Dan Gable is supposedly retired, but he doesn’t think the word applies to him – and he’s probably right.
It’s a Thursday afternoon on a gorgeous day in May, and you won’t find Gable on a golf course or reeling in fish. He just returned the night before from a summit of wrestling minds at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and his bags are packed again to meet his seventh grandchild. Gable, though, insists he needs to squeeze in a stop by the Iowa wrestling room before he skips town. And so “retirement” for him on this day means sitting in the bleachers inside a sweltering practice facility, watching nearly 20 wrestlers training on the mats and stationary bikes before he starts a workout of his own. This is Gable’s sanctuary. The wrestling room has been his habitat for nearly five decades, the launching pad to a career that reached unprecedented heights in the sport, the place where he’d push his body to extreme discomfort yet also where he’d feel at ease.
Gable, 62, officially retired from his post in Iowa’s athletic department on Dec. 31, and as he settles into his seat overlooking the mats, someone mentions the retirement celebration the school has planned for this evening. They’re calling it “Gable’s Gold: A Celebration of Dan Gable’s Legacy.” The sold-out reception and banquet will be at the Coralville Marriott.
“Retirement isn’t a word I really like,” Gable said. “I do pretty much the same now that I’ve done all my life.”
The difference, Gable said, is he doesn’t have constrictions or bosses anymore. Aside from that, he said the only thing changing is his mission. He’s taking on an even greater role now as an ambassador for wrestling. He doesn’t like the idea of retirement for another reason. He explains the difficulties many people have had transitioning from full-time work into retirement and says he doesn’t want to “fail” at it.
Rarely has Gable failed at anything. Those familiar with his story know the facts and numbers by heart: He never lost a match in high school at Waterloo West, went undefeated at Iowa State until his final college bout, dissected the defeat and embarked on a path toward greatness at the Olympic level. Gable won the gold in 1972 at the Munich Games, rolling through his opponents without surrendering a point.
Then Iowa pried Gable away from the Cyclones and he became the leader of one of the most impressive dynasties in the history of organized sport. Gable was in charge for 21 of the program’s 25 consecutive Big Ten titles. Under his watch, the Hawkeyes won 15 NCAA titles, including a run of nine consecutive from 1978-86.
“It was us against the country,” said Minnesota coach J Robinson, Gable’s longtime top assistant. “Every year everybody would come back to beat us, which was very motivating. It was an interesting run because people would ask how we would do it, and I’d tell them, and everybody would say that wasn’t (the reason). It was kind of funny.”
Gable compiled a 355-21-5 record in dual meets. It wasn’t a fair fight in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes were 98-1 on their home mat under Gable.
Banners and Titles
As Gable looks across the mats on this day in May, a giant banner hangs from the rafters on the other side of the room. Every All-American in school history is listed with a special denotation for the NCAA champions.
Gable coached 29 of the names on the list, who accounted for 45 NCAA titles. He coached 65 wrestlers who tallied 152 All-America trophies.
“Don’t think I haven’t looked at that and studied it,” Gable said. “It looks good.”
Gable starts taking inventory of the names on the list. He talks about successful lawyers, bankers, doctors, school administrators, businessmen and others who have followed his path in coaching.
The Gable coaching tree has branches that stretch across the Big Ten — Tom Brands at Iowa, Robinson at Minnesota, Barry Davis at Wisconsin, Tom Ryan at Ohio State, Jim Heffernan at Illinois and Duane Goldman at Indiana — and perhaps that’s the main reason the conference’s landscape has changed since his retirement as a head coach in 1997.
In 1983, at the peak of Iowa’s dominance over the league, the Hawkeyes won individual titles at nine of the 10 weights. In the first season after Gable stepped down — with his coaching disciples scattered throughout the conference — seven schools came away from the Big Ten meet with an individual champ.
“I hear coaches say there’s 15 ways, 20 ways to get to the same place. There’s not,” Robinson said. “There’s a better way (and) that’s the best way. When you win the Big Ten 21 times and 15 out of 21 national tournaments, that’s pretty much telling you that’s the best way to do it. (Oklahoma State coach) John Smith won four (national titles) in a row and he’s down. We won a few and we’re down. Consistency is hard.”
The names on the banner evoke memories of Gable’s best work. There’s Brands, a three-time NCAA champion and 1996 Olympic gold medalist. There’s Mark Ironside, a two-time national champ and Iowa’s first winner of the Hodge Trophy, wrestling’s Heisman. There’s Jesse Whitmer, who parlayed his one shot as a full-time starter into an NCAA title.
Inside Gable’s Head
There are dozens of other stories, but the ones these three tell describe Gable as a man who was overtly demanding yet compassionate, a coach who had the elasticity to serve the individual needs of his roster without sacrificing the standards of the team, a leader who could see the brightest characteristics in his athletes during the darkest times.
Gable’s best trait may have been his uncanny ability to push the right motivational button. He knew who needed a pat on the back and who could handle a kick in the pants.
Brands remembers a match early in the 1990 season when he lost to Oklahoma State rival Alan Fried in the finals of the Northern Iowa Open. Brands flipped open the newspaper the next day and saw a Gable quote that called the sophomore out for his performance.
“I was disappointed in Tommy Brands. He only wrestled one period then he wrestled like I’ve never seen him do in a while. He wasn’t the same wrestler after the first period,” Gable told the newspaper reporter.
“You wanted to be around the guy, you wanted to impress him,” Brands said. “But you had to be the right kind of guy, too. He ran some guys out of town. He was a hard guy to wrestle for. … You had to be tough to wrestle for him.”
Ask Ironside about Gable and he points to the 1996 All-Star dual in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa wrestled Wisconsin on a Saturday night in January. Ironside came to practice the next morning and he and Gable went to work on his next opponent, a quick turnaround for a Monday-night match against Lock Haven national champion Cary Kolat.
Kolat was 11-0 with 11 pins. Nobody had taken a match into the third period against him, and even Ironside, a returning All-American ranked second, admitted he first approached the match with the curiosity of seeing where he stood against the No. 1 wrestler in the country.
“We never talked about Kolat, we never trained for Kolat or anything like that until it was the next match on the schedule,” Ironside said. “Then we started working for Kolat, where he was good and what I needed to do to beat him, and everything out of Gable’s mouth was, ‘When you beat Kolat, here’s how you’re going to do it. Here’s the way you’re going to beat Kolat.’ It was all positive.
“The first couple times he said it, I knew what he was doing. I kind of did a double take like, ‘Yeah, I see what you’re trying to pull here.’ But he said it with so much (conviction) that he made me believe it. He kept saying it over and over and over until I bought into it and I went into that match, honest to God with (no doubts). I knew I was going to win that match.”
Ironside’s 9-8 victory was the headline performance for the Hawkeyes on a night when they won all five of their matches against top-flight competition. Ironside called it “the biggest turning point mentality-wise in my wrestling career, the thing that probably helped me the most.”
Iowa’s practice started the next day with Gable giving a rundown of the all-star performances from lightest to heaviest. He praised Mike Mena for his pin. He spent minutes breaking down Jeff McGinness’ victory. Ironside sat in the back row with his chest out, waiting to hear Gable gush over his win.
“I’m thinking I’m the man because I just beat Cary Kolat and Dan Gable is going to praise me,” Ironside said. “He gets to me and says, ‘Ironside, good job. Zadick …’ And he went right onto Bill Zadick. My heart sank for a split second and I’m like, ‘Huh? That’s it? Ironside, good job?’ It took me a matter of two seconds to really comprehend what happened, that it was time to put that behind me and move on and it was expected of me now.”
Whitmer shook his head when Gable told him before the 1997 season that he was destined to become Iowa’s next NCAA champion. After all, Whitmer was a fifth-year senior who hadn’t even cracked Iowa’s starting lineup on a full-time basis.
But Gable kept repeating it throughout the year and started calling the 118-pounder “The Strongest Man in the World” for his prodigious feats in the weight room. But when Whitmer dropped an 18-7 decision to Michigan State’s David Morgan midway through the season, Gable had to go back to his bag of mind tricks when he addressed the match the next day before practice.
“Instead of pointing out all the things I did wrong in the match, he pointed out everything I did right and what we learned from the match in a positive light,” Whitmer said. “By the time he got done talking, you would’ve thought I won.”
Whitmer said the points Gable made were vital to his mindset later in the season. He knocked off Morgan in the NCAA quarterfinals and made true on Gable’s preseason prediction, becoming Iowa’s next national champ. The TV cameras caught Gable’s first words to Whitmer as he came off the mat: “Strongest Man in the World.”
“He could take a person with some raw talent and a lot of heart and get the absolute most out of that guy,” Whitmer said. “He’d make them believe they could accomplish anything. He believes so much in that individual. I got to the point where I started believing in myself, and it was so much that I wanted to come off the mat having won for myself, I didn’t want to disappoint Coach Gable.”
One Track Mind
The Hawkeye Wrestling Club practice is winding down and Gable’s workout is about to begin. He strolls into the workout room most days with a black duffle bag filled with gear — mouthpieces, wrestling shoes, boxing gloves, headgear, a neck brace, numerous rolls of athletic tape and a wrench that fits the stationary bikes, just to name a few items.
Before Gable starts pedaling away, the wheels are still turning in his mind. They never stop when it comes to wrestling. Gable thinks back to a quote from years ago. He can’t remember whether the words were from his high school coach, Bob Siddens, or longtime coaching adversary Russ Hellickson.
“One of them said, ‘I know when he’s having sex he’s thinking wrestling,’” Gable laughed. “I don’t remember which one said that. One of the two said that. Then I started thinking about it and, you know, I think he’s right.”
Gable found himself on small college campuses across the Midwest in recent years as he followed his daughter, Mackie, during her soccer career at Loras College in Dubuque. Oftentimes his internal compass would lead him to the wrestling room to check out the facilities and see if they were being kept up and in use during the off season.
Gable would give each program a grade. The schools that had wrestlers training in the room during his visit passed. The ones that were using the wrestling room for storage failed. Either way, the head coach at the college would almost always hear from the wrestling icon at some point.
“He has a computer in his head and the only thing that computer runs is wrestling,” Robinson said. “There’s nothing that goes on in there except wrestling, and that’s the beauty of how he is. People don’t really understand it, but they’re not around him.
“His mind is focused on one thing and one thing only, therefore it allows it to be far more efficient than most people’s minds. … I’ve never been around anybody who’s consumed like he’s consumed. Not even close.”
Gable’s new charge is strengthening a sport that has been bleeding at top college levels in recent years and unifying organizations within wrestling. His paychecks are no longer signed by the University of Iowa, but Gable is very much still in a leadership position.
“This break from being contracted with the University of Iowa gives me more of a chance to help the sport,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I don’t like Iowa. They’re still my team favorite. But now the other people will allow me to help make the sport a bigger and better sport.”