Steve and Corey talk to legendary NCAA and Olympic wrestler and coach Dan Gable.
- Dan Gable vs Larry Owings – 1970 NCAA Title Match (video)
- The Champion (1970 documentary on Gable’s senior NCAA season)
What is Manifold?
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Join him for wide-ranging conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.
Steve: Okay, Corey, our guest today is Dan Gable, a world famous wrestler and also coach of wrestlers. He grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. He was a three-time high school champ at Waterloo West. He was a two time NCAA champ, wrestling for Iowa State University, which is where I was born and my father was professor. He has an incredibly storied career. He came within one match of being completely undefeated throughout his high school and college wrestling careers, losing only his last match in the NCAA championships to a younger wrestler named Larry Owings of the University of Washington. And I’d like to get into that a little bit when we talk to Dan about his life story.
Steve: But then he bounced back from that and he won the World Championships in 1971. He won the Olympic gold medal in ’72, I believe that was in Munich and in that tournament he won all six of his matches without giving up a point. So he’s legendary as an athlete, but then he became a coach, and from ’76 to ’97, he was the head wrestling coach of the University of Iowa, Hawkeyes. Now, I don’t know how the Iowa State University Cyclones fans like myself ever forgave him for that, but we were so proud of him because it’s still Iowa.
Steve: He coached 152 all Americans, 45 national champions, 106 Big Ten champions, 12 Olympians, including eight medalists. His team’s won 21 Big Ten conference championships and 15 NCAA titles. He coached freestyle wrestling. He was the head coach for the United States in three Olympic teams and for three Olympic teams and six world teams. So as you can imagine, because I’ve been aware of Dan Gable since I was a kid growing up in Ames, it’s a thrill for me to have him here on our show.
Steve: So, Dan, I’d like to start with, I hope this is not a super painful memory for you, but the last match of your college career and I just watched a documentary film that was made by some Iowa State students during that last year of your college wrestling career. I’d never seen this film before. It’s incredibly high-quality color documentary about that season, and culminating in the final match. And so we’ll put a link to that in the show notes.
Steve: And so I’d like to talk to you about that last match with Larry Owings. One of the things that I noticed watching the match is how serious Owings was in the victory when he finally was declared the winner. He reached out very seriously and shook your hand. There was not a hint of celebration. Even when his coach hugs him later, there’s not even a hint of celebration. I sort of got the feeling watching the video that he understood the enormity of what he had accomplished. Am I right in that interpretation or maybe just people are more serious back then?
Coach Gable: Dan Gable here. He was a humble guy right there at that moment. As I listened to him over the years, I don’t think he realized what he actually did at that moment, even though that was his goal and he kept it quiet all year, because he was in my weight class a year before, didn’t get to me and I didn’t know who he was basically, even though I had wrestled him once before, but he kept it to himself and he worked just all year to want to beat me in the National Finals, I guess.
Coach Gable: So, he was right on par, but the reason why I said I don’t think he realizes because he told me when he got back home, his life had changed and he was only a sophomore. And by that, he didn’t really know how to handle his life because he was always this certain way and it was different now. It was such a change. White World of Sports featured him the next weekend and it’s just one of these things that he says, actually, that match cost him, what he really wanted overall was to be a world and Olympic champion as well and he actually never won another national title even though he was in the finals twice, he got beat twice.
Coach Gable: I don’t know if he was married at that time or got married shortly after or whatever, but he said, he felt like it cost him his marriage. He just did not know how to handle the fame, which I think in an area where he was from, University of Washington, it was a big deal out there, but it wasn’t like he was living in Iowa in the Midwest where we were winning national team titles and titles and all that kind of thing, just a kid from the University of Washington Oregon State, the State of Oregon, all of a sudden, upsetting the kid and winning and not really knowing how to handle it.
Coach Gable: He actually said if he had to do it all over again, he probably wouldn’t want to win that match, which is amazing and you know what’s surprising about me? I needed to lose that match because I took for granted I was just going to win and my coach just took for granted that I was going to win. My focus really had peaked about a month earlier when I’d actually set a goal to go up a weight and beat the defending champion up a weight. And then I did that and then after that, it was like anticlimatic, but yet I was doing more interviews. I wasn’t even a kid that could really talk a lot at that time and I was pretty focused, but I actually had my goals and my focus incorrect and I was doing a lot of interviews.
Coach Gable: I mean, I’m interviewing with you right now. Now, if I had the national tournament this week or tomorrow or my matches in five minutes, would I want to be doing this? Well, the coaches had a lot of confidence in me. I guess I had a lot of confidence, but no, you don’t do that. So I was interviewing with Wide World of Sports, and all of a sudden, I finally got my 22 takes down. By that, I’m saying 22 times to say, really simple, “Hi, I’m Dan Gable. Come watch me next week as I finished my career 182 and 0 and I was 181 and 0. And so, I really couldn’t say that very well. So they finally wrote it out and I got it done, not very good, but then all of a sudden I turned and I’m usually a guy that folks after weigh ins, I had a regiment. It was about a five-hour period where you go eat, rest first couple of hours and you start getting ready for your match.
Coach Gable: And I needed all that time and I obviously wasn’t used it because when I got done with that 22nd take, I turned and I was up next. And what I really noticed was when I stepped on the mat and we got into a flurry right away. I think I ended up making a shot and I come up to a bear hug. And was I trying a bear hug and all of a sudden went out of balance and all of a sudden I remember thinking, “Wow, I’m tired.” And I never noticed that before. I’m sure I wasn’t matched in a match tired, not that early. Well, I didn’t warm up and that’s science right there because we’re dealing with science because you guys are a science guy, and so wrestling, there’s a lot of science in wrestling. And if you don’t do warm ups, you take your heart rate from 70 to 180 in a matter of 30 seconds, you’re going to get zapped really quick and that’s what happened.
Coach Gable: So there’s a lot of things that happened, but really, what it did for me was it made me realize that you can’t take for granted anything, you got to go about things in the right way, you got to peak correctly, you got to warm up properly, you got to do what you got to do individually to make sure you have your best performance. So, what I did was actually analyze 365 days previously, went through every day, because I would always keep these logs and there was a lot of things that I wasn’t doing exactly the way I should have done it, but more than that, it taught me for the future for becoming a world and Olympic champion.
Coach Gable: And I tell you what, my performance because I started focusing on science and I’m emphasizing that and that means the art of the fight, that means the skills, the techniques, the strategies, instead of just being a tough guy, I actually gained so much knowledge and got so much better in one year, probably as much as I had gained in in the seven years before that, I got that much better in one year, just because I started becoming a little bit more of a student of the sport and most people thought I was really good already, but I had a lot to learn yet and it basically really took me to that next level so, yeah, I needed that loss.
Corey: I’m just curious about your competitor, you clearly stayed in touch with him later on. Did he explain to you how he went about trying to beat you? Did he study you? Look for your weaknesses?
Coach Gable: Well, you’re actually right. He did study me, yeah and I didn’t even realize I had wrestled him years before that, like four years before that in a match. Beat him I think by beating by like maybe nine points. Then the year before, he was in the weight class at the national tournament. We didn’t get to meet in place, but he was a very good wrestler, but he had one goal that year and that was to beat me. I did these top holds. I people down a lot and I arm-barred. It’s called a double arm-bar, double chicken wing and I pinned a lot of guys in a row. I pinned 34 people in a row once in college, but it was like double arm bars. You get them when they’re down. You get their arms behind their back.
Coach Gable: And I got that awning. I mean, I was on top of him almost five minutes of the eight-minute match at that time. So you think you would wait if you’re on top of somebody five of the eight minutes, but I never scored on top. That’s where I was good at, on top of people, score and turn, putting them on their back, getting a lot of falls and getting a lot of back points. Well, all the time that I was on top of him, putting your five minutes, I never scored a back point, but I did get two points for what’s called riding time. Now, you can only get one point, but you’re not supposed to really ride, you’re supposed to pin and I was actually going for the pin with these double chicken wings, and every time I was getting almost way over he would lose arm out. He was really flexible. And I wasn’t scientifically good enough with the arm bars yet.
Coach Gable: And I went back after that and worked on those arm bars and got scientifically good enough to be able to when somebody went to almost double joint their shoulders out of place that I knew what to do. And so yeah, and he beat me because he was able to escape two or three times when I had him down and I was double arm-barring and he got offer an escape. Plus the fact that I was tired the whole match even though, and I had taught myself into wrestling. I would go out of bounds maybe, between out of bounds and then start of the whistle again, I would talk to myself. I would just say, “Hey, come on. I got you going. I know I’m tired. I know I’m behind a little bit.” So I actually was really helping myself get back in the match.
Coach Gable: But normally you don’t do that. If you’re tired, you don’t even know it if you’re focused. And you don’t talk to yourself, you just wrestle hard. There were too many things going on for me to guarantee if I was going to win even though it came right down to it. He got ahead, then I got ahead and I was ahead right until about 20 seconds to go and he got a big move on me. And again, it was a controversial move, whether it was points or not points, but that’s the way it is in life. I mean, either you get calls or you don’t get calls. And the bottom line is it made me go back and become a better coach, a better athlete, and I thank him for that, but at the same time, it’s been a lot of pain in my life, but it also brought a lot of joy because I got to go to a higher level and actually excel at that level.
Steve: I want to encourage our listeners because this historic match is available on YouTube you can find it in one second with one search and it’s really very dramatic competition and in fact, I think there’s a call there, a near fall two points that is a bit controversial that the match could have actually gone your way had it been called slightly differently. But I could tell you a gas, especially in that final period, you look really gassed and [crosstalk].
Coach Gable: I was gassed the whole match.
Coach Gable: I was gassed the whole match. I never, but I talked my way through it, so even though I was gassed in 30 seconds, still I had another 730 to go and, by the way, if I didn’t get that call… you see the call was, well, there’s two things, whether he had a takedown and then whether he had to take down plus back points, so he got both the take down and the back points. The only way I would have beat him in overtime if he wouldn’t have gotten to take down in the back points, that means four points, I could have won that match right at the end. But if we went over time, I think he would have beat me, I hate to tell you because he had the momentum, he was not tired or he was tired, but he wasn’t thinking about it.
Coach Gable: And all I was thinking about is, I got to get through this match, I got to get through this match. That’s just not what you do in a sport. I can remember coming off a match or two in my college career, where as soon as it was over, and they raised my hand, all of a sudden, I’m almost like ready to collapse and I could barely walk to the corner and then all of a sudden, I was walking to go get a drink and I was wobbling. But you know what? Not during the match. That’s because you’re focused on what you have to get done and you rest after.
Coach Gable: It’s kind of like what’s going on right now. I mean, we need some scientists. We need some scientists in the world right now that’s going to help us out. And maybe they won’t get as much sleep, but they need to be focused and there’s no difference. I’m really surprised that something’s that crazy in the world that we can’t just find out a lot of things about it. That’s unbelievable. And I guess that’s what happens in life.
Steve: Yeah, people are working very hard, but this is difficult with coronavirus. A very difficult situation.
Coach Gable: How do you know they’re working hard?
Steve: I know some of them.
Coach Gable: Okay, I know this. Yeah, I need some confidence.
Steve: Yeah. No, people are working very hard. There’s a whole range of things, ranging from how to disinfect and re-use masks to how to take blood from people who already had the disease and recovered and transfer it to people to help them recover. There’s a lot of research going on, but with humans, there’s always the case that you have to be pretty confident before you try something with a large population of people.
Coach Gable: So if you got it right now and you got rid of it, can you get again?
Steve: It’s still unknown. There seemed to be a few documented cases of that actually happening, but it could be that people got it again because their overall immune system was weak as they’ve just recovered. It’s not clear what’s going to be the case in the long run.
Coach Gable: It’s unbeknown.
Steve: Yeah, it’s a bit of science.
Coach Gable: When I lost that match, I pretty much made up my mind what happened and I went about it, and I was going to make sure it didn’t happen again and that’s basically what we’re looking for now, I guess, in science.
Steve: Yeah. So, I think people who know you, Dan, they think of you as a very analytical person who’s studying the science or the technique or how it is that people can improve. When I was researching a little bit for this interview, I came across something which I had been unaware of which is the tragedy of your sister being killed when you were 15 and I apologize. If this is a painful thing that you don’t want to discuss, we can just skip it.
Coach Gable: No, I can. It’s part of my life.
Steve: So I was amazed. There’s a little anecdote which I heard, I think you say that you were at that time, your parents were fighting and it was very difficult time after your sister had been killed in your house and you took it in your own hands to try to stabilize the situation between your parents by moving from your own room, I believe into the room where your sister was killed, is that right? And you slept there to help your parents get past the whole situation, because you were already trying to do things to help other people at that age. Am I right about that story?
Coach Gable: You’re absolutely right. I don’t know how I was able to actually get to that level of thinking, but there was a point in time there where I probably could have prevented that murder, just because I was tipped off and didn’t communicate. He was a neighbor and he said something to me and I just did not. I started go in to say something to my sister and then she changed the subject and it’s just boy talk. But it’s something that helped me in my life, believe it or not, be able to communicate a lot to a lot of people.
Coach Gable: I just knew that my mom and dad growing up were great parents, but they weren’t the perfect from a standpoint of there’s a lot of beer drinking going on, a lot of hell raising and fighting. And all of a sudden, once my sister was murdered there, it was just that much worse. And so I have been through the YMCA when I was four and stayed there until I was about 14, had some pretty good home life, learning, had great coaches. And all of a sudden when I had a chance to step up to keep my family together because that was when I was 15 and that was in 1964.
Coach Gable: And they lived the rest of their life together until they died together in the late 1900s, so it was another 35 years they stayed together. I thought when I was going to leave home to go to college to Iowa State, and so one of the reasons why I wanted to stay local at UNI was because I thought maybe I could be around more to help keep them together, but actually, when I left, they found themselves a little bit more and it really pieced them together.
Coach Gable: But my wrestling was their entertainment, and then my coaching was their entertainment and that always helps and a family needs some of that piecemeal and if you can do it and look what it’s done for me in my life. I mean, almost went undefeated as a wrestler, won a lot of championships, won the Olympic Games, won the World Championships, won 50 national titles as a coach, 21 straight Big Ten titles. When I was at Iowa State, I had great times. And now, they get four years’ eligibility. Well, not everybody because this year, we got it cut, but we only had three years’ eligibility back in those years. And so I had those three years, and then I was moved to the University of Iowa. People didn’t think I was going to be that good a coach. Some people that knew me-
Corey: So Coach before you start, I just want to interrupt because I think this is a really serious question I think many people have. Many great athletes are terrible coaches. And I think almost everyone listening to this program is going to ask or wonder, what do you think was different about you that allowed you, having been a very successful athlete to go on coaching?
Corey: I think the assumption is that really good athletes just don’t understand people aren’t as naturally endowed or is driven. It’s why many people like Michael Jordan haven’t been a terrible basketball coach. And so inherence I just hope you can address that because I think everyone’s thinking about that, right? How do you put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s not as driven as you, and not is as talented as you to bring them along because it applies in almost every walk of life, from someone who’s say good at math, was a kid who’s not very good at math, to try to bring them along?
Coach Gable: That’s a good question. I think a lot has to do with just where I started in my life and just where I was growing up. If I didn’t get it at home, I got it at the YMCA and if I didn’t get it at the YMCA, I get it in Cub Scouts. If I didn’t get it there, I’d get it in T-shirts baseball. Just being around, and then my math teacher helped me become a good student. So, it’s one of these things that when I all of a sudden became an athlete on a team I was always doing something that the other people would kind of, “Look at him. He’s staying extra. He’s staying late.”
Coach Gable: I think I began my coaching career very early just because of the dedication and the discipline. And then when my sister was murdered that even added to where I really even became more dedicated and not just did it in her honor, but also did it to save my mom and dad, I thought at that time. They might have made it up together, but who knows, but I guarantee it helped them just by having a person that was in their family and the only sibling that they had at that time to follow them all the way for years through high school and through college.
Coach Gable: But the thing about it is even now, and this is one of the reasons why I get a lot of good performances out of people. I mean, my wife, she’s unbelievable, and well, why do I get a good performance out of her? Well, it doesn’t matter to me if there’s a team and there’s 30 athletes on that team, and there’s two really good ones, three really good ones. I might be working on the guy that’s the worst wrestler on the team and that was as an athlete and then as a coach, I did the same thing. So, it was really that a lot of people looked up to me and one of the things that I could get away with, was actually had that respect and the reason why I could have that respect, believe it or not, is because I was so successful and that really makes a difference on how you can approach people.
Coach Gable: Even though people may like you, they’re still not going to maybe do like you unless you’re really doing something that’s unique. So instead of one workout a day, maybe two workouts a day or three workouts a day or come in early in the morning, to go before school and get the training session in. And people didn’t really know me, they didn’t know how good I was going to be or I was not even that good yet, but I was all of a sudden going to start winning. They didn’t really follow me that close to teammates,
Coach Gable: But all of a sudden when I started being successful, started staying after practice, started coming early, started coming to the mornings, the wrestling coach, a famous wrestling coach Bob Siddens actually gave me a key to the gymnasium because I was going to open up the gym every morning. And so all of a sudden, when I made the team as a youngster, and I started winning, and then all of a sudden people started following me from a standpoint of the other teammates. But I think that you had to prove that it was worth it because when you do that extra work, and you don’t see success, you’re not going to see a lot of followers, but there’s still a lot to be said about just doing that extra work, but it’s always nice to back it up.
Steve: Dan, I wanted to ask you a question about your coaching days. And the question is, regards two different things. One is talent identification, so figuring out which high school kids are the ones that you really want to bring on to the Hawkeye squad and then secondly once you get them there, how you develop them as athletes. And it seems like you have extra insights in both areas, but maybe you could distinguish between those two things like figuring out which kids are going to be successful and then making them successful once they get in the room.
Coach Gable: You ask good questions. I think at the beginning, you just got to have some examples. To be honest with you, when I came to the University of Iowa from Iowa State, and when I came from Iowa State through West Waterloo High School. I mean, we had championship teams in West Waterloo High School team and a lot of good athletes, but a lot of them didn’t go on after that just because of what they had goals in their life, but then in Iowa State, we had a lot of really good focused athletes around there.
Coach Gable: And I think when I first became a coach, I tried to find one example in the room and when I first became a coach, because when I was a graduate assistant in the Iowa State, there was already a lot of examples, but when I went to the University of Iowa, there were pretty good, maybe they were top 15 and that’s not too good for me. But all of a sudden, I realized the only people that were really listening to me were the new people that we brought in that year, and the new people knew that I was coming.
Coach Gable: And so the new people had a higher set of standards towards what they’re going to have to do. And so the people that were already there, the second year guys, third year guys, fourth year guys, and fifth year guys really wasn’t listening to me or really wasn’t buying into harder work, smarter work, all that kind of stuff. And so it was hard to get them to, to get on board, but it was easier to do it with the new people. And that’s where I focused.
Coach Gable: Now, the head coach at the time when I was an assistant, said we have a five-year plan and I looked at him like, “Whoa, this team here is going to win the Nationals this year,” because I could see all the talent that was not being used at the upper level and then I saw the attitude, so you got to start somewhere and I think it’s the attitude. If you don’t really have it, you got to start with the attitude, but I actually learned something from head coach, because we didn’t win it that year because I didn’t realize that it’s going to take a while to change culture. I didn’t know that. I had those freshmen, but then the other guys, it took a while.
Coach Gable: And I was really surprised when all of a sudden about the fourth day into practice, one of the official people that ran the building and came into our wrestling room and said, “Hey, coach, I got to talk to your team for a second.” He says, “We have a gas leak and I have to tell them that they can leave if they want to.” I said, “Well, why don’t we all leave. We got a gas leak?” “It’s repaired and I just got to tell them that, and I’m going to tell them, it’s repaired and there’s really no danger, but I got to tell you, if you guys want to leave, you can leave. It’s because that’s what they told me.” And I said, “Well, nobody will leave if it’s repaired, and there’s zero chance of getting anything happening.” He goes, “Yeah.”
Coach Gable: So all of a sudden, we had the eight new recruits and we had the 32 other guys that were sophomores, 32 of them, all the older ones got up and left. And I go, “Guys, what are you doing? What are you eating? He just told you that there’s no chance of anything that’s bad.” He goes, “Coach, we can get out of practice.” And I go, “What?” So that really taught me that the head coach knew a little more than me. He had this five-year plan, I had a one-year plan, so it’s not exactly that easy to change people’s thinking lives just because you got a new way of thinking. It takes a little time.
Coach Gable: So that to me really helped me a lot as a coach, but by the end of that first year, I was getting a lot of those 32 guys to come my way, but it took some of my freshman youngsters to really show them that extra hard work that they were putting in actually pays off or smart work or that type of thing.
Corey: Coach, just a clarifying question.
Coach Gable: Sure.
Corey: Was the head coach new also that year or were you?
Coach Gable: Yeah, he was a brand new head coach, but only at that college level.
Corey: So, he wasn’t responsible for that culture?
Coach Gable: What’s that?
Corey: So he wasn’t responsible for the lackadaisical attitude?
Coach Gable: Right.
Corey: You guys were brought in to change the program?
Coach Gable: Yeah, but it wasn’t really that lackadaisical because it was more like everybody else. It’s just the top 5, 10 teams and like the other 100 teams they have out there, it’s got to be that lackadaisical and that’s why a good coach can go about changing things and making that mentality a lot different. And it took us three years instead of five, instead of one, we met right in the middle, and we won our National title in three years, but we also had to not just change the attitude, we did have to go out and recruit some more talent. And so you need a little bit of both, a little bit of both.
Steve: Coach, I wanted to ask you about recruiting, so when you were talking to your staff, and you’re deciding which kid to recruit, to offer a scholarship to at a particular weight class, what aspect of that kid did maybe you have a better eye for than your staff and was it athletic ability or could you sense who was a hard worker or who really had the desire? What was it that made you a better judge of talent?
Coach Gable: I think at the beginning it was me and what the kid’s attitude was. Of course, you got to look and see that he’s not 01-50, but it’s like even if he wasn’t the best guy in second place, there might be reasons to believe that you can take that guy and move him up to a higher level, but after they visited for a weekend, I would always sit them down and visit with them for about an hour before they took off to go home. And I really got a lot out of that one-on-one visit, even though they had been there the whole weekend. And you have to do a little bit more hard work, but again, it’s like me as a coach.
Coach Gable: I figured my system was good enough that I could get by with maybe less than the number one athletes out there, but you know what? Your system really needs some of those number one athletes, too and-
Coach Gable: Yes.
Corey: I want to pin you down here though. I think there’s something that could be very helpful to people in many walks of life. I want to know in detail, what would you listen for during that hour? It just wasn’t the kid, who was excited and said, “I love wrestling.” What cues would you try to identify that said this kid probably has something special or this kid looks good is not quite there?
Coach Gable: You know what? At that time, I really was learning as a coach, but one of the biggest, most important things to me was how much he really wanted to attend that school, that University of Iowa. And so if I had any like second thoughts when he left after we had that hour talk, like, “I don’t know where this guy is. I don’t know if he really wants to come here or does he want to go to Iowa State or does he want to go to Michigan State?” That type of stuff, and so I picked on the guys at the beginning. By that, I mean, I picked on them to really be good recruits if they really wanted to come and be a part of that program and be coached under myself or the other coach Colonel Meyer.
Coach Gable: So that was at the beginning, but you know what? When the going got tough later on sometimes and all of a sudden, you’re in a battle to win, I learned to overlook that a little bit and I started looking at just how good can this guy be, just even away from attitude, just how physical he is or how mentally tough he is and how talented he is. And so, I might even had to go for help, and I might talk to the parents, I might even had to go for their coach and make sure I found consistencies because sure, when you talk to the kid, you get one aspect. You talk to the parents, you usually get something similar, but then when you go to the coach, you might get something different.
Coach Gable: So, a lot of coaches and a lot of people might not dig deep enough and cover all areas to know that there isn’t any not really holes, but any backlashes or any issues and you just don’t investigate enough. I always like them Sherlock Holmes movies back when I was a kid. And he pretty much was a scientist as well and figuring out how to get those criminals. So, I dug deep, and found out a lot more and then when I got consistencies with answers then I believed them and that that helped me make up my mind to really who to go after sometimes.
Steve: Coach, I want to ask you about one of your wrestlers. So when I was a high school kid, I used to lift weights in the summer, Beyer Hall, on the Iowa State campus and the most impressive physical specimen that I ever saw working out with me and I got to know him a little bit at that time, he was really nice guy, was a guy called Chris Campbell, who I guess at that time must have been an assistant in Iowa State, but I think he had wrestled for you at Iowa. And I think he once said he was maybe the most talented recruit you ever had at Iowa, do I have that right?
Coach Gable: Yeah. I got lucky with him because I wasn’t recruiting him and my athletic director, Bump Elliott, actually called me in. I was running practices. You see? That’s a good manager. We’re talking about Chris Campbell, so remember that, but what happens is right away when I went to Iowa, within two months of being there, in the practice room, the head coach who was a first year head coach, came up to me and says, “Gable, man. You’re better in the practice room than I am and I’m 12 years older than you. And I’ve been a head coach at high schools, and I’ve been the assistant coach here for a while, and I moved up.” He said, “But you need to run these practices. You need to run practices. You’re better than me. They get out of it more.”
Coach Gable: So that was one of the early things I learned and I couldn’t believe a guy would weigh all his life become the head coach and then turn it over to the system, but that’s a good skill by the head coach, knowing who’s best at what. So anyway, so Chris Campbell. We weren’t recruiting him. My athletic director made me go on a trip to New Jersey to speak at an athletic director that knew Bump Elliott, that said, “Hey, I want to Gable out to speak at our spring sports banquet.” And I told Bump that I didn’t want to go and he looked at me like, “You’re going.” You know that’s the boss.
Coach Gable: I didn’t like leaving the team, but Colonel Meyer could run it, RJ Robinson or whoever else we had in there. So I went out there and before the banquet started, there was this guy that gave the invocation. And then all of a sudden, it was my turn to speak. I got done with the whole thing, and he come up to me afterwards, and I saw where he had won the state championships in wrestling. He was 32 and 0 in his senior year, and he came up to me said, “Well, I loved your speech.” He said, Chris Campbell, did, I didn’t know Chris Campbell was.
Coach Gable: And he goes, “I’m really interested in maybe looking at University of Iowa.” And I said, “Well, how’d you do as a junior?” He goes, “Well, I didn’t go out as a junior.” And I go, “Wait a minute. How were you as sophomore?” He goes, “I went out and then I didn’t wrestle. I quit after a couple of weeks or something.” And so, I said, “You went out as a senior, and that’s your first wrestling and you were 32-0 and you went to New Jersey State Championships?” And he goes, “Yeah.”
Coach Gable: Well, anyway, so we had a tournament in Iowa that year in National High School championship in the summer and he came there and he got second in the National High School championships. So all of a sudden, I hadn’t really followed up on him, so I went up to him and I said, “Are you still interested?” He goes, “Yeah.” So I said, “Okay, we’ll give you a small scholarship.” I think I gave him books or something like that, but he came, and honest to God, he hadn’t really learned much wrestling yet. And so he got to learn at a higher level than starting out and he picked it up so easily.
Coach Gable: And he ended up not only winning two national titles, he was in the National Finals his sophomore year, but then he won a world title in 1981. Then he went to law school at Cornell University. Got his law degree in 1986 or seven years later, after he got his law degree and practicing. He came back out again and wrestled and got third in the world, and then he went to the Olympics again. I guess, he didn’t go. That was the first Olympics he wanted to go and he got a bronze medal and he got a silver medal, one of the two. And so the guy was amazing. He had so much talent. And it’s just, you can’t you can’t make that stuff up.
Corey: Sorry, Coach, sorry to interrupt. For those who are aren’t wrestlers, can you give us a picture of this guy? Are great wrestlers tall? Are they 6’2″? Are they 5’8″?
Coach Gable: They can be any size but if you pick, if you’re somebody that’s built like granite and just is flexible, can do all yoga, can do all that kind of stuff, then you had the perfect wrestler pretty much with Chris Campbell. Yeah.
Steve: Chris Campbell, he looked like Herschel Walker, the running back. I think he was a little bit shorter, but just incredibly muscular guy, no fat and just an incredible quick athlete.
Coach Gable: Yeah, he didn’t have any mistakes. He didn’t make any mistakes. He was the only guy that I let not rustle hard until the end of the match because I knew he was going to win at the end of the match. As soon as he pulled the move off, he was going to win. And if he was in tough matches, he was going to win the last match, last 30 seconds, and he really wasn’t in a whole lot of tough matches, but there were some guys out there that could take him to the wire a little bit, but I knew that he was going to win the last scramble.
Steve: I think he might have been on the AT team that couldn’t go to Moscow,
Coach Gable: Yeah.
Steve: And then later, I think, he was almost 40 at the time, he won the bronze medal at the Olympics as a much older competitor.
Coach Gable: In ’88, right?
Steve: Yeah. But I want I wanted to-
Coach Gable: Maybe ’92, I don’t even know.
Steve: It could have been ’92. I wanted to compare Chris Campbell who I was astonished to learn much later that he had not wrestled very much by the time he got to Iowa to the kids that I grew up with. I grew up with the Gibbons brothers. I don’t know if these guys, but-
Coach Gable: Of course, I know them.
Steve: So, I was with Joe and Jeff Gibbons in high school, and these guys, I think, had the wrestling room maybe in their basement, I don’t even remember, but they these guys seemed to know everything about wrestling by the time they were 12 years old and so the contrast between their level of preparation, they hit 10,000 hours of practice, probably before they left high school. And this guy Chris Campbell, had almost very little, maybe one full year of training before he went to college, so it’s just incredible what… sorry. Did you guys lose me?
Corey: We did actually, yeah.
Steve: What was the last thing I said?
Coach Gable: About Ames. About Gibbons.
Steve: I was comparing the Gibbons brothers who I went to high school with and I thought they might have had a wrestling room in their basement.
Coach Gable: They did.
Steve: Because by the time they were 12, they had done their 10,000 hours of already training. And this guy, Chris Campbell, had maybe one year of training before he went to college, and so that diversity is just amazing.
Coach Gable: Yeah, but you got to remember, everything that Chris Campbell learned was at the highest level. A lot of times when you’re learning as a kid, you might not have the coaches that are superior and so you might learn a lot of bad habits and maybe that’s all they know. And all of a sudden, as you go to a higher level, you make some adjustments, and it takes a while because you’ve already been accustomed to something that’s not quite as good.
Coach Gable: Chris Campbell never had to make any adjustments because he learned right away that one year, but he had a good high school coach, but soon as he went to college, he had so much good stuff that he could learn and it was a lot easier. But the Gibbons were all really good technically, too. They’re related to Nichols, Dr. Harold Nichols. I don’t know if you knew that.
Steve: Yeah, that’s right. I think I knew that.
Coach Gable: So they got a lot of good stuff. In fact, Jim Gibbons, the older one, I mean, he’d sky you. He’d put you in the air, you’d be orbit. He had a great lift with his hips and high crotch and they did very well.
Corey: So, Coach, I was a runner in high school and I followed a cross country running and track for a lot of my life and there’s been a huge amount of change in how people train for runner over the years. Back in the ’70s, we used to do just long slow distance, these very long, slow runs.
Coach Gable: We’re old men. Yeah.
Corey: That it turns out were just not terribly useful actually for running fast even the five or 10K. I’m curious, what kind of changes there’d been in the understanding of what’s required to become a top wrestler and the training over the decades? Has it been really substantial or has it been pretty static as far as methods?
Coach Gable: I think when you said long, slow, that’s absolutely kind of what wrestling was in history back in the ’40s and ’30s and ’50s. You had matches, I think in the Olympic Games were 15 minutes long, five minutes, five minutes, and five minutes. Now, they’re two- or three-minute periods. So you’re getting a lot more accomplished quicker, the actions more and if you don’t give action, you’re getting called for stalling and that type of stuff, so you got more of a product.
Coach Gable: I actually was a kind of a track and field fan just because back when my sister got murdered, a guy came to speak about, oh, a month before she did, excuse me about a month, and he had a book that he was selling. It’s called the Heart of a Champion by Bob Richards. He was an Olympic pole vault champion, but he was also a minister and so there was so much that I needed in my life at that point in time and it wasn’t so much the ministry, yet it was there and it always feels always great. But he actually talked a lot about track and field and how like the first guy that ever broke the four-minute mile, he explained-
Corey: Roger Bannister.
Coach Gable: Yeah. He explained that run and it made a lot of sense to me. It’s kind of like in running and when you said slow run. I mean, there’s no slow run when you run the world in Olympic level. So for me, I think there was a great runner from Oregon at one time, I can’t think of, but he threw all that pace stuff out the window.
Corey: Steve Prefontaine, you’re talking about.
Coach Gable: Yeah, so I love that kind of stuff. I don’t want this pace in a wrestling match. That’s what I think early on, we had this pace where when we closed up the space and made the rules a little bit better, and called stalling and stuff like that, then all of a sudden, we had more entertainment and we had more excitement and even going to practice, I think the coaches wanted to see a lot more accomplished. And when you accomplish a lot more then you’re feeling better and you’re learning better and you’re going to be more enjoyable.
Coach Gable: Every time I hit a new hold in wrestling, I loved it. In fact, every time I executed a hold, that was where I got the really good feeling, because that’s where you score points. And so if you’re out there hanging out, you’re not learning much. And it’s kind of like right now, and, again, I’m going back this because I don’t want to hang out here until November. We need some action. We need to get this virus straightened out and many people working. I know, you said they’re working hard, but man, can we let something beat us? Yeah. I know there’s probably a higher power that’s made it complicated, but you know what? We got to work hard as well.
Steve: You know Dan, one thing that’s a little disappointing to me in the leadership in fighting this virus is that there isn’t more sort of creative or dynamic activity where the government just says, “We’re just going to pour X million dollars into doing this and we want to mobilize 100 scientists to just drop everything and do this,” given that there’s trillions of dollars at stake. Every month that we idle the economy, it’s like a trillion dollars. So the response is not as dynamic as I would have hoped, although I do think many, many scientists are working very hard right now.
Coach Gable: And I agree totally. And so, wrestling almost got dropped from the Olympics back in 2013 and you know what? That’s the first time in history of the sport that the leaders of all the top nations and the United States actually worked together. And because of that, within six months, we were back in. We never really were out and it took something like that. That’s what it’s going to take now. So it’s like, where do you go? You actually sat down and decide who are the best people in the world or do you just start calling up this guy and calling him a bad guy. You got to pinpoint who you need and let them work at it, most scientific minds in the world.
Steve: Yep. Hey, I wanted to ask you another question something that I learned in researching for this interview. When I was looking at your record, there was a guy I had never heard of named Yojiro Uetake who was at Oklahoma State, maybe 10 years before you were a wrestler in college. This guy also went undefeated two, three years and I think he won two Olympic golds for Japan, but he was an Okie State cowboy in the NCAA. Had you ever heard of this guy?
Coach Gable: Oh, come on. Yeah, for sure. In fact, when I was in the semi-finals of the worlds, when I was in semi-finals of the Olympics, he was in the corner of the Japanese wrestler that I was wrestling, Uetake. He became their national coach as well, but I watched Uetake wrestle and yeah, he was a little different than me. He was so good that he couldn’t lose. He’s kind of like Chris Campbell, but he didn’t have to put out all that effort. He just had to do it when he wanted to.
Coach Gable: Remember what I said about Chris? Chris kind of hung in there and hung in there and then he didn’t actually put all the effort out because he was so good. Well, Uetake was the same way. He was so good that when the match was two to two, he was going to win and that’s the bottom line. In fact, hardly anybody ever scored on him in the international competition a little bit, but in college, they would because he didn’t know how to ride, that was a skill that he learned in international wrestling.
Corey: So, what is this guy’s competitive advantage? You said Chris Campbell was a phenomenal physical specimen, incredibly muscular and strong. Was it also the same for him?
Coach Gable: Yeah, it pretty much was, yep. And you got to realize Japanese culture is so disciplined that when he was the coach in the corner, it’s like, yeah, maybe behind the scenes, one of my athletes back 20 years ago wanted me to get him ready and the last thing he wanted me to do before was like crack him across the face or something and I guess I would oblige, but now they do it themselves because he just really can’t hit some kid but actually I do see someone do it. But Uetake, he actually cracked after the first period when his kid that was wrestling me, wasn’t wrestled. I heard a big smack and I looked over and he was smacking the guy, but the guy needed it and wanted it.
Coach Gable: But in today’s day and age, you’d have a harder time doing that kind of stuff. You got to remember one thing, I got inside people’s heads, not only as an athlete, but also as a coach because there’s a certain brutality, certain intensity, certain thing and aura that when you wrestle Gable or when you wrestle one of his guys, that it was not just that they were going to beat you, they’re going to kind of beat you up a little. And when you got done, it was not like you just jump to your feet and walk off the mat. Yeah, the winner did, which is my guy usually, but the loser, you’d have a hard time getting up and that stuff wears on you. And I love it when somebody’s beaten before they start the match. Now, I wouldn’t have it that way.
Corey: So coach, was this a part of your plan? I was wondering when you started training your team, did you have this as part of idea that I want that guy to feel defeated and thus for people to realize it’s about my team or this it’s just something realized over time it’s pleasant or useful?
Coach Gable: No. That’s probably one of the reasons why I got beats because I didn’t think anybody would step up to try to beat me. And that’s a bad way to think about it, but no, it started as an athlete and it was ingrained in me from I think, not my dad as much as my dad’s friends who had sons that wrestle and his dad was kind of a little overboard, but I didn’t have to live with him, so it was good for me, but his own sons probably had too much of him. But anyway, hey, let’s talk about why I didn’t go to Michigan State. Did you I almost went to Michigan State as an athlete?
Steve: No. I’d love to hear that story.
Coach Gable: Yeah, so I’m in high school and I had a kid that was two years older than me, named Dale Anderson and he was a two-time national champ for Michigan State, but he was also I think a two-time state champ from my same high school team, even though I was a sophomore when I won the States and he had already won as a junior but he went to the States me as a senior and he won it, but he went to Michigan State and he own two titles up there, but Grady Peninger was the coach and because of that connection with already one kid from that high school and I was undefeated, they recruited me.
Coach Gable: And I was a home guy. After what happened to my sister, I didn’t want to go any further. I wanted to go to UNI, but I knew that I needed to go to the place that could help me the most, Iowa State, so it was like, I was getting recruited and all of a sudden I chickened out the night before my visit to Michigan State, which I didn’t really take any visits outside of the state because I’m an Iowa boy and I wanted to stay there. We had good wrestling. And because of that, I called up Grady Peninger and told him that I was going to cancel my visit. He got mad at me and they had a great assistant coach named Doug Blubaugh, who actually coached me the world title a few years later in Sofia, Bulgaria, but I canceled.
Coach Gable: But here’s the thing. Dale Anderson went to Iowa State for a year, didn’t like, transferred to Michigan State, loved it up there, did really well. I think he was on the first Big Ten team that won at national championship. Michigan State won a national championship in wrestling when he was on that team and I was on Iowa State’s team at the time. But it was just one of these things that it was going to be a wasted trip for me because I knew I wasn’t leaving the State of Iowa. And so I was just honest with him. And they actually ended up having a good 130, 137 pounder once Anderson stayed back or graduated, and came in Keith Lowrance, and I had to wrestle him three or four times. He was one of the great wrestlers.
Coach Gable: But another really great wrestler that was on the world team with me, a kid named Don Beam from Michigan State, who was a silver medalist in the Olympics, bronze, I think silver medals in the worlds and I respected the heck out of Michigan State, so I follow Michigan State quite a bit, actually. And I know that you guys had some issues and I’m pulling for you in a lot of ways, but not from the standpoint that I wished I would have went to Michigan State, I can tell you that just because I knew where I needed to go, because my environment, and I was a homebody, I could get home in an hour and a half. And it’s one of these things that you need to feel good about what you’re doing.
Coach Gable: I would have taken a chance if I would have gone to Michigan State just on whether I’d have been homesick because it took me almost eight or nine months just to feel good about when I went to Ames, and that’s 100 miles away, even though I had some friends on the team. But Michigan State has meant a lot to me over the year and I appreciate you bringing me in and these scientists up there that you guys are working with and it’s all about performance. And hey, if you guys can discover a virus, killer virus, something to kill that, and I’ll give you a lot of credit up there. But I don’t care if the University of Iowa does it, whoever does it, let’s do it.
Corey: So Dan, I think we’re coming close to the end, but I do want to ask a few questions about how people may benefit from your understanding of training for wrestling, especially in these difficult times, we’re all at home. So it struck me the wrestlers are often in extremely good condition and thus, although wrestling isn’t a very well-known sport, there’re probably some things that people can learn about training.
Coach Gable: It’s well-known throughout the world, maybe not in some parts of the United States.
Corey: Here in the U.S., yeah.
Coach Gable: Yeah.
Corey: But as far as training goes, are the things that a regular person can do that are out of the wrestling playbook that you would really recommend. Steve and I are a little obsessed by this because we’re getting older, we’re looking for things to keep our overall strength up, especially the whole body exercises, so if there’s anything you could tell us from the wrestling playbook.
Coach Gable: I’ll tell you I’ve never got out of the gym in my whole life. The only time I had to get out of the gym was when I had to recover in the hospital to get a surgery that science put me back together. Well, the only thing I’ve done so far today was actually sign in a hot tub and shower, but I’m going to hit the gym in the backyard. I got a small cabin in my backyard and I got a workout room back there. I Airdyne and I lift weights and I already put a couple of my grandkids through a really good workout today, because they can’t go to school right now. They can’t participate in sports. They’re missing their, I think, baseball’s next and then football.
Coach Gable: But wrestling teaches you so many life skills because you really have to make weight classes or you have to gain weight, you have to lose weight or gain weight. Sometimes you make weight classes, so you got to understand nutrition and that’s a life skill, and the more you understand about that can help you in performance in life. It’s just like right now. The people that are getting taken from this virus are mostly the older people, but mostly even more than older people, people that have challenges already with their health.
Coach Gable: But that’s something that you want to you want to keep and wrestling teaches all that because not only for making weight class, but just to be able to make six minutes or make seven minutes or whatever your length, if you go over time, you could go up 9, 10 minutes, you could go a long time and it’s at a high pace, so we do a lot of strength training. But you look at the body of who we are and then the coach, instead of blanket it, he’s got to tell him what he thinks he needs as far as the skills and the conditioning and strength aspect. Each guy’s different, but we do a lot of training, because it’s really hard to wrestle if you wrestle really hard from the second one, after about the 430 mark and all the matches either go, the least the match goes is six minutes.
Coach Gable: And so if you’re out there really going hard, you’re going to affect your opponents when he’s at a really good level of conditioning, it’s still probably only four and a half minutes, so you got to be in super shape. And it’s not just cardiovascular as muscular as well and you’re also working on flexibility. So you’re covering everything in food and nutrition. There is not a thing that we don’t cover that’s great for the health and so that’s why, if you have some wrestling background, you can’t really keep going at it.
Coach Gable: I mean, I wrestled until I was 56. I mean, I had artificial hips at 49 and 50, and I still wrestled for another seven years, but then I had to replace my hips because I mean, that’s what you use in combat, use your hips, because that’s the center of gravity and so, I wore them babies out, and so I had to have another set, then I had to wore them out, then I had to have another set. And so they told me, they don’t want to see me again because you can’t really keep replacing science doesn’t do it. But you know what? That was quite a few years ago. I’m up there in age now and they said, “Come see us again because science is better.”
Coach Gable: I can actually go get some new hips and stuff, but you know what? Because I got smarter, about a month ago, I checked on my hips and I’ve been three or four or five years with this third set of hips, got my real ones, and they said, “Oh my, they looked perfect,” plus they’re better than they put them in. So, you got to be able to smart. But wrestling, but it really focused on detail, on detail. Remember when I said I lost to have points? I didn’t focus on detail at that time of the sport or all the training aspects.
Steve: Hey, Coach, one last question before we let you go and I want to say again, I really appreciate your time. So I know some of your former athletes and I think you yourself got a little interested in mixed martial arts and Jiu-Jitsu at one time. I think you were even on the show called The Contenders. You did the voice over or the color commentary on the show, which was what I would call Submission Wrestling. What are your thoughts on this other kind of grappling, which has gotten really popular worldwide?
Coach Gable: Hey, I’m okay for it. I’m just going to say, as tough as I am and I boxed when I was a kid and they didn’t wear helmets then and they had smaller gloves, didn’t wear mouthpieces, so you got beat up, but I mostly did that for training along with my wrestling, but I really think that if you are going to hit somebody in the head then that’s a little tough, that’s a little tough and that’s why we don’t have boxing in school systems. So that’s why I got a big bag and I hit at that big bag. I’m not into boxing matches, because I don’t get my head hit again.
Coach Gable: It’s one of these things that I think these other sports are okay, but I do have a little issue, and I think they’ve stepped in now and they’ve done a lot of safety things like I would hate to see somebody get choked out and then you keep them in a choke for too long because that’s not good or if somebody’s hit in the head, I almost think like they should probably have some device where it doesn’t do brain damage, but otherwise, I like the wrestling part.
Steve: How do you feel about a grappling style where instead of the goal being to control somebody and pin them, the goal is to get them to a point where you can apply a choke or apply an arm-bar or leg lock and submit them. It’s a different set of mechanics but I’m wondering if you had applied to your brain at all to think about that?
Coach Gable: No, I have and I’m okay with it as long as the referee can step in and prevent something beyond a tap out or when he’s tapping out you don’t wait too long. I think you don’t want to have any damage more than it is. But I’ll tell you what, when I practice wrestling, I used to have this lightweight throwing dummy with handles. And all I did was foot sweeps, foot sweeps, foot sweeps, foot sweeps. And I’ll tell you, it saved me in the semis of the world’s, first time that I was behind, actually. And I caught the Japanese in a foot sweep, an unbelievable foot sweep, which I hit 100 times, 1000 times before that.
Corey: Coach, what’s a foot sweep?
Coach Gable: It’s like if I walk up to you, I can kick both your feet out underneath you, but I only have to kick one foot to kick both of them because I get so much power and again, it’s a timing move and I can’t grab a hold of you. I got to do it of a close to a shove or I grab a hold of your arm and I can move you and I kick you with my foot on the back of your heel and you fly. I catch you as you step and I kick it and you fly. You fly through the air and actually if a good one, I fly underneath you and I’m hanging on to you, but then on the way down, you land first and I land with all my weight on top of you.
Coach Gable: I pretty much knocked the guy out when I did it because he rolled over. And again, I’m not a guy that likes to be on their back because I’m a wrestler, even though you could be, there’s a lot of moves from the back, but I’m not going to go there because I’m a wrestler, and I don’t want to be on the back. That’s a match in any move. And so when actually when I foot swept the guy, he flew, I flew. He hit, all my weight hit on top of him, it knocked the wind out of him, and he was almost not really unconscious, but he did roll over for momentum, but then he was so stunned that he just rolled right back over when I arm-barred him and that was it.
Coach Gable: So, you learn some things from some other sports that like Judo, like Jiu-Jitsu, I can actually contain it, but you really can’t take some of those things to the extreme because otherwise they’re illegal. And that’s why our sports is a good sport for high school, junior high kids, and even all the way through the Olympics just because the only thing that’s going to get hurt is unusual situations, not freaky type of choke outs or anything like that and that’s just something when you’re a kid, you don’t want to let your kid go in and get choked out.
Steve: A lot of this, I think, is just familiarity because in Japan for a long time, Judo was one of the required sports just like wrestling would be here and they’re just very familiar with it, so when a choke happens or an arm lock, the referee just jumps in really quick before someone gets hurt.
Coach Gable: Exactly. That’s what I was talking about, too. Just smartness of the sport to make sure that nobody gets really dangerously hurt.
Steve: So Coach, I really want to thank you for your time. I’m sure this is going to be a treat for our listeners, and I just want to tell you that-
Coach Gable: Do you really think? You think people will get something out of this?
Steve: I think so because you’re an inspiring figure. I want you to know that the way you lived your life and the things that you’ve accomplished and the things you’ve done for other people, your athletes and others, just has inspired people all over the world. So I just hope, I’m sure you know that already, but just thought I would say it again.
Coach Gable: Yeah. I appreciate you saying all the world because the Russians vowed to beat me. I mean, I get a phone call from Putin’s office and he’s telling me, “Gable, I read in the Iowa-based magazine that’s called Win magazine that you called one of my vice presidents, a mafia guy.” He says, “Would you not call him a mafia guy anymore?” “Okay, but you know how they act.” So, I said, “I told them that.” “But here I am telling you.” So, I’m in danger right now, but that’s all right.
Corey: Well, thanks a lot. I’ve learned a lot from this conversation, too. It’s been really eye-opening.
Steve: Take care, Dan.
Coach Gable: All right. See you later.