Before Gable, There Was a Hawk Named Kurdelmeier
April 17, 2012
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- With the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials coming to Carver-Hawkeye Arena Saturday and Sunday, let's pause a moment to salute the man whose vision 40 years ago puts the national spotlight on the University of Iowa this weekend.
Gary Kurdelmeier played football and wrestled for the Hawkeyes in the 1950s and joined the Iowa staff in 1968 as the assistant wrestling coach. When Dave McCuskey retired as head coach in 1972, athletic director Bump Elliott elevated Kurdelmeier to the top job.
One day in my office, over a cup of coffee, I asked Gary what he was going to do now that he was Iowa's head wrestling coach. He replied, rather matter-of-factly, that he was going to beat Iowa State, win the Big Ten championship, then win the national championship.
My reaction was one of disbelief for several reasons. Iowa State ruled the college wrestling world at the time, and Iowa had not met the Cyclones in 40 years. The Hawkeyes had won only two Big Ten titles since beginning the sport in 1910 and had never been close to an NCAA championship.
Kurdelmeier was not an aggressive and fiery coach, but he knew how to build his sport. The masterstroke in launching his program was hiring Dan Gable off the Iowa State campus. Gable had just won an Olympic gold medal, was considered the best amateur wrestler in the world, and was a recruiting magnet.
Then Kurdelmeier put Iowa State on his schedule and his 1975 Hawkeyes wrestled the defending national champions to a 19-19 draw. When Iowa heavyweight John Bowlsby put 330-pound Robin Wishman on his back and pinned him in the first period, 14,000 fans blew the roof off the Fieldhouse.
Kurdelmeier demonstrated a flair for promotion. He got an organ and someone to play it. Neither the organ nor the person playing it were very good, but the acoustics in the Fieldhouse were so bad nobody noticed.
He put Phil Haddy on the public address system and told him to get a little crazy, which was all the encouragement Phil needed. Haddy's PA announcements included things like, "Ivor Stanley, call your psychiatrist!"
Kurdelmeier recruited Jan Sanderson as much for his knitting as his wrestling. Sanderson got more publicity for knitting socks and sweaters between matches at tournaments than he did for winning two Big Ten titles.
Kurdelmeier didn't like Oklahoma's style of wrestling on the edge, so when the Sooners came to town he hauled every mat out of his practice room and created a 74-foot square monster, billing it as the world's largest wrestling mat. The Sooners no longer had a place to hide. The NCAA quickly passed a rule limiting a mat size to 42-feet in diameter, but Kurdelmeier already had received the attention he wanted.
At Kurdelmeier's suggestion, millionaire Roy Carver funded the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, where world-class wrestlers polished their skills for Olympic competition. They also provided great practice partners for the Hawkeyes. Opponents complained about that, and the NCAA now prohibits such an arrangement.
It did not take Kurdelmeier long to fulfill his goals. When he became an assistant athletic director at Iowa in 1976, he had won three Big Ten titles and two NCAA championships in only four seasons as the head coach.
The Olympic Trials are at Carver-Hawkeye Arena this weekend mostly because Iowa is considered the citadel of college wrestling. Record attendance is guaranteed by advance ticket sales. More than 200 members of the news media will report the action, focusing a national spotlight on the U-I campus.
Kurdelmeier died in 1998 at age 62. I'm guessing if he were around to enjoy the activities this weekend, he'd wink at me and say, "Told you so."