1. 1997 Iowa Wrestling
July 23, 2007
Arrangements were made for Dan Gable?s bittersweet farewell.
Gable, the University of Iowa?s iconic wrestling coach, hinted he might retire after the 1996-97 season. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, appeared destined to finish second to Oklahoma State at the NCAA meet in Cedar Falls.
Those circumstances prompted tournament organizers to ask Bob Siddens, Gable?s high school coach from Waterloo West, if he would present the runner-up trophy to his former pupil.
?I told Daniel, ?I guess they have it all figured out,? ? Siddens recalled. ?Daniel kind of hesitated, and then he says, ?That?s interesting. Maybe I should talk to my wrestlers about that.? ?
Gable?s wrestlers provided a twist, scoring an unprecedented 170 points, winning five out of 10 individual titles and rewarding their coach with his 15th NCAA crown.
Today, those ?97 wrestlers top an honor roll of the Des Moines Sunday Register?s 20 greatest Iowa teams.
A diverse range of sports and competitive levels were considered, with selections based on championship credentials, national significance and historical impact.
The list includes Final Four qualifiers, small-college powerhouses, high school record-setters and a Rose Bowl winner.
Iowa?s ?97 wrestling team, however, set the standard.
?I think what we did was pretty phenomenal,? said Mark Ironside, a two-time NCAA champion for the Hawkeyes. ?To do it when you?re not supposed to adds a lot, especially in a sport where it?s hard to dominate like that.?
Gable?s drive fueled Iowa?s wrestling dominance in the 1980s and ?90s, but his devotion took a toll.
?It seemed like he would always get a little bit sick the week before Big Tens or nationals,? recalls Lincoln McIlravy, a three-time NCAA champ. ?I think by the end of the season, he had put so much into it.?
Gable missed part of the ?97 season after having hip-replacement surgery in January. He was out of the hospital in five days.
?Not having him around the entire time was a little tough,? said ex-Hawkeye Joe Williams, a 2004 Olympian. ?When he got back, the crutches kind of acted as a symbol to show me, ?Wow, this man really wants to coach.? ?
Gable?s grueling practices were a factor in a 21-13 loss to Oklahoma State at the national duals, dropping Iowa from No. 1 to No. 2 in the rankings.
?It was right after one of the hardest training sessions of the year,? said Mike Uker, who competed at 167 pounds. ?I never thought about Oklahoma State being No. 1. I just had faith that coach Gable was going to do what he does, and we were going to peak at the right time.?
The Hawkeyes recovered to win their 24th straight Big Ten Conference title, but Gable remained torn about his future.
?I thought (the NCAAs) was going to be my last competition,? Gable says now.
?Win or lose, I wanted to be done ... but how are you going to react when you lose??
That question gnawed at Gable as various media outlets tabbed Oklahoma State a 30-point favorite.
?They pretty much wrote us off the books,? Williams remembers.
The seeds of a potential upset were planted when Kasey Gilliss became one of nine Hawkeyes to win their first-round match. Gilliss, a 142-pound redshirt freshman, used a leg sweep to pin his opponent in 37 seconds.
?It just seemed like things took care of themselves,? Gilliss said, ?because of the way Gable prepared everybody.?
The Cowboys advanced seven wrestlers to the quarterfinals, compared to Iowa?s six. But they trailed by 13 points because they had few technical falls and pins.
The gap widened as the Hawkeyes continued an unparalleled string of 23 straight wins, including their first 21 matches on Friday.
Jessie Whitmer, a 118-pound senior who had spent most of his college career as a backup, ignited the run with a 7-4 upset of Michigan State?s David Morgan.
?At the start of the season (Gable) told me, ?Jessie, you?re going to be a national champion,? ? Whitmer said. ?At that point, I thought he was crazy.?
Others responded to a frenzied UNI-Dome crowd of 17,000.
?I really think as the tournament went on we gained fans,? former heavyweight Wes Hand said. ?I wrestled in three national tournaments after that, and there was never an energy or an event like that.?
The Cowboys slipped from contention as Iowa clinched the team title on Day 2 of a three-day tournament.
?I?m sure it had to have felt like they were in a little bit of a tunnel,? Gilliss said. ?Once we started rolling, it felt like the crowd was cheering for four straight hours.?
Even Gable was surprised.
?All of a sudden, about 90 percent of the way through the day, somebody says, ?Hey, you?ve won 19 in a row,? ? Gable said. ?That kind of blew my mind.?
The following evening Whitmer, Ironside, McIlravy, Williams and Lee Fullhart won championships.
Siddens still greeted Gable on the awards platform, but he was holding the championship trophy.
?I got kind of choked up,? Siddens said of embracing Gable. ?It was a highlight of my life.?