To help stoke the
locals' fires, Brands coaxed Gable out of his fund-raising job in the Hawkeyes'
athletic department and onto his staff. There is no equivalent to this move,
not in any sport, at any level, unless the Green Bay Packers somehow coaxed
Vince Lombardi out of eternity to call plays from the press box. Gable's role
is somewhat mysterious, in that he refuses to offer his former pupil any
unsolicited advice. But his impatience with losing might provide the program
with just enough impetus to regain its stature.
The day after the
Minnesota loss, for example, Gable was radiating pure disgust. "Three
takedowns!" he said, referring to Iowa's paltry output. "I can get
three takedowns before I get out of bed. And by that, of course, I mean my
wife." Like Brands, he believes Iowa wrestling is a civic trust:
"People here love this sport, and they've seen some great wrestling. We had
a style that people are craving, a dominant style, pushing, shoving, snapping,
wrestling to the edge, standing toe-to-toe. They've seen enough of that for 50
years to know the difference. They've seen meets with 10 competitive weight
classes, not a 'cigarette break' in there. They are highly expectant. We had a
team--Brands was part of it--when we had 11 All-Americas in 10 weight
classes." He returns as asked, caretaker of this trust.
Gable is an odd
duck, his intensity and fear of losing probably no longer as contagious as they
once were. Still, you cannot be around him for long and be unaffected. As an
aside, he brought up that miserable blight on his career--a loss in his final
NCAA match, when the particulars of his unbeaten career were being etched in
trophies. He was distracted, he admits, and the defeat proved properly
transforming. "I wouldn't have been the man I am, the coach, or the husband
and father, without that loss," he says.
But he still
mourns it. "I remember the depression afterward," Gable recalls. "I
went back to school, but I physically couldn't talk to my parents when they
called." He reenacted the scene, reaching to answer an imaginary phone
call. "I'm choking up right now, a little bit." His mother mistook his
silence for--who knows what?--and drove to his campus dorm, knocked on his door
and slapped him. He laughs at the memory, a little. It was 35 years ago, after
It may be that
fear of losing is not something you coach, anyway, but something that's
instilled in all those small gyms in all those small towns where farm boys
escape a comparative drudgery for one that promises at least a little fame,
however local. Bill Smith, the 1952 Olympic gold medalist, recalls that he and
his Council Bluffs teammates hated to wrestle those farm boys at state.
"They were just stronger than us," he says. "They had these
powerful grips. Milking cows, we always figured."
intensity is almost comic, tries to explain what it's like to be from a small
town and do something memorable. "My first state tournament," he says,
"I was one and out. But I remember the drive home on the bus, sitting next
to our heavyweight, who won a championship, and he was on top of the world.
He's a garbage man back in Sheldon, haven't seen him for years. But he's a
impossible, in fact, to explain the hold the state tournament has on Iowa each
February. There were 23,000 requests for 13,700 tickets this year. Driving home
afterward from Des Moines to Iowa City every year, Gable admits that he falls
into a depression. "Not a long one, but a depression." When I ask him
why, he shoots me a look. "Because it's over."
Some of these kids
will go on to wrestle in college, and some of them will then return to their
little towns and nurture their own three- and four-timers. In Iowa City two
former Hawkeyes who were NCAA champions coach rival programs, Brad Smith at
City High and Mark Reiland at West High. It's not unheard of.
In Iowa wrestlers
wear their letter jackets without a coastal sense of irony, the shiny diaper
pins (pins--get it?) actually conveying something to their peers. They pursue
goals that require ungodly work but have little logical reward in this day and
age. A college scholarship, perhaps, but not a $35 million contract, and not
much TV time either.
Still, in the
northernmost part of the state, you could do worse than drop the name of Mark
Schwab, a four-timer from the mid-1980s. You might even get some conversation
out of a mention of Gerald (Germ) Leeman, a three-timer who won a silver medal
at the 1948 Olympics. Both of them, believe it or not, came from Osage (pop.
3,451; CITY OF MAPLES). No doubt you've flown over it.