The story of how one of the state’s best athletes became a legendary coach at the university’s biggest rival has long been an Iowa sports mystery.
Who knew that Dan Gable’s decision to leave Iowa State University 40 years ago for Iowa included a touch of espionage and came sealed in a case of athletic tape?
When bandages for an injured knee became difficult for Gable to obtain as he prepared for the 1972 Olympics, who outside of the cloak-and-dagger group knew that five dozen rolls valued at $100 would turn into one of the best investments in Hawkeye history?
“All I know is I couldn’t get a roll of tape (at Iowa State),” said Gable, who the University of Iowa honored with a statue that was unveiled Wednesday outside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. “It was like a dogfight to get a roll of tape. Then all of a sudden there was a case.”
Suddenly, Iowa had hooked Gable — the man named No. 18 on BleacherReport.com’s list of the best athletes of all time, ahead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willie Mays and Carl Lewis and who would later be called one of the top 20 coaches in history by ESPN.com.
As a college wrestler at ISU, Gable amassed a 118-1 record and was a two-time NCAA champion. In ’72, he won a gold medal in Munich without surrendering a point to any of his Olympic opponents.
His decision to leave Iowa State for Iowa was akin to a Heisman Trophy quarterback for Michigan accepting a coaching position at Ohio State. It was like a star point guard at Duke crossing over to call the shots on the sidelines at North Carolina.
The ripples are still felt today in Iowa City — a community with a wrestling passion that exploded after Gable’s arrival — where he was the name and face behind Iowa City’s winning bid for this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Trials for wrestling.
“The Hawkeyes realized an opportunity,” said Gable, who built one of the greatest dynasties in the history of college athletics, delivering 15 NCAA titles in his 21 seasons as Iowa’s coach. “I was looking for a little bit of tape, scrounging around and that was one of the best deals I ever got.”
It was an even better bargain for Iowa.
“It was a good idea,” former Iowa athletic director Bump Elliott said. “Anything to get Gable here was OK with me.”
Years later, Gable pieced together the entire puzzle that led him to Iowa City in 1972. Until recently, some of his closest friends and colleagues, such as high school coach Bob Siddens, Olympic coach Bill Farrell, college and Olympic teammate Ben Peterson and longtime assistant J Robinson hadn’t heard about the case of tape.
“I remember him using a lot of tape and I remember helping him tape his knee,” Peterson said. “I remember doing that a lot of times for him.”
Gable was 23 at the time. He had trained in Ames for the Munich Games and served as a graduate assistant for Harold Nichols at Iowa State.
Though Les Anderson, another young former Cyclone, was next in line on Iowa State’s coaching ladder, Nichols made arrangements to retain Gable, too.
“We wanted to keep him up here and we had it all set up,” Nichols said in April 1972 when news of Gable’s move to Iowa began to surface.
Months later, Gable expressed frustration with how Iowa State’s administration dragged its feet.
“I had lunch with (Iowa coach Gary) Kurdelmeier one day in Ames and he told me what he had in mind,” Gable said in November 1972. “It took Iowa State months to do anything. I was disappointed in the procedures they used.”
Meanwhile, Kurdelmeier, then in his first year as the head coach of the Hawkeyes, swooped in and laid the groundwork for Gable’s move across the state without sidetracking the Waterloo native’s Olympic training. Behind the scenes, Kurdelmeier courted Gable’s parents, selling them on his vision to coach a couple of seasons and turn the program over to their son.
“Yes, I suppose it did surprise a lot of people that we were able to hire Dan,” Kurdelmeier said in November 1972. “But it’s not a matter of loyalty. Coaching was what Dan wanted, and just because he went to school at Iowa State didn’t mean he had to go to work for that school.”
According to Gable, Kurdelmeier received insider help from Iowa City native John Marks, who worked at the time for Nichols in Ames. Kurdelmeier, Marks and Nichols have all since died.
“Little did I know, he was a plant (at Iowa State),” Gable said of Marks, who later spearheaded recruiting for Iowa under Kurdelmeier and Gable. “He was one of the guys on the inside … trying to get me to come back to Iowa City. I didn’t realize all this homework was being done. (But) as soon as the job was done and I was committed to come (to Iowa, Marks) up and left everything, ran out and never went back.”
Gable theorized Kurdelmeier and the Hawkeyes gained insider information through Marks and knew the full story about his knee injury — how he tore cartilage that February, ignored a doctor’s recommendation for surgery that would have ended his Olympic quest, taped the leg for every workout and wound up paying for bandages out of his own pocket when he had trouble obtaining them from the Cyclones.
Then a package arrived from Iowa trainer Tom Spalj — a box filled with enough tape to last Gable through the Olympics.
“That really influenced me,” he said. “It was already a done deal behind the scenes with my parents. But for me feeling good, that was a big deal. I’ve never forgotten it.”
Dan Gable Statue Unveiling