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College wrestling has moved out of low gear in recent years, much to the relief of the sport's long-suffering fans. As a result, a record 67,874 of them roared their approval of the full-speed-ahead action during the six sessions of last week's NCAA championships at Iowa State. Quite naturally, since the crowds consisted mostly of Iowans, most of them were also pleased with the continuation of the power shift that has seen the fortunes of Oklahoma State and Oklahoma sag, while Iowa State's and Iowa's have been on the rise.
During the first 30 NCAA tournaments, from 1928 through 1964, Oklahoma State won 22 times, Oklahoma five. Then, with the help of rules revisions, Iowa State took six titles between 1965 and 1978. And at Ames last week on State's home mat, Iowa, led by Bruce Kinseth, who pinned all five of his opponents in the 150-pound class, won for the fourth time in five years.
For years there have been efforts to jazz up wrestling, give it more action and make it more appealing to spectators. An expert on this topic is Dale Thomas, the Oregon State coach, whose 412 dual-match victories are a collegiate high.
"I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the rules changes in wrestling," Thomas said. "One important change was in 1940 when a point system was brought in to settle each match. Until then, all bouts were decided by riding time, with the man who controlled his opponent longer being the winner. The big thing in recent years has been to cut down on stalling by the wrestlers, which has always been the sport's main problem."
It has become less and less of a problem during the '70s. Today, if a wrestler is not aggressive enough, the referee can warn, penalize and even disqualify him for stalling. A few people feel this has given excessive power to the referee. To be sure, there are still bugs to be worked out.
"After we won our first nationals in '65, lots of people commented that they were glad to see good basic wrestling take over," Nichols said. The "good basic wrestling" Nichols taught was in contrast to the take-'em-down, let-'em-up tactics that had long been in vogue. Simply put, fans got more of a kick out of 9-7 bouts than 3-2 yawners and preferred seeing pins rather than lots of riding.
Nichols, Thomas and others on the rules committee saw to it that stalling was forestalled. No longer can wrestlers consistently win by scoring a two-point takedown and letting their opponents get a one-point escape to set up another takedown. Now they must rely on a wider range of maneuvers.
"The rules against stalling have been around a long time," Nichols said. "They just were not enforced. What we did was interpret the rules so officials and coaches could see that stalling had to be called more and that that was the way wrestling was meant to be."
Nichols was also largely responsible for ending the dominance of the Oklahomans by building a powerhouse at Iowa State. And now his No. 1 powerhouse, the fabled Dan Gable, is keeping the state of Iowa in the forefront. Gable, a 1972 Olympic gold medalist who won two NCAA titles while wrestling for Nichols, has been the coach at Iowa for three years, but he is still revered in Ames, where a street has been named after him. Adding to his prestige was his team's 19-0 record in dual matches this season and a triumph in the Big Ten championships, at which the Hawkeyes tied the record they set in 1978 by having six individual winners.