Going to the NCAA wrestling championships last week to see which of the 112 teams would win was like sticking a paper clip into a wall socket to learn if the power company is awake and on the job. You are pretty sure of the answer in advance.
Which made it appropriate that the tournament was held at the University of Arizona in predictable Tucson, where sunny weather is almost a certainty (3,800 hours a year, more than any other resort city in the U.S.), where it is very likely that the pancakes will taste a little like tacos, where it is a good bet that mariachi music will fill the air and olive trees will fill the yards and, most of all, where it was nearly a sure thing that the University of Iowa was going to sweep down from the northlands and mop up all those other mat rats who fancy themselves to be quick of move and strong of body.
As it turned out, just about the only unpredictable thing that occurred in Tucson was the way the Hawkeyes won their national title. Iowa exceeded the fondest expectations of its most optimistic supporters by scoring a tournament-record 123.25 points, 37.5 more than runner-up Iowa State and almost twice as many as third-place Oklahoma State. And the Hawk-eyes not only took home the team trophy, they also clearly established themselves as a certified power in a sport heretofore considered the exclusive property of Oklahoma State (28 NCAA titles), Oklahoma (6) and Iowa State (6). Iowa, a member of the Big Ten, had won the NCAA championship last year. Its victory this time around made it the first school from outside the Big Eight to win the title more than once.
"All you can ever do is play the cards you're dealt," Iowa Coach Gary Kurdelmeier said with solemnity a few days before the meet, "but I must say we've got a good hand." Indeed, Kurdelmeier held all the trumps and all the aces, while the other teams were stuck with the Old Maid. When it was over the Hawkeyes had three individual champions, one second-place finisher, two thirds and a fifth.
Leading the Hawkeye assault was 150-pound Chuck Yagla, a champion for the second year in a row and the tournament's outstanding wrestler. Lounging around a motel pool under a canopy of orange trees, Yagla explained why he does so well, "I feel like God is watching, and I want to impress Him." God had to be mighty impressed with Yagla in the finals as he manhandled his nemesis, Pete Galea of Iowa State. Galea, who repeatedly told himself before the match, "Now don't get so nervous you do something dumb," did not wrestle stupidly; he simply was overwhelmed by Yagla's strength, speed and desire.
After two scoreless periods punctuated only by spectator yawns, Yagla pulled off a reverse for two points early in the last period. With 31 seconds left in the eight-minute match, he got a near pin and two more points. A point for riding time made his margin of victory 5-0.
Yagla's wife Darlyne said her husband followed his usual pattern for success: "He prays he'll do his best, I pray he'll do his best, and it turns out that his best is the best." Are your eyes filled with tears of joy? "Oh, no. I just looked at Pete, and I felt so sorry for him I could've cried."
If Iowa's wrestlers had similar compassion for the opposition, it was not apparent. In the 142-pound finals, Brad Smith turned his opponent, Gene Costello of Slippery Rock, every which way—and occasionally loose just for the sport of it—in an easy 12-4 victory. The Hawkeyes' third title went to 177-pound junior Chris Campbell, who outmuscled Mark Johnson of Michigan 9-4. When Campbell was a freshman, he would storm onto the mat, his eyes red and crossed. Now he wrestles far more conservatively and can fiddle away long stretches of a match, then make a timely move and win. In the semifinals he looked like a goner until he scored a takedown with 12 seconds remaining to pull out a 5-4 triumph. His final match was always in hand.
So, Chris, is it all worth it? "No. This sport has made me emotionally unstable for three years, but at least I can say I did it," he said. Campbell, the only underclassman among Iowa's individual champions, did not enjoy his victory for long. No sooner had he left the mat than he began worrying about the upcoming Olympic trials. In his fretful way, he has it figured out that if he tries out for the Olympics and fails, he will be plagued by instability for another four years, until he has another chance to make an Olympic team.
Campbell's thoughts suddenly drifted off and he brightened. "Do you know that just before I left home to come here, I found a girl friend who has a car and a color television?" he said. "It took me a long while, but there's something that was worth the trouble. That's a hard combination to find."