Gable dominated as wrestler and coach
"What Gable understood about wrestling is that it's the cruelest mistress in the world and that it required all your attention, all your time, all your focus. What Gable did is he was able to concentrate on one area. Wrestling was all he cared about," says writer Douglas Looney on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
There is no disputing that Dan Gable is the most recognizable name in collegiate and U.S. Olympic wrestling history. The challenge is determining whether Gable wrote a greater legacy as a wrestler or coach. He was a rarity: the exceptional athlete who taught at the same level he performed.
Gable rebounded and starred in international competition, climaxed by his winning a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics, where he didn't surrender a point in six matches.
Taking over as head coach at Iowa in 1976, he led the Hawkeyes to 15 national titles in 21 seasons, including a record nine consecutive from 1978-86. Iowa won the Big Ten title in each of Gable's 21 seasons and went undefeated seven times. His career coaching record was 355-21-5 for a winning percentage of .938.
"[Wrestling] is the only sport I've ever competed in that puts you totally in a situation of constant [motion] without breaks," Gable said in his biography, A Season on the Mat, which chronicled his final year at Iowa. "I could play football or baseball, swim -- but there's always some kind of situation that would break my thoughts, break my concentration."
Gable was born on Oct. 25, 1948 in the blue-collar town of Waterloo, Iowa. His father Mack was an investor/real estate salesman and his mother Katie was a homemaker. Mack, who wrestled in high school, sometimes took Dan to wrestling meets, but the younger Gable didn't become hooked on the sport until he was a teenager after trying baseball, football, track and swimming.
Mack and Katie were disciplinarians who didn't hesitate to use corporal punishment on each other or on Dan and his older sister Diane. At least once police were called to the house because Mack, who drank too much, was hitting the kids.
On Memorial Day weekend in 1964, while Dan and his parents were away on a fishing trip, Diane, 19, was sexually attacked and murdered in the Gable living room. When her body was found, Dan told his father about Tom Kyle, who had said he wanted to have intercourse with Diane. Kyle, 16, an acquaintance of Diane who had dropped out of high school six weeks previously, confessed to the murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
"My life tightened up," Gable said. "It made me even more of a horse with blinders as far as wrestling went."
At Waterloo West High School, Gable went 64-0, with 25 pins. As a sophomore, he wrestled mainly in the 95-pound weight class before moving up to 112 pounds by his senior year.
In 1966, he entered Iowa State, 110 miles away in Ames. However, because of NCAA freshmen ineligibility rules, he was allowed only to participate in tournaments open to all amateurs. Wrestling in the 130-pound weight class, he was named Most Valuable Wrestler of the Midlands Tournament for the first of five times in his career. In all, he went 17-0 as a freshman against non-varsity competition.
"Right out of high school I never had the fear of getting beat, which is how most people lose," Gable said. "They're scared of somebody. But I really didn't have a clue how I'd do in college. I knew I could beat guys in practice, and I did well, but there were guys I had trouble with."
Not too much trouble as evidenced by his record. As a sophomore, he went 37-0 and won the NCAA 130-pound title. As a junior, he was 30-0 and began a string of 25 straight pins, an NCAA record. At 137 pounds, he was also named the Most Outstanding Wrestler of the NCAA Tournament in leading Iowa State to the first of back-to-back championships.
Gable earned the Gorrarian Award as a junior and senior for the most pins in the least time in the NCAA Tournament. In 1969, he pinned five opponents in a total of 20 minutes, 59 seconds. The next year, he pinned five opponents in 22:08.
But in the 1970 NCAA 142-pound final, it would be a different story when Gable met Washington sophomore Larry Owings, normally a 150-pounder who pared weight to compete in Gable's class. Gable rallied from a 7-2 deficit to tie the match 8-8 in the third period before Owings re-established control and pulled off a 13-11 shocker.
The defeat left Gable in tears. "At first, I couldn't face my parents," he said. "I felt I had let them down. Two weeks later I won the national AAUs, was voted the Outstanding Wrestler there and that got me back on the right road.
"I needed to get beat because it not just helped me win the Olympics, but it helped me dominate the Olympics. But more than that, it helped me be a better coach. I would have a hundred times rather not have that happened, but I used it."
At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Gable pinned three of six opponents on his way to the gold medal in the 149-pound class. Gable won much to the dismay of the Soviets, who had vowed to scour the country to find somebody capable of beating him.
Gable returned to the U.S. and became an assistant coach at Iowa. Four years later, he was promoted to head coach. In his first season, the Hawkeyes went 17-1-1 and finished third at the 1977 NCAA Tournament. Gable was voted the NCAA's Rookie Coach of the Year.
The Hawkeyes started their nine-year national championship streak the next season, in which they went 15-1 in dual meets. They became the first national championship team that didn't crown an individual champion.
Gable's first undefeated season -- at 19-0 -- came in 1979. A year later, he was named coach of the Olympic freestyle team before the U.S. boycotted the Games. In 1984, he got to coach in the Olympics, guiding the U.S. freestyle team to seven gold medals.
Two years later, he coached the U.S. team to a bronze medal in the Goodwill Games. In 1987, Iowa's championship run ended with a second-place finish in the NCAA Tournament. That season also marked the first time under Gable that the Hawkeyes, who finished 19-2, lost more than one dual meet. After three more seasons without an NCAA title, they won again in 1991. That season Iowa went 25-0-1, the most victories in any year of Gable's coaching career.
Gable guided Iowa to five more national championships, and a second in 1994, over the next six seasons. In January 1997, he underwent hip replacement surgery and missed four matches, but returned to guide the Hawkeyes to the national championship with an NCAA record of 170 points.
By the end of 1997, Gable had undergone more than a dozen knee and back surgeries. No longer able to get down on the mat to demonstrate holds and escapes, he retired from coaching.
"Wrestling has been a way of life with me day in and day out," Gable said at his retirement press conference. "I won't get too far away from it. I might walk through the wrestling room once a week. I could go every day if I wanted. But just walk through, make sure it's still there."
Staying true to his word, Gable served as head coach for the 1999 World Cup and was a co-coach of the 2000 U.S. Olympic freestyle team. He was an assistant to the athletic director at Iowa and was active in fund-raising. Then in 2006, he was talked back into coaching as an assistant at Iowa, where the program he loves had lost its luster.