Gable: The key to being great is getting everyone to believe in your message

Updated: November 2, 2010

Editor’s Note: Perhaps no person is more tied in with college wrestling than Dan Gable, who won 118 straight match and two NCAA championships for Iowa State before developing a same consistency in coaching the Iowa wrestling for nearly 20 years in which the Hawkeyes won 15 team titles. Gable spoke recently with WIN editor Mike Finn about this year’s season.

Dan Gable

WIN: You no longer work directly for the University of Iowa, which gives you time to help with other parts of wrestling. How do you feel about the upcoming college season.

GABLE: I haven’t been this excited for a long time because there are no dominant teams and anything can happen.

WIN: There are three schools — Cornell, Boise State and Wisconsin — that have legitimate shots to win their first team championship next March in Philadelphia. What does it take for a school to get over the hump and win it for a first time?

GABLE: This does make me think back to the fall of 1972 when I came to Iowa and had a few months experience as an assistant coach and had a head coach (Gary Kurdelmeier) mentoring me in putting people in the right places. He had an assistant coach in me who thought he could conquer the world and thought there was no doubt that we could win right away.

After a couple years of not winning, I learned that I was not realistic while Kurdelmeier was saying, ‘Hold your horses. We have to put this thing together and have all these building blocks. He wanted to put it together for the long run and not just hit or miss. He said we’d do it in five years. I thought we could do it in one.

It’s about attitude and understanding building blocks, what needs to be done. For example, he knew about putting people in the stands which gets wrestlers prepared for what takes place at a national tournament. He was doing things that I did not understand. He said five years. I said one year. It took three years. We met in the middle.

Because of the way we went about it, we had a good attitude of success and put good building blocks in order so that we’d have continued success. We won two straight, took a year off, then won nine straight.

The thing I learned was that the athletes were not really ready to take on top athletes who maybe they had looked up to. I learned that the athletes at times were lesser wrestlers when they wrestled against someone of a high quality.

When you go against tougher competition, you have to get tougher. Most people don’t know how to handle that and can’t represent themselves.

WIN: Who is responsible for getting a wrestler through those doubts? The coach or the wrestler?

GABLE: You have to have both. The wrestler has to buy into the system and over time he will develop that trait and things will start going well. But things don’t go that well for most programs and coaches and wrestlers start to question it.

WIN: So have these three coaches — Cornell’s Rob Koll, Boise State’s Greg Randall and Wisconsin’s Barry Davis — gotten their guys to buy into their programs?

GABLE: Those coaches and their athletes have taken their next step of faith. It’s really been a change. If it was easy, everyone would do it. If you are looking at those three programs, it seems like the team that has been picked to win — Cornell — has been pretty consistent and close for the past ten years. The other ones hadn’t been too far away either.

WIN: So what is the common element of those three?

GABLE: Their kids who are coming into the program have higher expectations. A lot of times you don’t understand what it is; that on a day-to-day basis, you will be making more advancements. You can’t be a robot where you depend on everyone around you. To help the program, you have to do something to help the program. You have to try to rise above and beyond. I think (Cornell’s Kyle) Dake showed that last year. That was key for Cornell to have a kid right out of high school win the national championship.

WIN: Two of these coaches (Randall and Davis) once wrestled for you. It that just a coincidence?

GABLE: With Cornell’s Koll, there was a time in his coaching when we’d have a conversation and he was a little standoff-ish from a standpoint that he didn’t know my coaching system. Once he did, we had a much better conversation. I think he thought I was like the Russian system where everyone comes out of the same mold. Then he realized that wasn’t the case and had some good things to tell me.

What helped me when I was coaching is that once someone said he understood my system, I changed my system. Competition makes you better. Anytime someone thought they were getting the edge on me, my brain started thinking what I could do.

All these coaches have their own systems. They have unique qualities that make them good. If those unique qualities are taking you in the opposite direction can you recognize that and tweak it until you can get it back.

It’s like what we’re trying to do with the organizations that run wrestling. We need something better, get together, get stronger and better for the future.

WIN: Let’s take a look at schools from the other perspective. Is this a building time for the likes of Iowa and Iowa State, two of the top three teams from last year that each lost over 70 percent of its starters from last year?

GABLE: Iowa State could have more difficulty because Tom Brands is in his fifth year and developed some consistency where things won’t be drastic. This is just Kevin Jackson’s second year.

WIN: Are we going to learn more about Brands and Jackson and what kind of coaches they are going to be?

GABLE: We are going to learn what the state of their programs are. We’ll find out how stable they are. They don’t live and die by this year, but certainly but we could see something of their future.

It’s inherent that good coaches have to tighten the belt a little bit. They don’t have a lot of room for error. There are things that you can control like who’s in your line-up and what changes to make sure you have the best lineup. You have to have back-up plans. That will decide whether you get a trophy or not. The discipline within programs have to be greater than normal for teams like Iowa and Iowa State.

WIN: With the NCAAs being in Philadelphia and Cornell picked to win, will we see a surge of great wrestling in the East?

GABLE: I do think it’s good that there are two good teams out there. That’s where the population of wrestling is.

WIN: Regarding Penn State coach Cael Sanderson, is it not only important that PSU teams do better but that he’s now in a position to do even more for the sport? Could he be even more of a spokesperson for wrestling on the East Coast?

GABLE: There are different kinds of coaches. I think he is still learning. A lot of coaches don’t do as good of a job (as Sanderson) for being so young. Actually, I think we have some good coaches all over the country who have to do something for wrestling … like Boise State, which needs to be good for programs out there that have been threatened. The state of California is suseptible to losing all their teams.

WIN: You are involved with the NWCA’s efforts to save those programs. Can West Coast wrestling be saved considering Davis is gone and nearly every other program has been threatened with extinction?

GABLE: It won’t be saved unless we get a lot of help. I think most people and other sports would have already rolled over and let it go. I haven’t seen other sports doing what wrestling is doing, which is trying to survive before they can become stable. It’s just common sense to me that we need those college programs to help your constituents, considering the number of kids who wrestle in California. When you don’t help your constituents, you are not a good state leader.

That’s the message I give and want to give more in the future.

I don’t understand why the leaders want a successful state but don’t take care of their people. You have to take care of wrestlers in California, Oregon and Washington.

For example, Fresno is one of the hotbeds in wrestling but why don’t the people there have college wrestling?

For leaders, it’s simple. Either they are good parents or they’re not good parents. And if you are a leader, either you’re good or you’re bad.

WIN: When you make such statements, who do you want to hear that? The everyday people or the leaders?

GABLE: I want everyone to hear it.

WIN: Do you want people to start questioning who their leaders are?

GABLE: When people are not taking care of what’s built around you, then others better start making some changes.

WIN: It sounds like college wrestling needs a grass roots approach more than ever to promote itself.             GABLE: We need people to start affecting those on top. There is nothing worse than trying to tell some what’s wrong and they go, “I didn’t know that.” You have to know what your mission is. You have to know what’s below you and what you need to do.

WIN: It also sounds like wrestling needs an awakening from its fans. Is that right?

GABLE: I believe that wrestling people are awake but need to be even more awake. There are some good things taking place, but there are some bad things happening. When you have a lot more momentum moving forward, it’s easy to see who is winning. We’re going down in Div. I and that’s a big thing to change.

It’s funny that people in positions of authority don’t know who’s below them or if they do, they don’t care and then they are the wrong person in that position.

WIN: When you talk about grass roots of wrestling, isn’t that the high school wrestlers and coaches? Isn’t it time for them to get more involved in college wrestling?

GABLE: I think the high school group is working hard, and we don’t do a good job reaching them. When you talk about college wrestling, you’re talking about 7,500 people involved. In high school wrestling, you’re talking about 275,000 people.

That’s where the whole system of wrestling needs to get together and utilize what our resources are.

WIN: What’s the best way to make them feel needed?

GABLE: We can form a good group of people in our sport and make a good statement. I’m excited that the National Wrestling Coaches Association and USA Wrestling and the National Hall of Fame want to get together and then look to bring in other groups like the National High School Coaches Association. We just need to see where everyone fits in so they can make a contribution. There has to be more of a structure. People can’t be shooting from the hip.