Dan Gable: Like in a marriage, good coaching partners complement each one

Updated: December 6, 2012

        Editor’s Note: This Q&A with Dan Gable appeared in WIN’s Nov. 28, 2012 edition. To subscribe to WIN, go to

Les Anderson, who served as an assistant coach to Harold Nichols at Iowa State in the 1960s and 1970s, recently passed away. One of their wrestlers was Dan Gable, who went on to copy much of their success at ISU while he led Iowa to 15 NCAA championships. With this in mind, Gable spoke with WIN editor Mike Finn about what makes a good partnership between a head coach and his assistants and actually compares it to a good marriage.

WIN: What made the relationship between Harold Nichols and Les Anderson unique?

GABLE: I had never seen a coach like Harold Nichols in my entire life. I tried to be close to what he did. I call it independence, which is really a hard word to understand.

Former Iowa State head coach Harold Nichols (right) counted on longtime Cyclone assistant Les Anderson to win many NCAA and Big 8 titles during their era of the 1970s.

Nichols developed and coached a style that you had to have examples in the room, leaders in the room of what you really wanted. He took advantage of that more than anything else. He was able to rub it off on others and spread it.

But he also needed someone like Anderson. Once they got together and got their working relationship established, Nichols knew what Anderson was going to contribute. For example, there were times when Nichols, maybe upset after we got beat by Oklahoma State, he would be a little ruffled before the start of the next practice, so Anderson would get it going. Both coaches brought their own unique structure to the wrestling room and when Nichols really needed help, Les was the guy he brought in to settle the issues.


WIN: Did you do the same thing at Iowa with your assistant coaches?

GABLE: I think I learned as I went through my coaching career. I didn’t know how J (Robinson, the current Minnesota coach who assisted Gable, 1976-84) and I would complement each other, except knowing that we had spent time together for about a year while we were training for the 1971 Worlds and 1972 Olympics. In fact, (former Iowa coach Gary) Kurdelmeier brought us both in to assist him at the same time.

Coaches need to look and see what they are good at. They each have a certain expertise. For example, J was a military guy and was used to getting up in the morning so he did a lot of our early-morning workouts that he really enjoyed. I focused more on the afternoon practices.

When J left, there was something missing and we were showing it in our performance. By the end of the first year, after Jim Zalesky also left to join J, I got Jimmy back. Jimmy was the coach who J was like earlier.


WIN: How should coaches develop their responsibilities and roles within a team?

GABLE: I think each situation is unique and depends on how much success is actually taking place, what has been accomplished and what will happen in the future. There has to be a guy who is the mastermind and sees an ending point. When things are not going as well as you want, they have to jump back into it.

During my career, I tried doing some other things along the way and had to jump back in just to get the strong finish. That happened in 1984 and 1997. You have to make decisions that are good and you map things out for that to happen. When they don’t, then you have to get back in. If you do it well, it’s not a personal thing.

For example in 1997 at the Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis, I was not planning on coaching (while recovering from hip surgery). I was sitting in the stands with my crutches, but I could see (the probable results) were not going to be good enough an hour into the first session to where I flew out of the stands and onto the floor and probably made a fool of myself. Something just hit me and it was the third bad call and I remember my wife, Kathy, saying, “Why are you sitting up here?” That’s all I needed to hear.

Head coaches have to be like closers to a goal. You hope that your structure is put in place where there is a remedy. Sometimes, it’s an automatic process and instinct takes over.


WIN: How does a coach separate himself between that of a dictator and a delegator when it comes to his coaches?

GABLE: There is a fine line there and I don’t like the thought of being a dictator because dictators don’t take care of their people. You have to take care of everyone on your team. You have to be the person making decisions but there are a lot of decisions that must be left to other people.

I may write out a practice plan and say this is what we’re going to do in A, B and C. By the time I get to D, I might have to change. A head coach has to make adjustments for the good of the team at the drop of the hat. Sometimes they backfire but usually they don’t.

If they get upset with what the head coach is asking, there should be a discussion. Sometimes a head coach must say, “trust me on this one.” Trust is the biggest key. When I pleaded for help a couple times and had I not had a reputation and good relationship with these coaches, I think I would have had more confrontations.

You really believe in the other (coaching) parts. You know they are doing their part and you have some good help.

I compare it to my marriage and how much I count on my wife. I go on so many trips (to give clinics and speeches). Do you think I double-check my suitcase when I go on trips? No I don’t. Kathy is the one who helps me keep track of my schedule. I don’t want to say that Kathy is my assistant coach, but everyone needs a person to keep them straight and narrow.


WIN: Marriages have honeymoon periods. Is it the same with coaching partnerships?

GABLE: That is a key point. Every marriage should have a honeymoon last the entire time. You have to work at it. Together you have to have this vision. If one doesn’t see the vision, then bad things are going to happen.

There is the trust factor and the love factor like there should be in a marriage. But there must be distinct roles. They can’t mirror each other’s beliefs or they might be agreeing on things that are not good. Everyone has a role. If it is exactly the same role, then it will not end up as well as it could.


WIN: Not all partnerships are good. How should a head coach determine if it is not working?

GABLE: I use the term, “the longer, the longer.” The longer you take to fix a problem because you keep saying, “I can get by,” the longer it takes to fix it and the longer it’s going to take to see better results.

You have to smartly and quickly deal with it and you will have a better chance of quickly getting back to where you want to be.

I remember when it took so long for us to win a tenth national team title that my conclusion was that the problem didn’t happen because of what happened in the 1987 tournament, but in 1984, 1985 and 1986 and we won all those championships and didn’t make adjustments. I think it took us almost as long to get back (to winning the tenth title in 1991) as it did when the deterioration started.

I also believe the problem started with me. This is a big talking point for me with companies who want better performances.


WIN: Are coaches afraid to admit there is a problem?

GABLE: You are in denial and the reason why is because you don’t understand. You live at such a fast pace, and I’m sure I was living at a fast pace in those days, that I wasn’t taking my time to analyze correctly what the issues were and what needed to be done.