The week before the NCAA wrestling championships Arizona State coach Bobby Douglas didn't show up for practices. Douglas said he had to be at the Ohio high school tournament in Columbus to cheer on Bridgeport High, his alma mater. But Zeke Jones, the Sun Devils' 118-pounder, knew better.
"Coach is so intense that he had worked himself into a frenzy," he said. "He was afraid that if he rode us in the wrestling room—in that state of mind—guys would get hurt and never make it to the big meet. Coach didn't want that. He figured we had a shot at the title."
He figured right. Douglas brought seven wrestlers to the NCAAs in Ames, Iowa, last week, and not one finished worse than sixth. Arizona State scored 93 points to beat Iowa (85.5), Iowa State (83.75) and Oklahoma State (80.5) and win the team title. This was the first time since 1967 that a school from a state other than Iowa or Oklahoma had won the championship, and the first time in 58 years that a school from west of the Rockies had prevailed.
Remarkably, the Sun Devils triumphed without a single individual champion. Mike Davies, a 190-pounder, was the only Arizona State entrant to reach Saturday night's final round, and he lost 5-0 to Mark Coleman of Ohio State. But Douglas's six other wrestlers had racked up enough points in the consolation rounds to put the Sun Devils into the lead going into the finals. Iowa needed to win all three of its title matches to regain the trophy.
March 28, 1988
The crowd of 11,014 at James H. Hilton Coliseum didn't have to wait long to find out if the Hawkeyes would succeed. In the evening's opening match (at the behest of ESPN), the 126-pound bout, Penn State's Jim Martin defeated Brad Penrith, a two-time All-America at Iowa, 5-4, and the championship hardware was headed west.
In 1987 Iowa State wrested the title from the Hawkeyes, who had won an unprecedented nine straight crowns, but that did little to change the NCAAs' aura of predictability. Last week, six teams entered the three-day, 728-match tournament with a chance to win. Even after Penrith's loss settled the team championship, all of the ensuing title matches were exciting and meaningful:
•At 118 pounds, Jack Cuvo became the first wrestler from Division II East Stroudsburg (Pa.) to win an NCAA Division I title. (Division II titlists receive an automatic berth in the Division I tournament.) Cuvo beat Minnesota freshman Keith Nix 11-5.
•Oklahoma State's 134-pounder, John Smith, finished his college career by routing Iowa's Joe Melchiore 9-2. The victory was Smith's 90th in a row and placed him second on the alltime NCAA list behind Iowa coach Dan Gable, who won 100 straight as an Iowa State wrestler.
•Pittsburgh's Pat Santoro defeated Sean O'Day of Division I Edinboro (Pa.) 16-11 in the 142-pound division to become the third member of his family to make All-America. Father Richard and brother Tim attained the honor at Lehigh.
•At 150 pounds, North Carolina State's Scott Turner, who was named the meet's outstanding wrestler, beat Tim Krieger of Iowa State 1-0 in overtime to break Krieger's 56-match winning streak. Turner yielded a riding-time point to Krieger to send the bout into overtime—the only point he gave up in the meet.
•Rob Koll, North Carolina's 158-pounder, pinned Joe Pantaleo of Michigan in 1:14 to get the only fall in the finals. Koll's father, Bill, was a three-time NCAA champ at Northern Iowa.
•Iowa State's Mike Van Arsdale defeated Mike Amine of Michigan 8-2 at 167 pounds to give the home crowd something to cheer about.
•Royce Alger of Iowa won his 78th straight match—and his second NCAA crown—by edging Dan Mayo of Penn State 6-4 at 177.
•Heavyweight Carlton Haselrig, the Division II champ from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, won his second straight title by thrashing Oregon State's Dave Orndorff 12-2.
But nothing better demonstrated wrestling's new diversity than the triumph of Douglas, a two-time Olympian at 138½ pounds and the only black in the sport's Hall of Fame. In his 14 years at Arizona State, he has had to contend with the traditional powers—not only on the mat, but in the recruiting arena, where his resources are limited. The uphill battle for talent keeps Douglas on the road at least 100 days a year.
The pain of Douglas's past is written on his face: He rarely smiles. When he was born, his father was in prison. At age three, he watched a stranger plunge a butcher knife into his mother's chest seven times. She survived, but Douglas says, "That messed me up pretty good. He wasn't trying to kill only my mother. He was trying to kill me, too."
Douglas persevered on inner strength, and he demands that his wrestlers be strong, too. Sun Devil practices—seven days a week, up to five hours a day—are merciless. Nearly every Saturday at 7 a.m., the wrestlers run Squaw Peak, a mountain 12 miles north of Tempe. Douglas greets them at the top with his stopwatch. Sixteen minutes is his mid-season deadline. "The course is about a mile and three quarters—straight up," says Jones. "The new guys usually collapse."
Douglas's afternoon workouts are even more grueling. Sun Devil wrestlers are pitted against former All-Americas and members of the Sunkist Kids, the nation's top freestyle club, which Douglas also coaches. "He'll send six or seven smaller wrestlers at you—one at a time—for three-minute matches," says Davies. "When it's over, you throw up or threaten to quit. For sure you ask, 'Why couldn't I have been a normal college student?' "
After that ordeal the Arizona State wrestlers run 30-yard sprints—at least 60 of them, sometimes as many as 120. Three times a week they finish up in the weight room.
Douglas is just as demanding when it comes to his athletes' academic performance. Because the Sun Devils spend most of their season on the road in search of competitive dual matches, hotel lobbies and airport terminals become study halls. More than half the members of the '88 team have at least a B average in majors like engineering and business.
Arizona Staters say Douglas is hard to get close to. Yet all of them relate stories that convey his warmth and loyalty to his wrestlers. "A few years ago, I was going through some hard times," Davies says. "I went to his office. We talked. He did some yelling. And I wound up crying in his arms. I needed him to hold me."
Heavyweight Rod Severn recalls how quick thinking by Douglas revived Severn's older brother, Dan, who was overcome by heat exhaustion at a national high school meet in Iowa City during the summer of 1975. Douglas did not even know Dan, but, fully clothed, he dragged the incoherent teenager into a cold shower and massaged his exhausted limbs. Four Severn brothers subsequently enrolled at Arizona State.
On Saturday night, when the team title was announced, Davies and Severn hoisted Douglas onto their shoulders and paraded him around the coliseum. His tough exterior melted into a wide smile—finally. "I know I'm a lot closer to them than they think," Douglas says. "I appear reserved because I'm constantly thinking about what I have to do to make them better. We care about one another. We won because we wrestled for each other."