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The Pride Of Iowa

The passion for wrestling still runs deep throughout the state, where legends have returned to two storied college programs to restore their faded luster

Posted: Tuesday March 6, 2007 1:04PM; Updated: Tuesday March 6, 2007 1:04PM
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Iowa's 149-pounder, Alex Grunder, had control for a moment over Minnesota's Dustin Schlatter, who rallied to win the match and further cement the Golden Gophers' hold on the Big Ten.
Iowa's 149-pounder, Alex Grunder, had control for a moment over Minnesota's Dustin Schlatter, who rallied to win the match and further cement the Golden Gophers' hold on the Big Ten.
David E. Klutho/SI
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By Richard Hoffer

From an altitude, which is how most people see it, Iowa in winter is a dreary quilt-work of corn stubble. But a gradual descent reveals a friendlier geography. Roads finally form an intersection. A white church steeple or a water tower announces a concentration of people. A town materializes. Iowa has its cities, of course, but it's mostly a stitching of small towns -- that much is clear from overhead -- none of them any bigger than they need to be to service the land around it.

And in his office Dan Gable is saying he could drive to any one of these towns -- no matter how small, featureless or remote -- and find me a wrestling story. "That's just the way it is," he says. "It's Iowa."

In Humboldt (pop. 4,452) they still talk about Frank Gotch, the sport's Babe Ruth. He was the professional heavyweight champion from 1906 to '13 and famous enough for it that he was invited to the White House to meet Teddy Roosevelt. In Sheldon (pop. 4,912, A REALLY NICE PLACE!), they still talk of the Brands twins -- Tom and Terry -- a couple of hyper handfuls who became Olympic medalists, Tom winning a gold in '96, Terry a bronze in 2000. Cresco (pop. 3,905, IOWA'S YEAR 'ROUND PLAYGROUND!) somehow produced five admirals and a Nobel Peace Prize winner as well as two Olympians, a couple of college coaches and scores of individual champions. The Nobel laureate, Norman Borlaug, wasn't one of the champs; he finished second at the state tournament, in '32.

In fact, the only school to have piled up more hardware than little Cresco in the 87 years of the state tournament -- a fever dream of small-town America -- is Gable's alma mater, West Waterloo High. Waterloo is no town (pop. 68,747, BIG CITY EXCITEMENT ... HOMETOWN HOSPITALITY), but it's no Des Moines, either. Yet it supports a wrestling museum with Gable's name on it, several vibrant high school programs and a tradition that belies its size. Bob Siddens, who won 11 titles and coached more than 50 individual champions at West Waterloo, walks around town, all dapper and crisp at the age of 81, recalling all the "lads and lassies" he coached, and is accorded John Wooden respect. Gable, 58, was a three-time champ under Siddens before earning three titles at Iowa State, winning Olympic gold at 149.5 pounds in 1972 and then coaching Iowa to 15 championships in 21 years. (Wooden, by the way, won only 10 in 27 seasons at UCLA.) He is treated more along the lines of a god.

For decades the state's top high school wrestlers followed the roads out of town to Iowa City or Ames. Iowa and Iowa State combined for 26 NCAA championships and produced 60 wrestlers, who won 91 titles from 1968-69 to 1999-2000. But then both programs fell into relative doldrums. To remedy that, they hired coaches who embody the sport's greatest glory, and each is rebounding fiercely. In its first season under Cael Sanderson -- perhaps the most accomplished U.S. wrestler ever, having won Olympic gold in 2004 after going undefeated in four seasons at Ames -- Iowa State is ranked No. 2 going into the NCAA championships, which start on March 15 in Auburn Hills, Mich. Tom Brands left Virginia Tech last April to take over at Iowa. He has lifted the Hawkeyes to No. 10, aided by an assistant with a few credentials himself, Gable.

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