The computers had just spewed out the grades earned by University of Iowa wrestlers for the semester, including the efforts of one student-athlete who had a D and three Fs. The team's academic adviser was ready to fold, spindle and mutilate the young man, but Coach Gary Kurdelmeier was calm. "I knew he was spending way too much time on that one course," he said. "I told this kid, 'If you don't take the final exams, some professors will count that against you.' "
Even though Kurdelmeier could allow himself a bit of black humor in this instance, since the youngster in question is not a leading member of his team, it is illustrative of the uncertainties that have dogged him as he has worked to turn Iowa into a big-time wrestling power. Proof that he is succeeding despite some lackadaisical classroom performances and injuries came last week when collegiate wrestling in general—and Iowa wrestling in particular—had one of its most glittering moments.
It occurred when Iowa, ranked No. 1 in the nation, faced No. 2 Iowa State in front of what officials of both schools believe was the biggest crowd (14,293) ever to watch a college wrestling match. Hundreds of other would-be spectators were left outside the packed ISU Hilton Coliseum to enjoy the wonders of a January night on the plains. The hero was Iowa farm boy Mike McGivern, who wrestled better than he can. Competing at 158 pounds, he managed a dramatic 6-6 tie with State's Pete Galea, a tough New Yorker who was supposed to dust McGivern without breaking a sweat. McGivern's draw propelled Iowa to a 19-14 win and left him positively stunned. "Gee, I'm pretty surprised," he said. "In fact, I'm very surprised."
So was Iowa State, which had figured to show the upstarts from down the road what wrestling is all about. State long ago became accustomed to winning; in the last seven years, it has won the NCAA championship four times. On seven other occasions, ISU has finished second. Iowa has won the NCAA only once—last year—and folks at Iowa State do not hide their feeling that it probably was a fluke. Now it is time to junk that theory. Iowa is for real.
Merely winning another national title would not entirely satisfy Kurdelmeier, who wants an Iowa-style wave of wrestling popularity to sweep the country. "What I hope is that wrestling will get important enough that they'll start firing coaches," he says. And the aforementioned problems of building a repeat winner have offered plenty of chances for Kurdelmeier to get a pink slip.
Last year the Hawkeyes had a freshman heavyweight, John Bowlsby, who amassed a 31-6-2 record and placed second in the Big Ten and third in the NCAA championships. Understandably Kurdelmeier did not bother to recruit any new heavies for his squad. Now he wishes he had, since supremely confident Bowlsby—he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team when he was a high school sophomore—decided to play a little varsity football this season. A troublesome knee was aggravated, and shortly thereafter it was wrecked during a wrestling match. Now Bowlsby is picking up towels. He may be back later in the year but that is small consolation for Kurdelmeier, who said before the season began, "Injury at heavyweight would be a big blow."
As a sophomore, 190-pounder Greg Stevens had finished second in both the Big Ten and the NCAA championships. So 190 was a secure position for the Hawkeyes, right? Of course not. Stevens also tore up a knee.
But wrestlers' problems are not all injuries, and they are not all at Iowa. State has had its share. Hotshot freshman Kelly Ward was doing splendidly in a weight class (142 pounds) at which the Cyclones are thin. He was undefeated in four early-season dual meets, went home to Maryland for Christmas vacation and returned 27 pounds overweight. He had difficulty finding any clothes in his closet that still fit, much less getting back down to his wrestling weight. Against Iowa, Ward's replacement Dean Sherman was whomped 16-1.
All this does not mean that the two Iowa schools have wrestling teams populated exclusively by the lame of limb and halt of mind. Quite the contrary. Both have so much talent that such adversities are generally overcome.
To push the Hawkeyes to the top, Kurdelmeier has recruited some of the country's best talent, including an assistant coach named Dan Gable. The Fabled Gable, who won a gold medal at the Munich Olympics and 181 straight matches during his high school and college careers, competed at Iowa State. But when it came time for him to find steady work, State suddenly came down with a case of the check-with-us-tomorrows. "I waited three months, then I just had to find something else," says Gable. Iowa was glad to oblige. Iowa State subsequently tried and failed to get him back.