A look at the Big 10 network documentary on Dan Gable

A look at the Big Ten Network special Big Ten Icons: Dan Gable

By Mike Sempervive

Last week, the Big Ten Network, the nation’s largest and strongest collegiate conference sports channel, aired the newest episode of “Big Ten Icons,” a half-hour series that is chronicling each of the 50 “most revered men and women who have coached in Big Ten country.” As time has gone on, it’s a territory that now encompasses twelve universities that are located in nine states, across the heart of the country.  And, in this episode, the heart of the heart was focused on as Dan Gable’s coaching career at the University of Iowa was presented.

Having incredible resources, being co-owned by Fox Sports, and sponsored by Discover Card, it’s no surprise that the quality and the look of the show are very good. But it’s having the trademarked tones of legendary announcer Keith Jackson – thankfully not deemed too old to be on television – doing the narration that’s the icing on the cake. The opening video features Hall of Fame level coaches in mostly basketball and football: Bobby Knight, Gene Keady, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, BARRY ALVAREZ. Even Joe Paterno and Tom Osbourne, whose reputations the conference inherited as the schools joined up. Only a couple of non-money sport coaches were shown, but one of them was Gable, whose legend, far more than the others, quietly transcends his conference on a wider, more enduring, scale – possibly more than all of them combined – which is a simple point driven home by the end of the telecast.

Jackson calls wrestling, “the unforgiving sport,” and introduces the feature by stating in the grapple-crazed state of Iowa: “One name in Iowa holds more reverence than any other when it comes to wrestling. A name synonymous with bravery, consistency and, most of all, winning; that name, is Dan Gable.” (Editor’s Note: “Thank you, thank… wait, what? Blasphemous non-sense~!” – F.A. Gotch)

To open the show, the gravity of the sport in the state is noted. Iowa Press-Citizen writer Andy Hamilton comparing wrestling in Iowa to basketball in the Carolina’s, or football in Texas, while current Iowa athletic director Gary Burton said his counterparts across the country can’t fathom how the sport can draw 15,000 for dual meets, but that’s just how ingrained it is. Gable is one of the state’s proudest products, and his influence there is strong, as well as admiration for his tenacious wrestling and coaching style. Several people close to the Iowa program note his aura and drive (as well as the intimidation factor for opponents to see that black singlet), and Gable himself explains that while he’d like to see fluidity and domination in every match, when it was time to get down and dirty, his team would never say die.

Head coach of the school’s program from 1976-1997, Gable’s upbringing, and attendance of West Waterloo High School, is discussed first. Gable was such a phenom that, as the lightest weighing sophomore at the school, he made the varsity team and then proceeded to go undefeated for the duration of his days. Following that, the shocking May 1964 murder of his sister, staying alone at the family’s home as Dan and his parents were away on vacation, is brought up, briefly. Despite the short time that’s spent on it, the glimpse you get of Gable’s steel resolve and inner strength during that time, including being able to convince his parents not to sell the residence and move, was inspiring.

The focus then shifts to his time attending Iowa State, which, as the show explains, was the powerhouse of the state, at that time. In fact, to that point, it wasn’t even close.  As an aside, under legendary coach Harold Nichols (whom Gable competed for) the school won five of their eventual eight NCAA team National Championships, and was one of the only schools to break up Oklahoma State’s seemingly never-ending dynasty.

Forced to sit as a freshman per NCAA rules, he would continue his undefeated ways from high school by rolling to 181 consecutive victories, four Midlands championships (not mentioned), and four Big 8 titles (now called the Big 12, though they only have 10 teams. Non-college sports fans, don’t ask…) He also won two national championships, and finished runner-up once. The reason it was two titles and not three was because in his very last match as a senior in the finals of the 1970 NCAA’s, Gable was beaten by Washington’s Larry Owings. The old grainy colored footage is shown, but Owings name isn’t mentioned.  Doesn’t matter, in the least, though, as the sight of seeing Gable on his knees covered in disappointment and shock is so unnatural I’m not sure I heard all of the narration, anyway. This setback, claims Gable, was the most seminal moment in his athletic career. He said he needed it, and that he just wouldn’t have been the same in any aspect of his life without it, noting, with all sincerity: “that’s when I started to get good.”

Gable’s remarkable domination at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games is noted next, with longtime commentator Tim Johnson noting that Gable sweeping through the Russians he faced, without having so much as a point scored on him, angered them greatly. Though, he also noted, to this day, you can walk into any wrestling club, anywhere in Russia, and know Gable’s name and lore has been given deity-like status – of which he was used to already. Back home in Iowa, the story continues, Gable had inquired on joining his alma-maters coaching staff. Unfortunately for him, there were no spots available on the vaunted squad, whose four coaches between 1935-87 won 11 conference titles (competing against the likes of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) and 8 NCAA’s.

 Unfortunately for Iowa State, Gable would join the state rival Iowa Hawkeyes as an assistant/trainer in 1975, and then go on to build the most successful wrestling program anywhere in the country. He was promoted to head coach after the school’s 1976 national title season, and immediately he paid dividends. He brought his work ethic and mentality to the program, and then actively recruited those who he could mold and shape in that likeness. Gable would not necessarily seek out the most touted talent in the country (the story claims that most years Iowa wasn’t in the top 4 after signing day), instead finding guys with raw talent, who are mentally tough, and have the ability to be taught on how to harness their aggressiveness and be more cerebral. Gable’s inherent ability to see issues and make adjustments on the fly during meets is also applauded, as well as his motivating tactics to keep his team driven, proud, and, most of all, successful. 

As the show wound down, it made sure to note that as the 1997 schedule began, Gable’s teams had produced 14 national team titles, including 9 in a row (1978-86). Shown numerous times on crutches, due to undergoing a hip replacement surgery (to which former student, and current assistant coach Terry Brands declares still makes Gable “99% tougher than anyone else on the planet”), it was indicated that the rumors were flying that this year’s NCAA’s would be his last as a coach.

At the 1970 NCAA championships, a prime Dan Gable entered an undefeated, huge favorite – and suffered a shocking loss, that ended his last collegiate year without a title, and would change the course of his history. 27 years later, as an underdog, ending his final collegiate year, with all of the odds stacked against him, and no expectations of a title, the hobbled legend had what he believes to be his proudest coaching moment.

The elite team coming into the finals was Oklahoma State, who was filled with top-ranked talent throughout the weight classes. Not much was expected of Iowa, much less against OSU who had already beaten them in a team meet earlier in the season, other than to try and put up a good front in their head coach’s old stomping grounds around Northern Iowa University where the finals were held. But, the team was inspired by the rumors of their coach’s last hurrah. So much so, that the school pulled off one of the most amazing performances in NCAA tournament weekend history. Over the first two days, Hawkeye wrestlers won 23 straight matches, and ended the weekend with an NCAA-record 170 team points scored, five individual titles (making it 45 for wrestlers under Gable’s watch) as well as upping the tally to 152 All-Americans produced, and, of course, his 15th and final National Championship – which was presented to him in an emotional moment by his old high school coach Bob Siddens.

The show ends with Gable talking about how he never stops teaching or being involved with his former students, as well as the legacy of positivity that he hopes to leave. Good work by the Big Ten Network to pack as much as they could of a career, which you could talk about for hours, into a tight half-hour. Very worth setting the DVR for and watching if the channel is available to you.

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