Follow WIN during Postseason College Wrestling
WIN Magazine will provide comprehensive coverage of the 2023 NCAA Division I...
Editor’s Note: No NCAA coach had as much success at the national tournament as Dan Gable, who was part of 17 NCAA championship as either an assistant or head coach at Iowa between 1973-1997. Recently Gable spoke about this year’s favorite but also looked back on what it takes for average teams to become great when it matters most.
WIN: What did Penn State prove at the Big Ten tournament where the Lions actually were in third place after the semifinals before coming back to win?
GABLE: I think they stayed on track to be the team they want to be. I think everyone knew they have dominant guys and three out of four of those guys (Frank Molinaro, David Taylor and Ed Ruth) proved it in winning. Having a national champion (184-pound Quentin Wright) losing shows that anything can happen. But in the end, Penn State showed it could score a lot of bonus points with those guys who are dominant and are going to be hard to beat.
They also have some young kids (Nico Megaludis and Morgan McIntosh) at 125 and 197 pounds who can score some points at weights where Penn State could have had holes this year.
(After the semifinal round when Penn State was third) they were knocked down a bit but learned what kind of team they really had when they came back on the final day to win 13 of 15 matches. I’m sure Cael (Sanderson) was happy they bounced back. The ingredients seem to be there for Penn State. The other coaches and team will have to do something extraordinary (to beat Penn State at the Nationals).
WIN: Regarding a situation like Iowa’s Derek St. John, who won a championship after missing much of the year with a knee injury, was that simply mind over matter?
GABLE: He has a bad knee, but that’s OK. He didn’t get hurt again (at the Big Tens) and he didn’t show a mental lapse, which he did earlier this year. The knee has probably felt as good as its felt in a long time. It’s just a matter of him being aggressive. Earlier this year, he felt unsafe, unsure, but winning matches definitely made him and his team feel better.
WIN: With that in mind, how much do extra-effort moments by individuals help teams get on winning runs during a tournament? How much do teammates feed off an individual effort like that?
GABLE: I think teams feed off every guy when you are a team, especially when it’s a guy who had not been coming through. That’s a big spark for a team. The key is then: what do they do to take it to the next level?
WIN: There are some up-and-coming teams like Illinois, Lehigh, Missouri and Wyoming that appear to be on the edge of becoming elite programs if they can find a way to do well at the NCAAs. There was even a time when Iowa was not that great before you arrived. What does it take for just teams to make the jump from where teams go from being hunters to being the hunted? What is the mindset in training your wresters?
GABLE: I had to learn myself because I only had one mindset and I was around a similar mindset at West Waterloo (High School), at Iowa State and while training for the Olympics. I had never really experienced the other mindset, which (former Iowa coach) Gary Kurdelmeier warned me about.
There is a lot of talent in wrestling rooms even from teams that aren’t winning. I went to work coaching using examples I felt the team needed like I had done at these other places and tried to push that one people. But I realized people don’t buy into that right away. You have to be careful with some of these other people who didn’t want to work as hard.
Kurdelmeier taught me that the mindset of a team that is at a certain level, not the highest, that those guys are the toughest they can be when the wrestle someone that they know they can beat and wrestled weaker against better guys and therefore not representing themselves against the better guys and therefore had no chance.
In changing that mindset, there is a process and it can go quicker than you think. I remember Gary had a five-year plan (in 1975) and I said, ‘We’ll win it this year.’ We met in the middle and it took us three years to win the nationals.
WIN: So how did you change those mindsets?
GABLE: The new guys who came in knew a little about my philosophy. The guys who had been there were going to have to be brought along and have their minds changed over time and I remember Kurdelmeier didn’t think we’d be able to change their minds.
There were basically two different types of things going on during practice. The guys who were not on my wavelength were good, but you couldn’t force them to do things. The best thing you could do was to get the new guys coming in to help change that mindset. Once younger guys develop some respect from the old-timers, which helped the old-timers. The coaches worked through these kids.
On a 30-man roster, you have about ten new kids you bring in and buy into your philosophy and 20 that didn’t. Most of the time, those 20 were the better wrestlers or at least had the potential.
I remember once early of that first year (1973) coach Kurdelmeier had me run practice and a security guy came in and said there was a gas leak in the building that had been taken care of but they had to tell people, who might want to abandon the building. I remember I had to tell that team that if they wanted to leave practice, they could. I remember those older 20 left and the younger 10 stayed.
This is how I judged what kind of team I had, but eventually I got a lot out of those 20 like (118-pound) Dan Sherman, who earlier in the year, I could get to run a sprint after practice. I wouldn’t have gotten it out of them had I tried to force something on them. I had to analyze what was happening.
WIN: It’s hard to imagine a young coach having the patience to put up with the different mindset?
GABLE: A lot of (coaches) wouldn’t put up with those 20 and would want to weed them out. That’s fine, but you have guys who are fourth-year or fifth-year seniors who are pretty good wrestlers. Their skill levels are way about what those ten freshmen have.
I came from being around all types of guys (in high school, college and the Olympics). In Waterloo, kids were from either this side of the tracks or the other side of the tracks and (coach Bob) Siddens was getting something out of all of them. (ISU coach Harold) Nichols was doing the same thing. During the Olympic training, we had some guys who didn’t want to train like me. You learn that you have to make some concessions in how to train everyone.
WIN: What are the critical elements needed to get a team to perform at the NCAAs, which could be overwhelming to some?
GABLE: It takes day-to-day consistency and to how they were being respected by other athletes and coaches and students who started giving them more notice.
I remember as we got more successful, (the wrestlers) had more attention put on them, especially when Kurdelmeier started making up things about the team and telling people … like Michigan didn’t like us. People picked up that and all of a sudden we had 8,000 fans at a match with Michigan.
Every day, there was a new mindset and whoever wanted to join it would have to start working towards that. You couldn’t just jump from here to there. We’d go forward a little bit, then backwards a little bit. I remember guys telling me I can’t train this way. I’m not used to it. I’d just say, “Do what you can.”
It’s hard to watch a young kid come and train harder than you. So without having to tell them, there is a learning situation there and if the reward is worth the effort. I learned something. I remember when Randy Lewis came in. He first couldn’t beat someone until a tryout. I couldn’t believe that could happen.
Coaches really have to learn patterns and that happens to being pretty open-minded and that happens with a lot of analyzing and dedication from the coach.