Gable: Championship teams need a ‘spark’ for consistency

Updated: January 21, 2022

Photo: True freshman Drake Ayala, inserted into the Iowa line-up after the Hawkeyes lost three-time NCAA champ Spencer Lee for the season, beat two ranked wrestlers in his first three varsity duals, including Purdue’s Devin Schroeder on Jan. 9.


Editor’s Note: Dan Gable spent 20 years coaching at Iowa, where his teams won 15 NCAA championships. Recently, the legendary coach spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about what the 2021-22 college season will look like as many top programs added and lost wrestlers.


WIN: What impact will the loss of Spencer Lee have on the Iowa wrestling team this year?

GABLE: People thrive on things and there are different things that put a spark in something. While we are talking about Spencer Lee, there is this young kid (Drake Ayala replacing the injured Lee) who recently put a spark in the Hawkeye lineup (with a victory against Purdue). Even in a loss (against Minnesota), he put a spark in the arena and had to come back and wrestle another tough match.

If you think about last year’s NCAAs, Lee’s championship match was the last match of the finals, unlike two weeks earlier when he wrestled the first match of that tournament and that victory sparked the Iowa team. I think that played a big part in Jaydin Eierman and Michael Kemerer winning Big Ten titles, then lost to the same foes at the NCAAs, wrestling before Lee.  They didn’t get a chance to get a spark from Lee. Those Penn State kids last March rose to the circumstance, but Spencer Lee may have been the spark (Iowa) needed.

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WIN: So, you are suggesting that Iowa is in search of another spark for the team? Is that too much pressure to put on someone like Ayala?

GABLE: There’s enough talented guys on that team to provide the spark. They just haven’t done it or haven’t been in that position to spark the team. Some are not wrestling like they did in the past. They are controlling their opponents more and certainly need to do more than score takedowns. They need to score back points because they have that ability.


WIN: What does it mean to spark a team? Does it mean doing something unusual?

GABLE: No, it’s not unusual when you do something well, but you must use those things. Maybe it’s time for Eierman to become the leader. Maybe it’s time for Jacob Warner to score more takedowns. When you wrestle the better guys, that’s when you should do your better wrestling. We saw a little bit of that in Ayala, who wrestled two tough matches and stayed in both.

Being a veteran wrestler doesn’t always mean you are going to be at your best. Just look at Michigan’s (three-time All-American) Stevan Micic, who got upset against Pittsburgh.

Let’s go back to why no one is consistently good. I believe it has something to do with what has been happening with the pandemic the last two years. Wrestlers don’t even know when they can go to a wrestling practice … or if they must simply go out and run. Or, go to someone else’s place to train.

Life is not as stable right now and wrestling is a little bit like what is going on in life. It’s not a perfect scenario, where someone goes to practice for two hours a day and gets something accomplished. There are a lot of unknowns  still out there and no one can count on anything that is stable.


WIN: Penn State has four returning national champs and picked up a couple All-American transfers to its lineup. Michigan has done a similar thing. How do you see their programs?

GABLE: I’d say the same thing because for many of those athletes, things have not been routine this season. When you are involved with 35 other wrestlers, the team thing has not happened regularly in the past two years.


WIN: With that in mind, will the team that comes out on top in March be the most consistent team that was the most adaptable to all the changes?

GABLE: Having the best individuals gives you an edge, but these best individuals thrive on a team, too. If you take that team aspect away, there is more uncertainty.


WIN: Your final Iowa team in 1997 wasn’t favored to win the NCAAs. How did the team help those individuals?

GABLE: We did a lot of team-building exercises once we realized our tasks at hand. It was important to get them up and communicating like in a speech class. Jesse Whitmer (the 125-pound Iowa champ in 1997) had to get up in front of his teammates and talk about what his contribution was going to be.

The only problem now is that teams are forced to communicate with each other with Zoom in front of a computer. It’s not the same. Even a lot of coaches have had to give pep talks and teaching in front of a computer.

If I was coaching now and we couldn’t get together as a team, you do the next best thing. The programs that are able to do Zoom communication or separate their teams in practices, they are ahead of the teams that could not do that. Teams must know what else is available. I know when I wrestled, I had more places than the Iowa State wrestling room to train.