The Iowa-Iowa state wrestling meet hadn't been in the books 10 minutes before yet another drama unfolded. Stoic Hawkeye coach Dan Gable, he of the Olympian intensity and until recently a chronic sourpuss, valiantly attempted to fight off a smile. He failed.
Gable's wrestlers had just nipped those from his alma mater 18-15 to end a two-match losing streak to the Cyclones and to recoup bragging rights in the Headlock—make that Hawkeye—State. As the emotionally spent crowd of 14,760 filed out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Gable faced the media. His gaze was stern, his brow furrowed. But the corners of his mouth strained rebelliously upward, ruining, for a moment, his hard-guy image. "I don't want to smile," he growled through his grin. "We've got more important things to look forward to." Such as winning a record (for any sport) 10th straight NCAA championship at Maryland, March 19-21.
This closing dual meet of the Hawkeyes' season, which was anybody's for the taking until the final 10 seconds, probably left Gable more relieved than jubilant. It preserved Iowa's perfection (40-0) in 4½-year-old Carver-Hawkeye, but more important, it provided a much needed up-note to what has been Gable's most difficult season in 11 years of coaching in Iowa City.
To keep his wrestlers' minds on their mission—Title X, as it were—Gable even resorted to having Roman numeral X's sewn onto their singlets. That was, some thought, psychological overkill. "I was shocked," said cocaptain Jim Heffernan. Retorted Gable, "Maybe they weren't as tough as I thought." Maybe not, but they certainly had been tough on their coach.
Bad attitudes, bad ink and bad luck have beset Iowa this season. Brad Penrith, the defending NCAA 126-pound champion who is now the Hawkeyes' starting 134-pounder, was sentenced on a drunk-driving charge late last summer. Then some wrestlers were involved in a well-publicized scuffle with the basketball team in December. Four starters, including three-time All-America Greg Randall, have gone down with injuries. Another member of the squad quit. Gable, who had never lost more than one dual meet in a season, had seen this bunch drop two—at Penn State and at Iowa State—before the holiday break was over.
"Every year I adjust to what I've got," said Gable, an Olympic and two-time NCAA champion. "This year I didn't see a lot of gung-ho wrestlers. I don't have guys who eat, sleep and drink the sport." Perhaps not. He does, however, have guys who eat and sleep the sport, and drink.
"Never have I had to outlaw downtown Iowa City," continued Gable. "But they couldn't stay out of the bars. And they were running out of gas. What was I going to do?"
So prohibition it was. And up went the red flag—red-flag days being Gable's warning that a particularly brutal practice is in store. Gable also added 6:30 a.m. workouts to supplement the ones held each afternoon. "I still would hope," he said with a straight face, "that I push my athletes harder than anybody. There is no such thing as overtraining."
"That's easy for him to say," commented senior Rico (the Baltimore Butcher) Chiapparelli, a 177-pounder who believes there is such a thing as overtraining. "He never had a bad day."
The Butcher's beef aside, the Hawkeyes' increased workload began to pay off the week before the Iowa State match when they beat then No. 1-ranked Oklahoma State and enjoyed what Gable called "the first mental high we've been on all season."
The second came last week against Iowa State. "This is a must for us," said Gable before tangling with the Cyclones. "Not for winning the nationals but for getting good recruits"—particularly in-state blue-chippers. Iowa takes its wrestling, and its rivalries, very seriously. Saturday's meet featured seven wrestlers ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in their divisions by the Amateur Wrestling News. Three of them were Iowa natives.
Two of the matches directly pitted No. 1 in the country against No. 2. In the first, Heffernan, a senior 150-pounder, lost 4-3 to Cyclone sophomore Tim Krieger. The second one-two showdown came at 167 pounds. Hawkeye senior Royce Alger wanted to prove that his January 11 win over Iowa State's three-time All-America, Kevin Jackson, had not been a fluke. Down 8-3 in the third period, Alger had stormed back to win 11-9. "I wish I had 12 Royce Algers," says Gable.
But Jackson was subsequently chosen over Alger for the East-West All-Star meet. "I guess they thought I was lucky," Alger said with a shrug. Jackson thought so, too. "If I hadn't stubbed my toe, he wouldn't have taken that match," Jackson said before last week's meet. "Alger's just a brawler. I'm better than he is." Their reunion came with Iowa trailing 12-6. Interspersing his moves with the occasional gratuitous shove, Alger prevailed once again, 5-3. That made the score at 12-9 Iowa State. Cut to the Butcher.
Chiapparelli pinned Cyclone senior Steve Metzger 28 seconds into the third period to give the Hawkeyes six points and their first lead of night, 15-12. In the process, he dusted off the Rico Roll, a daring contortion that exposes his shoulders to the mat at one point. If the maneuver is executed with sufficient momentum, it then sends him another 180 degrees and into position to score a pin. That's just what happened.
But Iowa's Rollie Kane then lost at 190 pounds. Immediately afterward he repaired to the Hawkeye wrestling room, where he ran sprints in an apparent quest for penance. Kane's defeat left the score tied at 15. The heavyweights would decide the match.
They were Mark Sindlinger, a center on the Hawkeye football team, and Andy Cope. The prevailing mood in Carver-Hawkeye was one of hope rather than confidence. Sindlinger had been a great high school heavyweight, but what had he done lately? "Nothing," said the 240-pounder. Now, after winning four of six matches since the end of the football season, he rode a 4-1 lead into the final period.
Just two minutes would spell the difference—for Sindlinger and most Iowans—between glory and immeasurable depression. Cope escaped and shot for Sindlinger's legs but was himself taken down—6-2 Sindlinger. Cope escaped again, and again went for Sindlinger's legs. The result was the same—8-3 Sindlinger. Glory for the Hawkeyes it was. Sindlinger was still signing autographs when Gable was smiling in spite of himself and looking ahead to "more important things."