One day last week, before a preliminary round in the NCAA championships, Iowa coach Dan Gable was in Room 403 at the Ramada Inn in Calverton, Md. He had just finished a tense meeting with his team by asking, "Any questions?" At which time Royce Alger, his 167-pound Designated Mouth, said, "Yes. What is the capital of Alaska?"
"Anchorage," said Gable without missing a beat or changing expression or getting it right. "Any other questions?"
It has been that kind of year for Gable—bizarre, distracting, off-the-wall and trying. Yet, despite all their problems, the Hawkeyes seemed to be slipping and sliding toward a 10th straight national title, a feat no college team in any sport had ever accomplished. Moments after the team meeting, one of Gable's three daughters, Jennifer, 9, asked, "Daddy, can we really win?" Said Gable softly, "Right now the chances are against it." This was a question Gable got dead right.
By late Saturday afternoon Iowa had lost in the NCAAs for the first time since 1977. Its conqueror was Iowa State, Gable's alma mater, the team that won back in '77. The Cyclones wrestled brilliantly, winning 4 of 10 weight classes, while the Hawkeyes won only 2. When Iowa State coach Jim Gibbons was asked whether he felt bad about denying Gable his history-making 10th title, Gibbons said, "Yeah, I do."
March 30, 1987
Indeed, all attention at the tournament was focused on whether Iowa would break the record shared by the Yale golf teams of 1905-13 and the USC track teams of 1935-43; those teams had won nine consecutive national championships. Unfortunately, all the Iowa-this, Iowa-that stuff, day in and day out, obscured a lights-out performance by the Cyclones. Nobody gave Iowa State much chance of upsetting the Hawkeyes, which just goes to show that nobody really knew what lay in the hearts of the Cyclones, who had been chafing for a decade as the Hawks basked in the warm glow of success and celebrity.
Understand, it was not as if Iowa State didn't know the difference between a takedown and a reversal. The Cyclones had won six NCAA titles themselves but had struggled during the waning years of their legendary coach, Harold Nichols. He was in Ames for 32 years and stayed too long at the dance. During Nichols's last four years, from 1982 through '85, the Cyclones were 0-8 against Iowa in dual meets. Iowa State fans had become discouraged, and Iowa fans had become bored. A rivalry requires two.
Then along came Gibbons, 27, a positive-thinking dynamo (and NCAA champ for the Cyclones at 134 pounds in 1981) who roared onto the scene with new words and new ways. Since he took over as coach, Iowa State has split four dual meets with Iowa. He said that one of the secrets of his squad's success last week was that from the Big Eight championships on, "we didn't say a negative word to our wrestlers. We told them they were good and that they could do no wrong, and that's what happened. We had to wrestle a perfect tournament to win, and we did."
Just the way Iowa usually does. But on Saturday the Cyclones had placed five wrestlers in the finals to four for the Hawkeyes. Moreover, for Iowa to retain the title it had to win all its matches, get bonus points in at least one of those victories and pray that Iowa State lost all of its matches. A tall order, but when you're talking about Iowa, anything is possible.
To accommodate ABC, which wanted to highlight the Iowa—Iowa State confrontation, the NCAA began Saturday's program with the 167-pound match between Alger and the Cyclones' Kevin Jackson, a remarkable physical specimen even among wrestlers. Alger is not blessed with great talent, but he is an ornery competitor. This season he was 35-0, but that was easy because he only took on one guy at a time. This is a man who needs more challenges. He routed Jackson 10-4 by pounding him into oblivion.
One win and three to go. You don't suppose...? Alger was ecstatic. Overlooking the task that lay ahead for his team, he said, "I can hardly wait for next year. I am ready to knock some people down."
Typical Iowa. The Hawks had swaggered into College Park with an arrogance that was downright, well, appealing. All year they wore the Roman numeral X on their uniforms to signify their undying quest of title No. 10. They talked of nothing else. And, in truth, while many groused about Gable's domination of the sport, few besides the Cyclones didn't want him to win last weekend. What the heck. Since he owned the sport, why not let him go ahead and plant the flag in a historical way? Then they could just change the name of the sport from wrestling to Gabling, bronze him and be done with it.
Yet for all their accomplishments and bluster, there were plenty of indications during the season that the Hawkeyes would fall short of their goal. Most notably perhaps Brad Penrith, the defending NCAA champ at 126 pounds, who was convicted on a drunk-driving charge and had to sit out the first semester with poor grades. However, he had been gangbusters since coming back.
Following the Alger-Jackson match, Penrith took on the Cyclones' Billy Kelly. Penrith can scramble, and he took it to the conservative Kelly. With half a minute to go in the match, Penrith led 3-2 and was still pressing. He tried a driving single-leg takedown, got back on his heels and was yanked off balance by the opportunistic Kelly, who pinned him with a blazing move. What was that move you put on Penrith? Said Kelly, "I call it a pin." Whatever, it clinched the championship for the Cyclones.
Their fans went nuts. Several lifted a sign that had a giant X with a line drawn diagonally through it. From there on it was all Iowa State.
In the next match the Cyclones' best wrestler, Tim Krieger, upset Iowa's defending national champ at 150 pounds, Jim Heffernan, in overtime. Afterward, a frustrated Heffernan kicked Krieger's headgear—fortunately his head was not in it—well beyond the mat.
Now things really started getting fun for Iowa State. Along came 158-pounder Stewart Carter, who had never won a significant tournament in high school or college until the Big Eights on March 7. He defeated Clarion's Ken Haselrig by a score of 6-3. Finally Cyclone sophomore Eric Voelker, who missed six weeks of the season with a knee injury, beat Minnesota's Dave Dean 4-3 for the 190-pound title. "I expected this," said Voelker, "because it was my goal." Hmm, sounds a lot like Iowa over the past decade.
Iowa State ended up winning four of its five matches, Iowa only two of four. Afterward, Gibbons sounded like a man who expects to be challenging for championships for some time to come. "What we did," he said, deep in the bowels of Cole Field House late on Saturday, "was show other teams that they can do the same thing. And we didn't back in. We took it."
"We're still a dynasty," insisted Iowa's Alger. "We're just taking a year off." But Gable knows that dynasties can't take years off. "I don't have many losses in life, and I think I needed one," he said. "This will motivate me." It had better. Gable admits his recruiting has fallen off in the last two years, and ISU will be loaded again next season.
Is Gable sorry that his team flaunted its goal by wearing the X's? No way. "They will always remind me of what we didn't get," he said. "A little pain will make me work harder." And so the Hawkeyes are bloodied but unbowed. And Gable is left to wonder if there might be any prospects in, oh, Juneau.