By MIKE LOPRESTI
Iowa City, Ia. — The pep band trombones are here for a dual wrestling meet. So are television cameras, a radio broadcast team and 8,790 customers. Yep, this must be Iowa.
Why are we here? The word “dynasty” gets handed out like chewing gum. Time to check on a guy who created a true one. He’s over there signing autographs for a line of people that seems to stretch to Cedar Rapids. Whatever happened to Dan Gable — one of the most successful men to ever grace this or any other American sport? We found him with a pen in his hand.
This was 10 minutes after he finished broadcasting Iowa’s win over Michigan, which pushed its dual meet unbeaten streak to 76. A month after he retired from the school’s athletic department. And 13 years after he left coaching. But corn is eternal in Iowa, and so is Dan Gable. Why stand for 30 minutes, signing caps and shirts and pictures and ticket stubs?
“I want them to come back,” he says.
Gable coached 21 years at Iowa and won 15 national championships, going 21-for-21 in Big Ten titles. That is even outdoing John Wooden.
He went 182-1 as a high school and college wrestler, losing his last match. And in the cold war days of the 1972 Olympics, when the Soviet Union wrestling machine made him the enemy of the state and target No. 1, he won the gold medal and did not give up a single point. Take that, Comrade Brezhnev.
“Nothing like having a country vow to beat you,” Gable says, 39 years later.
We can report several updates.
• The gold medal sits above his fireplace, with other awards in a basement museum, which gets toured each summer by the kids who flock to wrestling camp.
“I think only one time did they ever steal anything, and they gave it back before the end of camp,” he said.
• Dan and Kathy never had a son to carry on the wrestling name. But the four daughters are great and they have produced six grandchildren, one named Gable and another named Danny.
“They’re all potential wrestlers,” he says. “Even the girls.”
• The 62-year-old has been known to slip back on the mat, but let’s keep that between us.
“I’m addicted. But I try not to because I like being healthy. Had a lot of surgeries in my day. I’m being pretty good now. I wrestle my wife. I’m not undefeated there.”
• He still follows every global wrestling grunt.
“I’ll be on the Russian website for wrestling today.”
• He is restless about his life’s passion. USA wrestling won only three medals in Beijing, fewer than Azerbaijan. Title IX cuts have sliced away many Division I programs.
“It’s very difficult, but I just can’t keep letting that haunt me,” he says, saying the numbers of participants out there, including young girls, convince him wrestling could thrive, if given a proper push.
Title IX is simple in goal, but not execution. Who would suggest that women not be given an equal chance at the values of college sport? But who would think it desirable when other sports go to the guillotine to balance a budget?
Neither feels right.
“I just would not ever say it’s OK to eliminate something to add something else,” Gable says.
“I care about both sides. I’m not so sure where (the other side) is at.”
• He does not miss coaching, even with its special rewards.
“I didn’t jump for joy when I won as an athlete. But I jumped for joy when I won as a coach. That’s the difference.”
He hopes his story can help revive wrestling at large. He wants to find ways that training and fitness can fight disease and depression. The man who has spent a lifetime on the mat is looking for something beyond. He mentions Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who developed heartier wheat to counter world hunger.
“The guy was from Cresco, Iowa, and he was a wrestler. For me, that’s who I look up to.”
One last update from Dan Gable:
“My best is yet to come.”