Gable: Wrestling needs to take the excitement from the NCAAs and keep growing the sport

Updated: March 11, 2011

Editor’s Note: Dan Gable, who won both college and international championships while wrestling for Iowa State and coaching at Iowa has recently retired from assisting the athletic program at Iowa and is putting his energies into helping grow the sport of wrestling. He recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about this year’s NCAA tournament in Philadelphia.


WIN: There has been a lot of hype when it comes to the 2011 NCAAs. How would you rate the potential excitement of this tournament?

GABLE: This marks the second straight year that the NCAAs have been sold out. This one has been sold out for a while and I believe the arena is even larger than last year’s. Two months ago, Mike Moyer, the head of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, was forced to say to friends, “I don’t have any tickets. I can’t get a ticket.” It’s the hardest ticket to find. It’s like the Super Bowl. I heard the NCAA tickets are going from $400 to $800.

This is actually part of my vision for the sport. While it’s a problem that someone cannot get in, I love these kind of problems. This is the kind of stuff that motivates and tells people like myself or Mike Moyer or (USA Wrestling’s director) Rich Bender or (National Wrestling Museum director) LeRoy Smith, and other people who head up wrestling organizations, including the NCAA, who need to come together. This NCAA guy is going to go back to the NCAA and spread the good word, which it should be when your talking dollars and cents. (Public address announcer) Sandy Stevens will get the crowd riled up and ESPN is getting (their coverage) going. And it seems like it could be the best team race in a long time.


WIN: Why do you think there has been so much hype?

GABLE: It’s location and who is in the team race. Cornell is very unique. They’ve had a great following for a long time but this isn’t just about Cornell. It’s about all the Ivy League schools in the East, where you have a lot of people and other programs like Penn State.

I think Cornell is a big reason for the sellout and Penn State has even more followers and they’ve put a lot of attention to this sport that past three years when they went after Cael Sanderson. And let’s not forget about Lehigh, which finished ahead of Iowa at the Midlands and Virginia Tech finished second at the National Duals.

There are some hungry people out there who want to win. Those fans are looking forward to going and having a good time. If they could open up the arena and provide another 2,000 seats, I think they would fill those too. This could be the year they break the record for attendance.


WIN: What is unique about Cornell? Does it show that schools don’t have to be big to win the championship?

GABLE: This season started out with articles in the New York Times about Cornell University; that they were the leading contender to win the NCAA championship. In that article, (Cornell head coach) Rob Koll talked about how he went about making his program competitive more than ever.

It’s not that we’ve had other good teams, but instead you would see individuals doing well from schools like Stanford and Harvard. But all of a sudden when you get guys with imagination and a good alumni base, which can provide scholarship money, there are ways of building programs other than the norm and he’s showed that.

He’s recruiting more for a “lifetime” point of view, where if wrestlers come to Cornell, you will find a good job because they are well-connected. You are going to get jobs when you leave there, especially if you are a well-known athlete. A lot of these people have Wall Street jobs.

A lot of his wrestlers are fit for the academic challenges there, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to get in.


WIN: What would Cornell winning do for the sport of wrestling? Will it open up more media in the East? Will it show athletic directors at smaller schools that they can do the same things?

GABLE: You can look at it in many different ways. For example, Yale does not have wrestling. But they may be over there (in Connecticut) thinking, “Look what we are missing.”

There are open doors for anyone with an imagination who is able to put a talented group together on a team and has the vision to be able to put together a winning organization.

For example, compare it to the NFL and the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. They are one of the lower paying-salary teams, but there are people in that organization that can accomplish something without all the unbelievable resources. There are other ways of doing it. I think this is what’s happening now in wrestling.


WIN: Regarding Penn State, would that school not have gone after someone like Cael Sanderson had Cornell, another Eastern school, not had the success they’ve had? Did Cornell’s success open up eyes at Penn State?

GABLE: What you have is one little thing setting off another. You also have Lehigh over there. You have Maryland over there. You’ve got Virginia Tech now. And you have the National Wrestling Coaches Association out there and also the “Beat The Streets” program.

Are things rolling fast enough in these places to shoot Division I (membership in wrestling) up enough? No, but pretty soon there will become a point in time where that negative perception is going to go away that wrestling is a struggling sport. We still have a lot of chips to put together to make the piece of pie look like it’s getting even bigger.

The biggest thing is that wrestling cannot sit back.


WIN: No matter who wins this year, should the NCAA or NWCA or some group be ready to take this excitement to an even higher level?

GABLE: I think it’s already going that direction. If a respected group can help keep the ball rolling even more and help coordinate the work that is being done in a more efficient way, then I think we are heading in the right direction.

You still have to evaluate everything. The year is not done. There is a lot to be evaluated. There is a lot of reorganization with the National Duals. Now that I’ve gotten away from coaching, it’s amazing seeing all the things that are going on.


WIN: How does the wrestling community take this energy and apply it to future decisions … be it USA Wrestling’s performance on the World stage or how to help out high school wrestling?

GABLE: There will be energy leaving from that event and hopefully it will carry right on to the next big event, which will be next year in St. Louis and then on to Oklahoma City and Des Moines. I like to think that’s also why Iowa City will host the 2012 Olympic Trials. There will be plenty of energy for that event.


WIN: If there is one negative thing about this year’s tournament, it is the fact that there are many returning All-Americans, like Boise State’s Kirk Smith, last year’s national runner-up at 184 pounds, who are ending their careers very banged up from injuries they have sustained over their careers. The same thing happened last year to Minnesota’s Dustin Schlatter, a former national champion, who had to be carried off the mat in his final bout in Omaha? Is this an issue that wrestling needs to address?

GABLE: I don’t know if these wrestlers are so beat up or did they just get hurt. There is a difference to me. I do think that coaches really do need to take the issues of our sport and help them become non-issues. I don’t know if there are worse injuries than we’ve had in the past or if we’re just more sensitive to it, like the concussion thing in football. There is just more knowledge. We are looking out more for the kids.

If this is an issue, it’s probably because the program and coaches are not paying enough attention and making certain this is not the case. I personally know the way I was training some of my athletes where I would try to get the same things accomplished but in a manner that does not take that toll.


WIN: Is the problem that many look at wrestling as a combative sport, where only the strong survive? That if wrestlers aren’t strong enough to survive the abuse, so be it?

GABLE: I hope we don’t have that. There is a mentality out there that the only way you can get to the top is if you work your way through this. But I don’t agree with the survival of the fittest. You can have some unbelievable training sessions over the year just by small adaptations that would make everyone better in the long run.

I recently got a letter from a high school coach who talked about his numbers dropping. I told him simply, I don’t want to lose one kid. I don’t know if kids are so much different today, but we need to make sure we adapt to the times. We need to understand the issues to where we get more to come out for wrestling and keep them out.

We don’t have to be a “survival-of-the-fittest” sport. We need to be the smartest and fittest sport.