Unfulfilled NCAA promises still sting 20 years later for Zaputil

Updated: March 13, 2012

By Kyle Klingman

Chad Zaputil has a tattoo on his chest and Dan Gable doesn’t like it. The tattoo is of a Hawk ripping open Zaputil’s chest. It is symbolic, and it is a reminder of the one thing Zaputil did not do during his time as an Iowa wrestler: win an individual NCAA title.

Former Iowa wrestler Chad Zaputil reached the NCAA finals three times but lost twice to Penn State’s Jeff Prescott (1991 and ‘92) and to Clemson’s Sam Henson in 1993. There have been four wrestlers who have reached the NCAA finals three times, but failed to win a national championship. They are: Dick Wilson Toledo, 1959, ‘60, ‘61; Bob Fehrs, Michigan, 1965, ‘66, ‘67; Chad Zaputil Iowa, 1991, ‘92, ‘93; Gerry Abas, Fresno State 1993, ‘94, ‘95

But he was close. It was in reach. It was there for the taking.

Three times Zaputil reached the NCAA finals, and three times he placed second.

“The reason everybody goes to Iowa is to become a national champion,” said Zaputil. “I’ve been really close a few times and didn’t get it done. That’s not a very easy thing to deal with, especially at a program where people don’t go there to become All-Americans. They’re there to win everything. You don’t dwell on. You have to learn from it, but it’s still a painful thing to deal with.”

Regardless of how three of his seasons ended, Zaputil was the spark to a memorable era in Iowa wrestling. Zaputil, who wrestled at 118 pounds, was the guy who led off the team every year for three years.

In a larger sense, he was the guy who led the charge for Iowa’s surge back to national wrestling prominence.

From 1978 through 1986—nine consecutive seasons—Dan Gable’s Hawkeye wrestling teams won the NCAA tournament. From 1987 through 1990—four consecutive seasons—Dan Gable’s teams placed second, second, sixth, and third at the NCAA tournament.

The teams that followed may have been the best in Iowa wrestling history, perhaps in college wrestling history. Gable’s 1991 and 1992 NCAA tournament squads were identical, and, incidentally, they included two sets of identical twins.

The Iowa wrestling line-up for two straight seasons seems like a who’s who of the sport: Chad Zaputil (118), Terry Brands (126), Tom Brands (134), Troy Steiner (142), Terry Steiner (150), Tom Ryan (158), Mark Reiland (167), Bart Chelesvig (177), Travis Fiser (190), John Oostendorp (275).

For three straight years Iowa dominated the NCAA tournament, winning by 48.25 points in 1991, 48.5 points in 1992, and 36.25 points in 1993.

And the line-up always started with Chad Zaputil.

“Chad was one of the best I dealt with,” said Gable. “He was one of my top 20 athletes. We’ve had some kids come through the program who won a national championship and had a lot more losses than a guy like Chad. Even though he didn’t win nationals, he did win a lot of events and he did win a lot of matches.

“For some reason I always really liked the guy more than normal. That’s probably the reason I feel the pain from him as much as anybody that I coached. He was one I always had a special, unique interest in. And I still do.”

That’s why the tattoo on Zaputil’s chest bothers Gable. It is a reminder of what wasn’t. For Zaputil, the tattoo has evolved into a reminder of what’s to come.

“The tattoo is a reminder, but I don’t look at it as a negative,” said Zaputil. “It’s something that, at the time, was exactly how I felt. It was a hard thing to swallow. I don’t look at it every single day and have a real negative thought. I loved my time wrestling at Iowa, and it was an experience that I use every single day. It also shows that when you get in that situation you have to be ready to reach your goals. So it’s a reminder of that every day.”

Zaputil’s experience at Iowa led to his current business: Active Marketing Services. Located in Long Beach, Calif., AMS is a promotional events company.

Or, as Zaputil puts it, his business is trying to get the most out of people. It’s managing people and using people’s strengths to their advantage.

“It’s the stuff I learned from Gable,” said Zaputil.

In reality, being a three-time finalist is pretty remarkable. Very few reach the elevated stage at the NCAA tournament once. Zaputil put himself in position to reach the top spot every season he wrestled varsity, but he didn’t quite get there.

However, for those individuals who are always striving for more, you never quite get there.

“I think (those losses) can hit you at any time,” said Zaputil. “They don’t ever go away, that’s for sure. You think about certain things. When some of those things first happen you tend to dwell on them more. Later you use it to motivate yourself to make yourself better. You make yourself stronger because of it.”

Isn’t that what every loss should do?