The dominant figure at last weekend's Virginia Duals wrestling meet at the Hampton Coliseum was a short, stoop-shouldered man pacing around in a Russian fur hat. He was Arizona State coach Bobby Douglas, and though he's not widely known to the general public, there are several reasons why he's a notable to American wrestlers:
•He wrestled in two Olympics at 138½ pounds, was captain of the U.S. wrestling team at the 1968 Games in Mexico City and defeated a young rival named Dan Gable once in the Olympic trials and twice in qualifying bouts for the U.S. world team.
•In 1973, at the age of 30, he became the first black head coach of a major college wrestling team when he was hired at the University of California, Santa Barbara—he took over at Arizona State the next year—and last fall he became the first black inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla.
•He has written three books on wrestling technique and is one of the sport's foremost historians, having read, he says, "every book written on wrestling in English, and even one in French." He has traced his own roots to the wrestling-rich Nubian culture of the Sudan.
January 18, 1988
•In Tempe, Ariz., he has built the Sunkist Kids—a club whose members range in age from early teens to early 30's—into six-time national freestyle champions. He has coached several U.S. national teams in international competition and will be an assistant coach of the 1988 U.S. Olympic team.
•He wears that hat—made of otter fur, he says—which he acquired from a Soviet wrestler, former 198-pound world champion Sanasar Oganisyan, at a World Cup meet in Mongolia last November. In exchange Douglas gave Oganisyan a Walkman, a gym bag, wrestling shoes and two pairs of jeans.
As if all that weren't enough, Douglas's surprising Sun Devils came to Virginia unbeaten, untied and ranked first in the nation. The Sun Devils had knocked off traditional powers Iowa (coached by Gable) and Oklahoma on successive nights in December and then had won the prestigious Las Vegas Invitational. "We've let it be known that there's a new kid on the block," said Douglas before leaving for Hampton.
But the Virginia Duals can be rough on new kids. The meet is the most rigorous test of team strength in college wrestling, and this year's field included 13 Top 20 teams and every NCAA championship contender except Iowa and Oklahoma State. "They call this tournament the meat grinder," said Gary Abbott, editor of Wrestling Masters magazine. "Teams come here for four matches in two days and really get beat up."
After three rounds in the grinder, Arizona State had defeated unranked VMI 47-0, seventh-ranked Wisconsin 25-10 and sixth-ranked Northern Iowa 20-13 to reach Saturday night's final against defending NCAA champ Iowa State, the preseason choice for No. 1.
Iowa State was near full strength for the first time this season. Crippled by injuries to five starters in December, the Cyclones had been upset by Wisconsin, had placed seventh at Las Vegas and had fallen to fifth in the national rankings. Their lineup on Saturday night included freshman Dan Knight, a four-time Iowa high school champ, at 118 pounds, and two defending NCAA champions—Tim Krieger at 150 and Eric Voelker at l90.
The Sun Devils won the opening bout when Knight was manhandled 19-9 by sophomore Zeke Jones, who exemplifies the Arizona State style with his relentlessness. "Never give a guy a chance to rest or breathe," says Douglas. "Our philosophy is to stay in our opponents' faces and keep them backing up."
Another adherent of the Douglas philosophy is Jim Gibbons, the Cyclones' 28-year-old coach. "When they were growing up, Jim and his brothers tore Bobby's books apart and taped the pages on the wall," says Iowa State assistant coach Les Anderson. "They studied them for hours." The research paid off in a 5-0 win for 134-pound All-America Jeff Gibbons, the youngest of those four brothers (two of them, Jim and Joe, were also All-America at Iowa State). Then a pin by Krieger put Iowa State ahead 12-7 with the match half over.
Then a strange thing happened. With less than 30 seconds left in the 158-pound bout, the Cyclones' Bill Tate was riding out an apparent 7-2 victory over Dan St. John. Suddenly, St. John arched his back, forced Tate's shoulders to the mat and—without ever gaining control—scored a rare defensive pin. The Cyclones were stunned. Instead of leading 15-7, they now trailed 13-12.
With two bouts left, Arizona State was still ahead, 17-15. Even with Voelker taking to the mat, Iowa State was in trouble. Voelker's opponent at 190 was Sun Devil senior Mike Davies, who had defeated Voelker in overtime in the Las Vegas tournament. Davies had subsequently leapfrogged over Voelker to No. 1 in the Amateur Wrestling News ranking of 190-pounders.
Douglas cites the 1983 signing of Davies and heavyweight Rod Severn as a watershed in his 13 years at Arizona State. "Before then we had to settle for fourth-and fifth-best recruits," he says. "But these two were true blue-chippers. Ever since then we've been able to sign the prospects we want."
Davies chose Arizona State because the school agreed to let him both play football—which he quit after one year—and wrestle. Severn followed three older brothers who had wrestled for the Sun Devils, two of whom were All-Americas. With the match winding down on Saturday, it seemed unimaginable that neither man would earn a victory.
But Davies lost a 6-2 decision, and Severn, who underwent surgery on his right knee in mid-December, stepped onto the mat feeling exhausted from a grueling match he had wrestled earlier in the day—in spite of Douglas's objection. In it, he had tied the nation's No. 2-ranked heavy, Joel Greenlee of Northern Iowa. "Bobby wanted me to sit that one out so I could rest for tonight," Severn said later. "But I wanted to wrestle Greenlee. It turned out to be a big mistake."
Big indeed. Severn's opponent was Cyclone senior Andy Cope, whom he had pinned in a match last season. "I figured, the guy's good, I've never beat him—but I'm going to go after him," said Cope later. "I thought he would come at me a lot harder."
Given Iowa State's 18-17 lead after Davies's loss, all Cope needed to do was earn a tie to clinch the Cyclone victory. And sure enough, the score stood at 1-1 with only 30 seconds remaining. "I knew he'd be going for the tie," said Severn. "I was just too out of shape to do anything. This tournament was the first time I'd been on the mat in more than a month."
Severn shot in desperately, sloppily, for an attempted takedown as time ticked away. Cope eluded him at the edge of the mat. The buzzer sounded, and the wrestlers on the Iowa State bench leaped up in unison. The Cyclones had won 20-19.
The Sun Devils sat in silence. Douglas paced in front of his team, shaking his head. "If I'd done my job, we wouldn't have lost," he said. "I shouldn't have let Rod wrestle against Northern Iowa. I'll be kicking myself in the butt for a long time about that."
"What counts is March," said Jones, thinking of the NCAAs, to be hosted by Iowa State. "We'll be ready then, I guarantee you."
"We'll be ready," confirmed Douglas, putting on his hat.
Indeed, come March both the fur and the Sun Devils may fly.