As Jim Zalesky, Iowa's incomparable 158-pounder, got ready to wrestle in his final collegiate match last Saturday, Dan Gable nervously left the spectator section at the Byrne Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey and replaced assistant coach Mark Johnson in a chair in Zalesky's corner. A win would give Zalesky his 90th consecutive victory—second in college wrestling history only to Gable's 100 in a row—and a third straight NCAA title. Fourteen years before, in his final match, Gable had gone for his third title, and 101st straight win, only to lose.
"He didn't have to say anything," said Zalesky after the match, in which he dominated Mark Schmitz of Wisconsin for a 9-5 win. "I know if I saw Gable in the corner of somebody I was wrestling, it would give me some doubts."
Which may help explain why Iowa triumphed over talented but inconsistent Oklahoma State l23¾-98 to win a record seventh consecutive national championship. For a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that Gable had curtailed his head-coaching duties at Iowa to concentrate on leading the U.S. Olympic team, this wasn't supposed to be the Hawkeyes' year. But since Gable rejoined Iowa full-time after it was drubbed 24-6 by Oklahoma State in a dual meet in Stillwater last month, the Hawkeyes have regained the same clutch wrestling form that has led them to nine of the last 11 NCAA titles.
This wasn't Iowa's most talented team; Zalesky was its only individual champion. For its part, Oklahoma State had two shoo-ins: Mike Sheets at 167 pounds and Kenny Monday at 150. On the strength of the massacre in Stillwater, the National Mat News favored the Cowboys to win the NCAAs.
Gable had turned over the head-coaching duties to his longtime assistant, J Robinson, in September. When he rejoined the team as co-head coach after the Oklahoma State debacle, he immediately instituted three-a-day workouts, with wrestling at 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. and conditioning at 8:30 p.m. It's a measure of Gable's stature as a competitor and coach that he could upstage Robinson without damaging their friendship. At a victory party Saturday night, Robinson said, "I just want to be an assistant again."
Perhaps even more remarkable is that he could put a tired team through physical torture at the end of a long season and still improve morale. "If Gable said we needed three-a-days, we needed three-a-days," said Greg Randall, a 134-pound freshman who lost a 13-7 decision in the finals to Scott Lynch of Penn State. "We started taking his approach in practice with each other, which is, 'I'm going to kick your butt, and there's nothing you can do about it.' It got us closer, and it made us better. That's Gable."
Two weeks after Gable returned, Iowa won the Big Ten tournament for the 11th consecutive time. Even Gable had to admit that he had struck a chord. "They were already good, but you put little edges on people," he said. "It's just the way I act. My being around. Who I am."
In the semifinal round on Friday, Oklahoma State came undone. Going in, Iowa led by only four points. The tournament looked like the Cowboys' because five of their six semifinalists were seeded higher than five of Iowa's six. But only Monday and Sheets survived the round. "It was possibly inexperience at that point in the game," said Sheets. "I'm not saying we choked, but part of it had to do with that."
Meanwhile, on an adjacent mat, Iowa's semifinalists were making hay. Mark Trizzino, a 126-pounder, lost in the last seconds to Kevin Darkus of Iowa State, but it was a case of it's Darkus before the dawn. Iowa won the remaining five matches and entered the finals with an all but insurmountable 30.25-point lead.
Iowa's team title overshadowed the individual brilliance of Monday, the tournament's most adept practitioner of the sudden, match-ending cradle, and Sheets. "Explosive, explosive," grunted an admiring Gable as he watched a typical Monday pin. Sheets, who won his last 70 college matches, specializes in paralyzing opponents with creative leg clamps. "He almost broke my back," said Chris Edmond of Tennessee after being pinned in the quarterfinals. And Sheets can take as well as give. In his first match of the tournament, against Greg Fatool of North Carolina State, Sheets whipped himself against the mat so hard he knocked himself out and was nearly pinned before an injury timeout was called. After partly regaining his senses—he couldn't remember the early stages of the match—Sheets made moves that turned a 7-2 deficit into a 16-8 victory. "He's one of the best ever," said Wolfpack coach Bill Guzzo.
Although not the best wrestler in the tournament, the most eye-catching was Talmadge (Tab) Thacker, a 6'5", 447½-pound heavyweight from North Carolina State who defeated 351½-pound Gary Albright of Nebraska for the individual title. Thacker, who finished his senior year undefeated, may be the biggest college wrestler in history. He has a 58-inch chest, which tapers, sort of, to a 54-inch waist. He hasn't measured his thighs, but suffice it to say they make Earl Campbell's look like saplings.
Because he has found no scale in Raleigh that will go over 350, Thacker estimated he weighed 390 for the tournament, even though at the NCAAs last year he was officially weighed at 407. Thacker reasoned that a weightlifting program had made him leaner. Actually, it had turned a good deal of fat into heavier muscle, so when Thacker stepped on the tournament scale, it registered at 447½. "I guess my weight got redistributed," he said.
Thacker is from a family of big persons residing in Winston-Salem, N.C. His father is 6'2", 280, his mother 5'10", 210. He has a 14-year-old brother who goes 5'9", 275. Thacker eats "normally" during the day but says, "I tend to eat continuously at night." His favorite snack is cookies and milk.
Thacker, who sometimes works out on the basketball floor with his good friend Lorenzo Charles, is called "The Big Taboo" by North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano. Other a.k.a.s are Tabloid and Buddha.
As a boy, Thacker was often excluded from games by his friends for fear he would hurt someone. Which is why he wasn't shocked two years ago when the NCAA rules committee cited the same reason for passing a bylaw saying that, effective in 1986, no collegiate wrestler can compete at a weight exceeding 275 pounds. Though it won't affect him, Thacker strongly opposes the ruling. "It's already been proved the NCAA can be wrong," he says.
Thacker eased the tension before last week's matches by having teammate Chris Mondragon, who wrestles at 150, walk on his back. "I don't know anybody who can get the knots in my back out with just their hands," he says. He didn't get upset when he was booed for the plodding pace of his six bouts or the seeming ease with which he handled opponents. "I don't like to see some big guy bully a small guy, either," he said. "I understand."
In every way the gentle giant off the mat, Thacker strives for malevolence on it. He pinned as many opponents (three) as anyone in the tournament and did it faster, using his weight to full advantage. "Get under him, get squished," said one coach.
His quarterfinal victim, 245-pound Jamie Webber of LSU, succumbed after 2:09. When Webber was asked what it was like to wrestle Thacker, his teammate Jim Edwards did the talking. "It was like that movie," he said, "The Blob."
The heavyweight final between Thacker and Albright, who pinned Thacker in the '82 tournament, was a cautious, stultifying affair in which the adversaries locked arms and walked around in the first period, and Thacker rode a prone and nearly immobilized Albright for the entire second. In the third, when it was Thacker's turn to start from the bottom position, he quickly did what Albright was unable to do—stand up—to escape and score the first point of the match. He won 3-1.
Zalesky, who was named the tournament's outstanding wrestler, hopes to make the Olympic team as a freestyler, but his lack of training in that discipline—it features more throws than the control-oriented collegiate style—puts him at a disadvantage against experienced international wrestlers like Lee Kemp and Dave Schultz, the current co-favorites for the 163-pound spot.
But don't count Zalesky out. When Jim was an Iowa farm boy, Gable's victory at Munich in 1972 inspired him to dedicate himself to wrestling. And he knows that if he makes the Olympic team, he'll have Gable in his corner again.