Skip to main content
Original Issue

The winners were Mama's boys

Hanging out in a bar helped Iowa capture the NCAA championship

Mama's bar in downtown Iowa City may never be the same. It is there that University of Iowa wrestlers have gone with their problems, have dreamed their dreams and have vowed that victory would some day be theirs. Someday arrived last week at Princeton, where the Hawkeyes won their first NCAA mat title. In so doing they put more than a mere dent in the supremacy of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Iowa State, a triumvirate that had seemingly clamped a permanent headlock on the NCAA championship, winning 40 times in 44 previous tournaments.

Fans from more than 40 states were on hand for the three-day tournament, which began on Wednesday at an almost nonstop pace, with 291 bouts to be contested. For Saturday night's finals 9,200 people—a Jadwin Gym record—were sardined in and a sellout crowd of 600 watched the matches on closed-circuit TV in the basement to swell the total attendance to 46,200, a tournament record.

In all, 371 wrestlers from 116 schools took part. Right from the start there was a spate of upsets, with Oklahoma State's Billy Martin, the No. 2 seed at 118 pounds, losing in the opening minutes.

"There's nothing sacred anymore in this sport," said Oklahoma coach, Stan Abel. "These kids have no respect for seniority or placement. There are so many good kids that nobody's safe."

Almost 550 colleges now have teams, and many of their wrestlers are highly skilled even as freshmen. Said Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo Coach Vaughan Hitchcock, "High school coaches used to say, 'Don't teach those moves to my kids. It's too advanced for them.' But techniques and rules have improved, and you see kids using more spectacular moves now. Lots of them go to summer clinics. I had 1,400 boys at mine last summer."

"It all helps," Hawkeye Coach Gary Kurdelmeier said. "It's like overfilling a glass of water. Gradually the water soaks into the tablecloth. It's the same with the boys; what they learn now sinks in and becomes part of their style."

And helping Kurdelmeier saturate his own Big Ten champion squad is a battalion of coaches. "I have about 16 assistant coaches," Kurdelmeier said. "Only one of them is paid, Dan Gable."

Most of the assistants belong to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, which is largely funded by millionaire industrialist Roy Carver. Club members include 1972 Olympian Jay Robinson and former NCAA champion Vic Marcucci, and they work out daily with the Iowa team.

"It gives you a chance to practice against a variety of styles," said 230-pound heavyweight John Bowlsby. "Gable likes to wrestle rough, and when I work out with him he tears me apart."

A Munich gold medalist, Gable is in his third year at Iowa, and his hiring coincides with the team's rise. Comparing his years as an NCAA finalist with those as an assistant coach, he said, "All I'm trying to do here is keep the guys on a fine edge. You've got to get to know each one. I've asked them all, 'Do you want me to push you before a match or leave you alone?' When I wrestled I felt the best thing I could do for the team was if I came through on the mat. Now I have to get involved with all these guys."

"When we start training as a team in September we go for long runs so we can get to know each other," said Dan Holm, Iowa's 158-pounder. "We run all around the campus. We run through the sorority houses and through the girls' dorms. One is 10 stories tall, and we go up a flight of stairs, down the hall, up another flight, down the hall. Then we run toward town. After stopping at Mama's we head back."

Mama's and togetherness notwithstanding, Kurdelmeier said, "There is no secret to our success. We just work hard all year round."

Iowa virtually wrapped up the title Friday night with the help of an overtime win by Holm. Physically and emotionally drained after the bout, he flopped on a mat behind the stands and said, "All I could think of during the last seconds was how many 20-second drills I'd gone through to be ready for just this kind of situation. Coach would make me wear three parkas, and he kept sending fresh guys at me. 'How bad do you want it?' he kept saying.

"Our coaches work out with us, and when you see they're as gassed as you are, then you know you can't look for a shoulder to cry on. They also drink with us at Mama's. Don't get me wrong, 95% of the time we have Cokes. We talk things out—our problems and how much we want to win—and it's helped bring us closer together."

That feeling of closeness is particularly important for Holm. "My dad died in a car accident when I was four," he said. "My stepdad had to take on four children and a wife. I owe him so much. You " can't pay some people back for the things they've done for you, but after I'd won tonight I saw he had tears of happiness in his eyes. That made me feel good, to know that I had made him happy."

Iowa easily outdistanced defending champion Oklahoma 102-77 for the title with two Hawkeyes, Holm and 150-pounder Chuck Yagla, winning individual championships. Chris Campbell of Iowa was second at 177 and two unseeded teammates, 190-pound sophomore Greg Stevens and freshman heavyweight Bowlsby, were second and third. And the Hawkeyes won without getting a point from Dan Wagemann, a bowlegged 167-pound free spirit who aspires to be a Hollywood stuntman. He was eliminated early, before getting a chance to perform his spectacular specialty, a maneuver in which he leaps over an opponent's head and takes him down from behind. But Wagemann will be back next year. So will all the other Hawkeyes except for Holm, a senior.

Starting this week, though, they will be back at Mama's. Odds are the beers will outnumber the Cokes just this once.