By Jon Gremmels
It's been six years since an Iowa university put an NCAA wrestling team championship into its trophy case.
That might not seem like such a long time, but it's the third-longest period between championships for Iowa schools in the sport's long history. And even though Iowa and Iowa State are ranked in the top 10 this season, it's likely the streak will continue at least one more year.
But the lack of recent team championships doesn't mean Iowa has lost its place at or near the top of college wrestling. It doesn't mean that Iowa, Iowa State or Northern Iowa can't return to the top. It certainly doesn't mean that the coaches at the three schools will stop trying.
"We would like to keep it in Iowa; Iowa has a lot of pride in the state of keeping the national title here," Iowa coach Jim Zalesky said. "But Minnesota (the NCAA champion in 2001 and 2002) did a good job there for a while, and Oklahoma State (the three-time defending champion) is on kind of a roll.
"It's a challenge for the three universities here to get it back."
Only 11 programs have won Division I wrestling team championships, and four of them are from Iowa. Cornell College, now an NCAA Division III school, was the first Iowa school to win the title, and the three state schools have since joined the list. They've built a rich history.
"I think there's a lot of competition in the state from the state level right up through the universities, and the type of competition and tradition that's in Iowa has set the bar pretty high for the universities," Iowa State coach Bobby Douglas said. "I don't think there's another state that has the type of wrestling competition we have right here in the state of Iowa from the high school level to the collegiate level, so it makes it very competitive."
But the landscape has changed for the three state universities " each of which has won at least one national championship. They're in unfamiliar territory.
Three years ago, Iowa placed eighth at the NCAA Wrestling Championships " its lowest finish since 1972 " and that was the highest finish for the three state schools, with Northern Iowa taking 11th and Iowa State 18th. After a runner-up finish in 2004, the Hawkeyes dipped to seventh last year, while the Cyclones were 10th and the Panthers tied for 15th.
Several factors figure into the current state of wrestling in Iowa. For the most part, they're not unique to the three universities: You have a key injury here or there; you have a lean recruiting year or two; your recruits don't pan out or leave the program.
But, in some ways, the schools have hurt themselves with their own success. Iowa and Iowa State, for instance, won 75 percent (27 of 36) of the NCAA team titles between 1965 and 2000.
"They raised the bar so much that people had to raise their bars," Illinois coach Mark Johnson said. "Iowa and Iowa State made us do that."
Each year, it seems, another program is trying to get into the top 10 and even out the national picture.
John Smith, who has coached Oklahoma State to national titles the past three years, will attest to the fact that many programs have stepped up.
"There's no question that today wrestling is better than it's ever been," he said. "I wrestled not too long ago " 20 years, I don't consider that too long, in college " and what I see today as far as the number of commitments to programs financially, commitments to building a team by the coaches, I've seen major strides in programs. Twenty, 25 years ago it was Iowa, Iowa State, of course Oklahoma State and OU (Oklahoma), and there was very little change with those programs. Now you're seeing Cornell in the top four, you've seen Lehigh, you've seen Michigan break through."
For the University of Iowa, at least, there's one more factor, although it's probably been more wide-reaching than just the impact it has had on the Hawkeyes.
THE GABLE FACTOR
When Dan Gable stepped down as coach at the University of Iowa after his 1997 team won the NCAA title with a record points total, the face of college wrestling changed. Not only did the Hawkeyes lose the most successful coach in the sport's history, but other schools saw opportunity. His retirement certainly impacted more than just the Hawkeyes.
"Gable was great for wrestling, and I'm happy he's not coaching anymore," said Brad Penrith, a former Hawkeye national champion under Gable who now is the head coach at Northern Iowa. "When he retired, a lot of us coaches were going, 'Thank, God,' because kids flocked to Dan Gable. There will never be another Dan Gable."
The first crack showed in 1999, when Minnesota ended Iowa's 25-year reign as Big Ten Conference champion.
"That does open doors, absolutely," Johnson said of Iowa's dethroning as conference champion.
Although the Hawkeyes bounced back and won their fifth consecutive national championship, other schools saw the opening.
"When somebody slays one dragon, then geez, 'If they can do it, we can do it.' " Minnesota coach J Robinson said. "When (Roger) Bannister ran the first sub-4-minute mile, within, I can't remember, two or three months, three of four other guys ran it. Why? Because now it was reality. Nothing different. Their training didn't change; the only thing that changed was now they knew they could do it. That makes all the difference in the world because now you try different."
Two years later, Robinson's Golden Gophers ended Iowa's six-year run as national champion. The Hawkeyes haven't gotten closer than second since.
"I think people said, once he stepped down, 'We have a chance,' " Zalesky said. "That's how much influence he had.
"I don't think our bar dropped; I think others raised their bars."
While Gable's departure has affected the sport, it's certainly not the only reason there has been a change.
A lot of it comes down to personnel: recruiting and retention.
"A lot is said about recruiting, but that's where it starts," Zalesky said.
Because schools can offer only the equivalent of 9.9 scholarships, getting the right people is important.
"You only have 9.9 scholarships with 10 weight classes, and we need depth, which we can't get with 9.9," Douglas said.
"It's hard to build with 9.9," Zalesky said. "You have to spread the money around for team depth."
But that situation is the same for Iowa, Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Oklahoma State or any other Division I team. Well, yes and no. Because of reciprocal agreements between states, tuition costs can vary greatly between schools.
Not everybody can spend money the same way, either. While Zalesky has no restrictions as to where his 9.9 scholarships can be used, Penrith does. All but two go to in-state recruits. And he has to battle against the two larger powers for in-state wrestlers.
"Being in the state Iowa with its tradition that Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa have is a positive, but the negative for Northern Iowa is to recruit against Iowa and Iowa State," Penrith said. "These are two universities that are bigger than us. We're like the third wheel every time."
But Penrith also feels the pinch from the other side. Because few schools give out full-rides in wrestling, smaller non-Division I schools sometimes can provide better financial packages to athletes. And there's plenty of competition from those schools in Northern Iowa's backyard. Wartburg, which has won four NCAA Division III titles in the past decade, is 15 miles to the north. Upper Iowa, the only Division II school in Iowa, also is that part of the state.
Keeping the talent in place isn't always easy, either.
Iowa State lost Harry Lester, one of its top recruits in recent years, because he wanted to concentrate on Greco-Roman wrestling and transferred. Iowa lost 2003 national champion Steve Mocco, who transferred to Oklahoma State, and just this fall had national qualifier Mario Galanakis not return to school.
Those problems are not unique to the Iowa schools " Minnesota, for instance, lost two-blue chip recruits, Cory Cooperman, an All-American for Lehigh and Marcus Levesseur, a three-time Division III national champion, from the same recruiting class " but they certainly have an impact on a program's success.
Conversely, an already strong Oklahoma State program was strengthened in recent years by the additions of transfers Mocco and Muhammed Lawal, both of whom won national titles for the Cowboys.
It doesn't take much to tilt the balance of power in the sport.
RETURNING TO THE TOP
Getting back on top can be done.
Jim Gibbons guided Iowa State to a national title in 1987, 10 years after the legendary Harold Nichols won the last of his five national championships.
Even Gable had a stretch when he was looking up at other teams winning national championships. His Hawkeyes went four years (from 1987 to 1990) without a national title " although they were second twice and third once.
Brands sees no reason why Iowa or Iowa State can't return to the top.
"They've got budget, they've got help out the yazoo " (at Virginia Tech) we've got 3 ,½ guys doing the work of eight or seven," he said. "I'm not saying Iowa, I'm talking about all those programs " Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Oklahoma " they've all got help out the yazoo. You've got a big-budget program; you've got all the help."
Brands believes his former school is on the right track, too.
"You bet, I think they're making the right steps," he said. "I think Iowa is doing a good job."
The Hawkeyes have recruited a pair of highly regarded classes the past two years, and last year that lineup was full of true freshmen who only should improve. Iowa State also is trying to mesh together some younger with wrestlers with a veteran core. And Northern Iowa is trying to develop some future stars.
Despite some recent struggles, Iowa and Iowa State will remain among the elites, Penrith predicts. He hopes his team can maintain its position, too.
"Iowa and Iowa State will always be competitive, will always be up there in the upper echelon, should stay in the top 10," he said. "We're going to be in a position where we're going to have to fight extremely hard to be in the top 10 and to work really hard to maintain the top 15."
But none of the three schools plan to give up the fight to get back to the top.
Contact Jon Gremmels at (563) 383-2294 or at [email protected]
NCAA Division I wrestling team championships won by Iowa colleges or universities
1975 Gary Kurdelmeier
1976 Gary Kurdelmeier
1978 Dan Gable
1979 Dan Gable
1980 Dan Gable
1981 Dan Gable
1982 Dan Gable
1983 Dan Gable
1984 Dan Gable
1985 Dan Gable
1986 Dan Gable
1991 Dan Gable
1992 Dan Gable
1993 Dan Gable
1995 Dan Gable
1996 Dan Gable
1997 Dan Gable
1998 Jim Zalesky
1999 Jim Zalesky
2000 Jim Zalesky
1933 (tie)*Hugo Otopalik
1965 Harold Nichols
1969 Harold Nichols
1970 Harold Nichols
1972 Harold Nichols
1973 Harold Nichols
1977 Harold Nichols
1987 Jim Gibbons
* " Unofficial champion (No team points kept)
1950 Dave McCuskey
1947 Paul Scott
Current Division I rankings according to USA Today/NWCA NCAA Coaches Poll:
1. Oklahoma State
7. Iowa State
21. Northern Iowa