Dan Gable: The best performances in the NCAAs came from those who were the most focused

Updated: March 30, 2011

Editor’s Note: Dan Gable, who helped lead Iowa to 15 national championships during his 20 years at the helm, was in Philadelphia for the NCAA Championships. He shared with WIN editor Mike Finn about why some individuals and teams won and what the others were missing?


WIN: By winning the team championship, has Penn State joined the elite programs like Iowa and Oklahoma State?

GABLE: During my career, (Penn State) did a lot of damage to my teams. My teams lost only one match in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and it was against Penn State. They have shown signs of being there. They’ve always had a lot of history and have been pretty good. Regarding if they will win it next year and close to creating a dynasty, you have to make them earn it. I can go back and look at Iowa in the 1970s and there were a bunch of similarities. I do think that Penn State has been more established than what Iowa was then, which is why it only took them a couple years to win it under Cael Sanderson.


WIN: So like your situation at Iowa, was Cael Sanderson the difference to Penn State winning now?

GABLE: They have a lot of pieces that are very important to putting together a national championship team and it’s on the mat and off the mat. Cael Sanderson was the piece for on the mat. He immediately made an impact with his name alone. But that doesn’t mean it would automatically happen. There has to be a reality in what you are doing. He proved that things could be accomplished when people put their heads together and figure out the missing ingredients.  It is surprising to me that more schools don’t look at Iowa and Penn State. I do believe this will help the sport.

I think Oklahoma University is looking for that piece. The problem is: who can you get? Do we have another Cael Sanderson somewhere who has that name attraction and family history of coaching?


WIN: Should Cornell have left Philadelphia feeling disappointed considering the Big Red had so much experience on this team?

GABLE: There’s got to be some disappointment there, but because they had never tasted that championship before. It’s a little different situation with Cornell, but down deep, there’s got to be a little bit more drive. Otherwise, they won’t get to the very top. Something was missing.

If I had to speculate, I’d have to ask: how many things can you be good at? How many can  be good academically at an Ivy League school and how many can capitalize on the social life of college? How often can wrestlers from “well rounded” programs peak and be the very best on the mat? Cornell was very talented but Penn State may have been more focused on a smaller number of things in life, including just wrestling.


WIN: In the individual finals, why did some guys step up and others did not, including the likes of Arizona State’s Bubba Jenkins, who pinned Penn State’s David Taylor?

GABLE: I’m not sure if Jenkins really did step up that much. He just didn’t let David Taylor come out and take control of it. He was able to scramble out of a couple situations where it looked like Taylor had him pretty good. They both wrestled well. Taylor is normally a non-stop guy and he looked a little more calculated in this tournament.


WIN: Was previous NCAA experience the major factor in the match, considering Jenkins was a senior and Taylor a freshman?

GABLE: Bubba Jenkins is a very talented athlete and there was a lot on the line there, more than normal. The national finals are enough for most people, but considering this unique situation (with Jenkins being a former Penn State wrestler) and even his quotes about how he still does not like Cael Sanderson, there was a lot of pride on the line for Jenkins. I do believe this brought the best out of him and he had the opportunity to capitalize on what I think was a technical mistake by Taylor, who relies a lot on his flexibility. He normally gets in situations that most could not capitalize on. With that position, if you know that reverse cradle roll that Bubba Jenkins proved that he knew it, it’s dangerous, but it’s a technical mistake to get there.                         There was a similar situation in the (Anthony) Robles-(Matt) McDonough match (at 125) on the first-period roll that costs McDonough five points. The rolling action is what you need to counter, but it didn’t appear that McDonough was ready for that roll. Those two matches were similar from a technical point of view. Neither guy who got in those positions were able to make adjustments.


WIN: If we look at all the championship matches, are the winner the ones who made the fewest technical mistakes?

GABLE: I don’t think so on all of them. At 125 pounds, (Robles) got a chance to wrestle in his more common positions and forced himself so that he could get in those positions. The 133 and 165 bouts were comparable matches in that the winners (Oklahoma State’s Jordan Oliver at 133 and Nebraska’s Jordan Burroughs) was really good technically and executed it a lot during their match.

At 141 pounds, (Michigan’s Kellen) Russell did what he normally does in a tough match, which is come through. However, it did it (in the finals) a little differently than he did in the semifinals (against Iowa’s Montell Marion) where he did it more in a defensive situation that in the regular season when he beat Marion with more of an offensive mind set. Being prepared is so important.

At 149, Kyle Dake not only rode (Frank Molinaro), but he was aggressive. Even with all the riding time, he turned him. He was a different wrestler in the finals. It appeared that Dake came out, ready to take it to the guy with confidence.

At 174, (Iowa State’s Jon) Reader was like that all year. If there were any flaws I had seen in Reader before, you didn’t see it in the national tournament. That is, when you get in a tough match in the end when both guys are going back and forth, does he know how to win those matches. At the NCAAs, he rarely ever got in that situation.

At 184, Quentin Wright showed us something he was not during the Big Ten dual season. He was probably capable of being this good. Sometimes you get into these slumps and how did he get it back? I think Wright won a lot of close matches and got that feeling back, which gradually gave him back his confidence. The more positive things you can put into yourself, the better.

WIN: At 197, did the better wrestler win (with Kent State’s Dustin Kilgore rallying to pin Oklahoma State’s Clayton Foster)?

GABLE: It didn’t’ look like it as the match went a long. For some reason, Foster hung in a position too long and once he got out of position, at this level where both athletes are capable, it doesn’t take long to turn something around if the other one is in a bad position. Why it happened to Foster was unbelievable because he was controlling the situation. Instead of realizing that he was in position to give up control, Foster hung on too long that once he was in trouble, he was clamped (by Kilgore).


WIN: At heavyweight, was Lehigh’s Zach Rey simply just so strong?

GABLE: He looks like he’s got his positions down, even though there was a situation in that third period, when it looked like (American’s Ryan Flores) was in position for a potential reversal and back points, but Rey did a good job of preventing that. What I was most impressed with Rey was how he rode (Flores) and went to counters instead of just hanging on to Flores leg. He went to finishes and made him look strong, which took the wind out of Flores’ sails. Rey took Flores to the mat hard when he was riding him.


WIN: Four of the champions (Russell, Jenkins, Burroughs and Wright) did not wrestle last year for various reasons. Does that suggest strongly that wrestlers need to take redshirts in the middle of their careers compared to doing it their freshmen year?

GABLE: When you have an injury, you need a break, but I don’t think you need to take a break, just to take a break. When you first come in, I think it is a good idea. If I can give a kid a year where he can simply train and get some good competition and adjust academically, that is healthy. Obviously, Dake showed last year that you can (wrestle as a true freshman). His signs of vulnerability showed more this year.

I do think the guys who did take the year off, healed up and studied the sport. Quentin Wright was really the only surprise after he where he was a few weeks earlier, when I think he was written off by some other teams.