The Pride of Iowa

The passion for wrestling still runs deep throughout the state, where legends have returned to two storied college programs to restore their faded luster
March 11, 2007

From an altitude,which is how most people see it, Iowa in winter is a dreary quilt-work of cornstubble. But a gradual descent reveals a friendlier geography. Roads finallyform an intersection. A white church steeple or a water tower announces aconcentration of people. A town materializes. Iowa has its cities, of course,but it's mostly a stitching of small towns--that much is clear fromoverhead--none of them any bigger than they need to be to service the landaround it.

And in his officeDan Gable is saying he could drive to any one of these towns--no matter howsmall, featureless or remote--and find me a wrestling story. "That's justthe way it is," he says. "It's Iowa."

In Humboldt (pop.4,452) they still talk about Frank Gotch, the sport's Babe Ruth. He was theprofessional heavyweight champion from 1906 to '13 and famous enough for itthat he was invited to the White House to meet Teddy Roosevelt. In Sheldon(pop. 4,912, A REALLY NICE PLACE!), they still talk of the Brands twins--Tomand Terry--a couple of hyper handfuls who became Olympic medalists, Tom winninga gold in '96, Terry a bronze in 2000. Cresco (pop. 3,905, IOWA'S YEAR 'ROUNDPLAYGROUND!) somehow produced five admirals and a Nobel Peace Prize winner aswell as two Olympians, a couple of college coaches and scores of individualchampions. The Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug, wasn't one of the champs; hefinished second at the state tournament, in '32.

In fact, the onlyschool to have piled up more hardware than little Cresco in the 87 years of thestate tournament--a fever dream of small-town America--is Gable's alma mater,West Waterloo High. Waterloo is no town (pop. 68,747, BIG CITYEXCITEMENT ... HOMETOWN HOSPITALITY), but it's no Des Moines, either. Yetit supports a wrestling museum with Gable's name on it, several vibrant highschool programs and a tradition that belies its size. Bob Siddens, who won 11titles and coached more than 50 individual champions at West Waterloo, walksaround town, all dapper and crisp at the age of 81, recalling all the "ladsand lassies" he coached, and is accorded John Wooden respect. Gable, 58,was a three-time champ under Siddens before earning three titles at Iowa State,winning Olympic gold at 149.5 pounds in 1972 and then coaching Iowa to 15championships in 21 years. (Wooden, by the way, won only 10 in 27 seasons atUCLA.) He is treated more along the lines of a god.

For decades thestate's top high school wrestlers followed the roads out of town to Iowa Cityor Ames. Iowa and Iowa State combined for 26 NCAA championships and produced 60wrestlers, who won 91 titles from 1968--69 to 1999--2000. But then bothprograms fell into relative doldrums. To remedy that, they hired coaches whoembody the sport's greatest glory, and each is rebounding fiercely. In itsfirst season under Cael Sanderson--perhaps the most accomplished U.S. wrestlerever, having won Olympic gold in 2004 after going undefeated in four seasons atAmes--Iowa State is ranked No. 2 going into the NCAA championships, which starton March 15 in Auburn Hills, Mich. Tom Brands left Virginia Tech last April totake over at Iowa. He has lifted the Hawkeyes to No. 10, aided by an assistantwith a few credentials himself, Gable.

Wrestling ischaracterized by nothing so much as work ethic, which is something worthcelebrating and remembering in a place that requires so much of it. Iowans liketheir football and basketball, too, but they love their wrestling. And thispassion has transferred directly into an extended excellence that neitherIndiana in basketball nor Texas in football can claim. The lore is pureAmericana, reminding us of a permanence of achievement and small-potatoes glorythat doesn't seem possible outside places like Iowa. Would Bob Steenlagepersevere in memory if he'd been California's first four-time high schoolchampion? In Britt (pop. 2,052; FOUNDED BY RAIL, SUSTAINED BY PLOW), he remainsfamous, hauled out for newspaper reminiscences 45 years later.

Even NorthernIowa, in Cedar Falls, and Cornell College, in Mount Vernon, have won NCAAtitles, giving the 30th most populous state a total of 30. Oklahoma is apowerhouse too--between them, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma have 41--but otherprograms advance tentatively, mindful of the mystique. Minnesota coach JRobinson, who assisted Gable for 12 seasons (and who poaches an Iowa four-timestate champ, like 133-pound Mack Reiter, when he can) has the No. 1 team,having crushed Iowa 29--13 in a meet last month. But he does not anticipate areworking of wrestling mythology anytime soon.

"AtMinnesota," he says, "we've got a minor sport. In Iowa, it's still amajor sport. There's a different mind-set, a different attitude. Wrestling isimportant. I mean, [the Hawkeyes] have their own beat writer." When theGolden Gophers came to Iowa City, 8,274 fans showed up. Iowa, which has won"only" three championships since Gable left in 1997--his successor JimZalesky was replaced after finishing fourth in the NCAAs last year--still leadsthe country in attendance, with 6,740 fans per meet.

Iowa State has aformidable tradition as well, and it's rebuilding, too, perhaps at a fasterclip than its rival. Under Sanderson, the Cyclones are in the hunt for theirfirst championship in 20 years. For all his success, though, the 27-year-oldSanderson remains something of an outsider, having grown up in Heber City,Utah. But he understands Iowa wrestling. "When I came to Iowa State as afreshman," he says, "and, remember, I'd been a four-time champion inUtah, somebody asked me if I thought I could have won even one in Iowa. That'sthe attitude."

To maintain suchtradition, such attitude, in the face of increasing distractions andcompetition from other sports is nothing less than a marvel. There is no reasonthat other, more populous states, shouldn't surpass Iowa. Brands says the tophigh school programs right now are in New Jersey and Ohio. His best prospect,who won't be eligible until next season, is from Michigan. But he knows, allthe same, that the key to success is to recruit those four-timers, thesmall-town legends, the hard-nosed and aggressive ones, and make themcompetitive at the college level. "These fans deserve that," he says."They expect that."

To help stoke thelocals' fires, Brands coaxed Gable out of his fund-raising job in the Hawkeyes'athletic department and onto his staff. There is no equivalent to this move,not in any sport, at any level, unless the Green Bay Packers somehow coaxedVince Lombardi out of eternity to call plays from the press box. Gable's roleis somewhat mysterious, in that he refuses to offer his former pupil anyunsolicited advice. But his impatience with losing might provide the programwith just enough impetus to regain its stature.

The day after theMinnesota loss, for example, Gable was radiating pure disgust. "Threetakedowns!" he said, referring to Iowa's paltry output. "I can getthree takedowns before I get out of bed. And by that, of course, I mean mywife." Like Brands, he believes Iowa wrestling is a civic trust:"People here love this sport, and they've seen some great wrestling. We hada style that people are craving, a dominant style, pushing, shoving, snapping,wrestling to the edge, standing toe-to-toe. They've seen enough of that for 50years to know the difference. They've seen meets with 10 competitive weightclasses, not a 'cigarette break' in there. They are highly expectant. We had ateam--Brands was part of it--when we had 11 All-Americas in 10 weightclasses." He returns as asked, caretaker of this trust.

Gable is an oddduck, his intensity and fear of losing probably no longer as contagious as theyonce were. Still, you cannot be around him for long and be unaffected. As anaside, he brought up that miserable blight on his career--a loss in his finalNCAA match, when the particulars of his unbeaten career were being etched introphies. He was distracted, he admits, and the defeat proved properlytransforming. "I wouldn't have been the man I am, the coach, or the husbandand father, without that loss," he says.

But he stillmourns it. "I remember the depression afterward," Gable recalls. "Iwent back to school, but I physically couldn't talk to my parents when theycalled." He reenacted the scene, reaching to answer an imaginary phonecall. "I'm choking up right now, a little bit." His mother mistook hissilence for--who knows what?--and drove to his campus dorm, knocked on his doorand slapped him. He laughs at the memory, a little. It was 35 years ago, afterall.

It may be thatfear of losing is not something you coach, anyway, but something that'sinstilled in all those small gyms in all those small towns where farm boysescape a comparative drudgery for one that promises at least a little fame,however local. Bill Smith, the 1952 Olympic gold medalist, recalls that he andhis Council Bluffs teammates hated to wrestle those farm boys at state."They were just stronger than us," he says. "They had thesepowerful grips. Milking cows, we always figured."

Brands, whoseintensity is almost comic, tries to explain what it's like to be from a smalltown and do something memorable. "My first state tournament," he says,"I was one and out. But I remember the drive home on the bus, sitting nextto our heavyweight, who won a championship, and he was on top of the world.He's a garbage man back in Sheldon, haven't seen him for years. But he's achampion forever."

It's almostimpossible, in fact, to explain the hold the state tournament has on Iowa eachFebruary. There were 23,000 requests for 13,700 tickets this year. Driving homeafterward from Des Moines to Iowa City every year, Gable admits that he fallsinto a depression. "Not a long one, but a depression." When I ask himwhy, he shoots me a look. "Because it's over."

Some of these kidswill go on to wrestle in college, and some of them will then return to theirlittle towns and nurture their own three- and four-timers. In Iowa City twoformer Hawkeyes who were NCAA champions coach rival programs, Brad Smith atCity High and Mark Reiland at West High. It's not unheard of.

In Iowa wrestlerswear their letter jackets without a coastal sense of irony, the shiny diaperpins (pins--get it?) actually conveying something to their peers. They pursuegoals that require ungodly work but have little logical reward in this day andage. A college scholarship, perhaps, but not a $35 million contract, and notmuch TV time either.

Still, in thenorthernmost part of the state, you could do worse than drop the name of MarkSchwab, a four-timer from the mid-1980s. You might even get some conversationout of a mention of Gerald (Germ) Leeman, a three-timer who won a silver medalat the 1948 Olympics. Both of them, believe it or not, came from Osage (pop.3,451; CITY OF MAPLES). No doubt you've flown over it.

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"In Iowa, it's still a major sport," saysMinnesota's coach. "There's a different mind-set, a different attitude.Wrestling is IMPORTANT."

A four-time high school champion in Utah, Sandersonrecalls being asked "if I thought I could have WON EVEN ONE inIowa."

PHOTODavid E. KluthoREVERSAL Iowa's 149-pounder, Alex Grunder, had control for a moment over Minnesota's Dustin Schlatter, who rallied to win the match and further cement the Golden Gophers' hold on the Big Ten. PHOTOMATTHEW HOLSTTHE ROAD BACK To build on Iowa's grassroots passion, Brands (left) lured the fabled Gable back as a Hawkeyes assistant. PHOTODavid E. KluthoUNGENTLE BEN Iowa State's Grant Turner was one of Askren's 23 first-period pins. TWO PHOTOSDavid E. KluthoMAT-ITUDE Despite a No. 10 ranking, Iowa still has the biggest (and most fanatic) crowds. PHOTODavid E. KluthoCONQUERING HERO After an unbeaten career at Iowa State, Sanderson returned this year to lead the Cyclones to a No. 2 ranking.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)