MADISON, Wis. — On the night before his final college visit, Dan Gable called Michigan State coach Grady Peninger and cancelled.
The first undefeated wrestler in Iowa prep history took trips to three of his home-state schools and turned down Oklahoma State and Wisconsin before either program could make a recruiting pitch. But the Spartans had a shot with one of Gable’s Waterloo West High School teammates on their squad and one of his idols on their coaching staff.
Then Gable started feeling homesick before he packed his bags. He couldn’t picture himself leaving Iowa for a weekend, let alone four years.
“Was I a guy who wanted to go out and enjoy a free weekend on a recruiting trip?” he said. “A lot of kids want to go out and see what’s out there. I didn’t.”
The rest is history — as in college wrestling history.
As the Big Ten celebrates the 100-year anniversary of its first conference wrestling tournament, the league sits at the height of its national supremacy. And of all the dominoes that tumbled as the Big Ten evolved into the sport’s dominant conference, two of Gable’s life-altering choices — passing on Michigan State’s offer and later making the move across his home state to coach at Iowa — reformed college wrestling’s power structure.
“He had a profound impact on the conference,” former Wisconsin and Ohio State coach Russ Hellickson said. “If you want to put a finger on one individual who made (the Big Ten what it is today), Gable’s the guy. There’s no question about that.”
Gable and the Hawkeyes revolutionized Big Ten wrestling. In 21 seasons at Iowa, his teams won the conference title every season, claimed 15 NCAA championships and compiled a 355-21-6 record in dual meets.
Beyond just the numbers, though, Iowa changed Big Ten wrestling on the mat, at the box office and inside the athletic departments around the league. The Hawkeyes attracted new fans to the sport, some expecting to watch them win and others hoping to see them stumble. They set the bar so high for the rest of the conference that administrators around the league faced a dilemma: Devote more resources to wrestling or get left further behind in Iowa’s wake.
More times than not when a coaching vacancy surfaced during the past two decades, other Big Ten schools latched on to a branch of the Gable coaching tree to run their program.
“The leader affects the masses,” Gable said. “I’m proud to be a part of that leading school that brought up the Big Ten.”
For decades, the Big Ten wrestled under the giant shadow cast by the Big 8. Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State played tug-of-war with the national title trophy as the three schools collected 33 of the first 37 championships. Michigan State, though, seemed to be loosening the grip in 1967 when the Spartans ended a 35-year championship drought for the Big Ten.
If Gable had reunited at Michigan State with prep teammate Dale Anderson, a two-time NCAA champ, maybe the Spartans would’ve built one of wrestling’s greatest dynasties. Maybe the string of seven consecutive Big Ten titles they once won would’ve stretched into the double digits. Maybe Gable would’ve stuck around long enough that a statue of his likeness would stand today in East Lansing rather than Iowa City.
But as the sport-changing story goes, Gable picked Iowa State over the Spartans and won every match in college except his last. A stunning upset loss to Washington’s Larry Owings in the 1970 NCAA finals became a decades-long source of analysis that first fueled his drive to Olympic champion and later spurred a Big Ten wrestling revolution during his staggeringly successful coaching run at Iowa.
While Gable narrowed his focus for 1972 Games, Iowa swooped in behind the scenes and pried him away from the Cyclones. Gary Kurdelmeier, then the coach of the Hawkeyes, hatched a plan to hire Gable as his top assistant and eventual successor. He recruited Gable from every angle, first convincing his parents that Iowa was the place for their son, and then he used inside information from a source in Ames to put the finishing touches on the deal.
When bandages for an injured knee became difficult for Gable to obtain as he prepared for the Olympics, Iowa shipped five dozen rolls of athletic tape valued at $100. Little did anybody know at the time that it might have been the best investment in college wrestling history.
Gable retired in 1997. Two years later, J Robinson, a former top assistant to Gable with the Hawkeyes, led Minnesota to the conference crown, ending Iowa’s 25-year reign.
“To do anything for almost 25 years straight is almost unfathomable, really,” said Indiana coach Duane Goldman, one of a record nine individual conference champions on Iowa’s 1983 team. “To think of any team now winning the Big Ten for 25 years straight, I don’t think many wrestlers on teams right now can even comprehend that at this point.”
Of course, few could imagine 40 years ago that the Big Ten would become the undisputed king of college wrestling, either. But the league has won 29 of the last 39 national championships. The last seven NCAA title trophies are covered with Big Ten prints and the three schools that claimed those championships — Penn State, Iowa and Minnesota — spent most of this season occupying the top three spots in the national rankings.
In 2012, the Big Ten set conference records at the NCAA Championships when four teams finished in the top five and six claimed spots in the top 10. The league backed up that performance last March with 12 NCAA finalists and six champs.
“You can compare us to SEC football,” Northwestern coach Drew Pariano said. “But we’re better.”
It’s no longer just the Hawkeyes and everyone else wrestling for second. Penn State has won the last three Big Ten titles after following Iowa’s plan of decades ago, hiring Iowa State icon Cael Sanderson from the Cyclones.
Sanderson, though, still has to contend with six programs led by coaches who wrestled for Gable or served on his staff.
“There’s no question the Gable impact was very critical and it’ll be with us for a long time,” Hellickson said. “It’ll never go away. It was the seed for the whole thing, without question.”