd go home, have a couple of doughnuts and return for the regular 8:30 team practice. Of course, they'd all be there again for the main workout at 4 p.m. Rule suggestion: No practice may start until 42.6% of the population is awake.
Naturally, because the early-morning experiment involved Iowa, it worked. Banach, the school's alltime winningest (140) and pinningest (74) wrestler, caught Mann near the end of the second period of the NCAA finals with a brilliant single-leg shot for a two-point takedown. Banach was then able to build around that for a 4-3 win and his third national title in four seasons. He's the first Iowa wrestler to do that. He controlled the tempo like the crafty veteran he is, was at ease wrestling on his feet and allowed Mann only one good opening. "If I was going to beat him," said Banach, "this was a good time." Kistler wrestled well, too, but lost in the semifinals.
Minutes after Ed's victory, his brother, Lou, charged onto the mat in the heavyweight division. He's a different breed from Ed. Gable says of Lou, "Whatever the rest of the group is doing, he wants to do something else." But Gable can handle all personalities; that's one mark of how good a coach he is. Thus, Lou ended up being hell on legs all year and never more so than in the NCAA finals when he grabbed Iowa State's Wayne Cole in a classic bear hug and ripped him over backward. End of match.
The brawling Banach boys, both seniors, have been the heart and soul of the Iowa team for four seasons. A fan walked by and said, "Thanks, Looie, you've pleased a lot of people over the years."
Replied Lou, "Thanks, I've pleased myself."
The other Hawkeye winners were Barry Davis (126) and Jim Zalesky (158), both juniors. Davis, in a typical Iowa-style performance, defeated Arizona State's Gary Bohay 5-2 by outlasting him and by showing superior conditioning. Zalesky, undefeated this season (40-0), whipped Lou Montano of Cal Poly 7-4 with a combination of quickness and extremely effective blocking of Montano's offense. Iowa's only loser among the five finalists was freshman 177-pounder Duane Goldman, who was defeated 4-2 by Oklahoma's Mark Schultz, who won his third national championship. (Also winning a third NCAA crown was Iowa State's Nate Carr at 150.) But Goldman was not intimidated; he'll be back.
So Iowa wins while others complain. There is much pointing, for example, at the philanthropy of the late Roy Carver, the Hawks' angel, whose enormous wealth enabled him to throw money at the University of Iowa—more than $11 million, and still counting. Wrestling was his major athletic love, and the Hawks have benefited mightily from his will. Other schools are free, of course, to raise money for wrestling, and a few do. Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, for example, are getting with it seriously. And in truth, Iowa didn't win everything. Outstanding Wrestler for the meet was Oklahoma State's Mike Sheets, the 167-pound titlist, who won his five bouts by a combined score of 68-3.
But the major reason the Hawks keep winning is Gable. Some experts insist Iowa is so good the Hawkeyes would go on winning without him; that's wrong. Gable is Iowa wrestling. "Dan Gable," says Wrestling Hall of Fame Director Bob Dellinger, "didn't steal anything from anybody. He just went to work. Others have to realize that you never succeed when your goal is tearing down someone else."
Says Goldman, "I knew if I wanted to be the best, I had to come to Iowa and wrestle for Gable. That way I could start at the top—and work my way up."
Nobody in Oklahoma City disputed that the Hawks were the finest college wrestling team in history. And next year, it looks as if they'll be even better. Gable says he plans to replace the Banachs—230 wins between them plus five national titles—with "people as good or better." Ed Banach agrees: "It doesn't matter who you beat from other schools because you know there's somebody back in the wrestling room in Iowa City who can kick your butt."
"If other teams could win," says Gable, "it might generate more enthusiasm. But we're not going to lose on purpose. I just think all the others need to get with it." The idea that Iowa's excellence is hurting the sport is a mystery to Lou Banach. "How can you ruin wrestling by going out and wrestling your heart out?" he asks. "There are times when I wonder why I am going through all the hard work. Then, like now, I look up at the scoreboard and I know."