Dan Gable: To avoid getting overrun by success, coaches should step back and ‘recover’

Updated: November 30, 2011

  Editor’s Note: Dan Gable, who captured 15 NCAA championships in his 20 years of coaching at Iowa, knows all about setting winning standards in a university setting. He recently sat down with WIN Editor Mike Finn and spoke about college athletics’ crisis in leadership after the many recent scandals like Miami, Ohio State and Penn State.

Dan Gable

WIN: What happens in college athletics where the most successful programs and coaches are unable to see what is happening around them?
GABLE: I think back in my career when I was coaching, from when I started to when I stepped down. After 1997, I was more of an administrator than a coach. I probably did not pay a whole lot of attention during my coaching career as opposed to my administrative era.
There were things that happened during my coaching era that I maybe should have questioned or should have gotten someone else’s opinion but I just moved on.
There may have been a times when something happened and I said, “How could this happen without a better explanation?” Then things would happen, like one of my wrestlers would come in the office and I’d go on with my life.
So I can understand some of these coaches today, who get caught up in trying to be successful. That’s the way coaches are measured … by W(ins) and L(osses). But at Penn State now, I don’t think people really care about those Ws and Ls.
WIN: Is a culture of winning one of the reasons why these problems exist?
GABLE: Culture has something to do with it, but I don’t know if it’s a problem or not. During my coaching era, I witnessed things inflating. It was during my latter years of coaching that all of a sudden things went from one level to another on how you compensate people and how we dealt with fairness in gender.
What I’m saying is that all of a sudden big business became huge business in college athletics and beyond. All of a sudden, football coaches’ salaries went up, basketball coaches’ salaries went up and all of a sudden gender equity was enforced.
If you look at the amount of money that was spent on salaries 20 years ago as opposed to now, it’s way different and everyone started feeling they were underpaid and it’s caused a lot of turmoil with everybody.
Why was this happening? Because the NCAA has its own set of rules. There are laws of the land and there are laws of the university. For example, one time I stopped and picked up one of my athletes and took him home one time, but there is a (NCAA) rule that says I cannot do that. But the law of the land says that I can.
With college athletics becoming huge and all this emphasis, people become bigger than life … and when people become bigger than life and start calling the shots problems exist. At Penn State, Joe Paterno tried to do that, even in the end when he said he would retire and the university did not have to worry about him. That came back to bite him.
But he was doing what he normally said, but people in a higher position who disagreed and said we decide. We don’t have free reins to do what we want. I learned that things I said, I had to answer to people who didn’t understand what I was saying.

WIN: How do the most successful coaches avoid getting caught up in their own power? Did you ever feel that way?
GABLE: No, I never felt that way. You have to understand your role, what’s right, what’s wrong. Sometimes, things are such a rat race that people don’t analyze and break down what they’ve done and what they want to do.
If there is anything that I’ve been good at my entire life is that I am able to break things down and slow things down … every day. The term I used was “recovery.” It was not only for my life but also for the people that I affected.
I recently met with a company who wanted to bring in their best salesmen who had won three in a row. The company said he won the “Dan Gable Award” and then they said, “If you win another 12, you’d match what Gable did,” in looking at my 15 national championships.
At that point, I could see that he was struggling with being the best and it was taking a toll on him. So for about seven minutes, I spoke to him about “recovery.”

WIN: What does “recovery” mean?
 GABLE: It’s being able to get up and go to work the next day and stay more ready than the next guy. For example if you are a coach and go to a practice, you can have an unbelievably hard time with your athletes. You beat them down. You have 30 kids who went through unbelievable hell and they are going to be knocked down for a long period of time unless you have a process of being able to bring them back.
As an athlete, I could come back the next day and be ready to do the same amount of work or get my athletes to come back and do better than other people.
I can guarantee that I can go into most locker rooms where kids are hustling in and hustling out and getting on with their lives instead of reflecting, winding down, evaluating, thinking, rejuvenating and healing.
Part of that four-hour block that you have should include an hour of recovery. So when they come back to practice, a coach can read them if they have recovered. If they have not, you have to do things to help them get ready for the next day.
The first time it helped me is when we lost our tenth championship (after winning nine straight) in 1987. I was a basket case. That was the first time that we were going to take a family vacation right after Nationals and celebrate. I was miserable, but the second day there my wife told me, “This is ridiculous. You have to learn how to unwind and use this time for recovery.”
For the rest of my career, I had a better recovery time after a peaking situation. I still work at that. You can’t keep going like a clock and you have to change the batteries a few times.

 WIN: You talk about the things you must do during the recovery time. How about learning not to believe in the “clippings” that say how great you are?
GABLE: I think you are right on. In my case, that never happened because I never thought that I was that great. I always tried to go on to the next thing, which meant other people and getting them to be successful.
You have to channel things so that your future will be as good as what your past has been. Otherwise, you can never get the same drive. If all I said was that I was the leader of this team and I won this and that, I would never find anything as good.
If you can help find someone who needs it more than you, it is more rewarding. My own achievements were awarding inside but it became the people I’ve helped, including my family and those I coached, that were more important.

 WIN: The National Wrestling Coaches Association has created a Leadership Academy for coaches. One of the ideas is that when colleges lose wrestling programs, there’s another lost “training ground” for leaders. Isn’t wrestling in a position where they can help correct some of these problems because we are creating leaders?
GABLE: I believe the NWCA is trying to make coaches more efficient and more understanding of what they are supposed to be doing. It’s tough getting everyone on the same page. I think it’s already affecting some people who are paying attention. I do believe the real leaders in our sport and this country are watching and hearing more than they have in the past.
Some people strongly associated with the NCAA are impressed with what wrestling is doing; they are hearing what we’re doing and it’s not simply going out the other side. They are looking to our group more than ever before.
We are doing a better job from a leadership point of view and people are giving us a few more breaks now. For example I heard that Maryland was talking about dropping sports and they made a point of saying that wrestling was not one of those sports.
Five years ago, there is no way that would have happened. Wrestling would be gone. Since wrestling has been more proactive and doing things like this academy, it is making a difference and we are seeing results.