Big Ten

How Iowa Wrestling Coach Dan Gable Nearly Lost His Final Dual

How Iowa Wrestling Coach Dan Gable Nearly Lost His Final Dual

Iowa coach Dan Gable had a memorable send-off at the 1997 NCAA Championships, but Iowa State nearly spoiled the party during his final dual.

Nov 25, 2023 by Kyle Klingman

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It’s easy to romanticize the past — especially when it comes to Dan Gable’s gaudy coaching record. Gable’s 21 seasons as Iowa’s head wrestling coach (1977-97) is the stuff of legend. 

— 15 NCAA team titles
— 21 consecutive Big Ten titles
— 45 individual NCAA championships
— 106 individual Big Ten champions when the rest of the conference had 104 combined
— 355-21-5 dual record
— 98-1 record at Carver-Hawkeye Arena

His team won the 1997 NCAA Championships in the most magical way. The Hawkeyes had eight All-Americans, six finalists, and five champions — scoring a record 170 points at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which was 10 miles from where Gable grew up. 

When it comes to swan songs, Gable’s hit the highest note. 

Oklahoma State Dropped Iowa

Most only remember the dramatic conclusion of a dominant coaching career. Iowa finished the 1997 season 15-1, dropping a 21-13 meet to Oklahoma State during the National Duals finals on January 19 in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

The 48-year-old Gable hinted that this might be his final season as head coach, but his future was uncertain. He broke his hip during the season and listened to a handful of duals on the radio from his hospital bed. 

The pundits were so sure that Oklahoma State would win that Bob Siddens — Dan Gable’s high school coach at Waterloo West — was assigned to hand out the second-place team trophy at the 1997 NCAA Championships (they eventually switched when it was apparent that Iowa would run away with the title). 

Concussion Protocol

Most troubling was that senior Lincoln McIlravy — Iowa’s best and most credentialed wrestler — was out for the majority of the season with a concussion. He didn’t wrestle in the National Duals final against Oklahoma State and wasn’t available until the Big Ten Championships in March. 

“I can’t remember how long I was out of the line-up, which is poetic since I was out with a non-amnesiac concussion,” McIlravy said.

Iowa didn’t appear primed for the post-season. Gable was on crutches, McIlravy could barely exercise, and the Hawkeyes were about to say goodbye to their legendary coach with a second-place finish. 

Old Feelings Die Hard

Iowa State nearly spoiled Gable’s farewell party during Iowa’s final dual. Iowa State entered with a 7-6-1 record but pushed Oklahoma State to the brink in an 18-15 home loss on January 26.

Gable hadn’t announced his retirement, but there was anticipation that this would be his final dual as Iowa’s head coach. 

This was the conclusion Iowa State fans craved. Gable won a pair of NCAA titles for the Cyclones before winning a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics. The biggest name in wrestling was expected to stay in Ames for life — until he was lured to Iowa City by new Iowa head coach Gary Kurdelmeier. 

Some Iowa State fans have never forgave Gable for leaving. Nothing would have tasted sweeter than handing the former Cyclone star a loss in Ames.

And it almost happened. 

Iowa Strikes First

Iowa and Iowa State hosted home and home duals during that era and the Hawkeyes cruised to a 26-13 win on December 14, 1996. McIlravy was in the lineup and scored an 8-2 win over second-ranked Chris Bono. 

McIlravy was out for the second Iowa State dual, which proved costly. Bono won the 150-pound NCAA title in 1996 while McIlravy was redshirting. If McIlravy was the best college wrestler in the country then Bono was easily in the top five. He was that good. 

Iowa State offered Iowa a gesture of goodwill prior to the dual. Tom Brands won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics and gave the Hawkeye assistant a standing ovation for his recent accomplishment. 

The celebration stopped there, though. Iowa State wanted blood. 

Sanderson Strikes Back

Freshman Cody Sanderson nearly won the meet before it started. The Heber City, Utah, native fell 17-8 to fifth-year senior Jessie Whitmer the first time around and was on the ropes after the first period the second time around. 

Whitmer scored a trio of takedowns in the first for a 6-2 lead. Sanderson fired back with an escape, a headlock out of bounds, and a stalling point against Whitmer. 

“I remember we were near the edge of the mat and I could feel he was setting up a headlock,” Whitmer said. “I wasn’t too worried because I figured we would go off the mat. Unfortunately, that was not the case and he kept his feet in for the takedown. It was a lazy mistake on my part.”

Whitmer chose neutral in the third and Sanderson scored another takedown for an 8-7 lead. The Iowa star eventually escaped and earned a stalling point against Sanderson for a 9-8 lead, but Sanderson secured riding time so the score was 9-9. 

Sanderson threw an errant headlock with seconds remaining. Whitmer countered easily as Sanderson popped to his feet in disgust. Iowa survived a thrilling 11-9 win that could have gone either way.  

“(The first headlock) ultimately set it up for the end because he tried to do it again and I took him down off his attempt,” Whitmer said. “He was a gamer. He was a good wrestler who I got to wrestle when he was younger. That dual was a nerve-wracking one.” 

So You Think You Can Dance?

Nerves were high for the remainder of the dual. Dwight Hinson got the Cyclones on the board with a 6-5 win over Mike Mena, which reversed a 2-1 overtime loss in December. Hinson danced his way across the mat after the win and jumped into the crowd.

“I definitely had to take more risks in the second match,” Hinson said. “I had to finish a takedown and get an escape. That was the game plan and our tactic going into that match. Mena was so compact that I had to find a small opening through his hand fighting to his legs. I scored once I got to his legs. 

“He was never close to my legs that particular day. Great match. Great opponent.”

Gable Survives

The next seven matches featured blowout wins on both sides. Bono defeated Eric Koble, 20-7, which was a seven-point swing from the previous dual. Iowa State held an 18-17 advantage entering heavyweight. 

Gable was on the ropes — and Hilton Colesium knew it. 

Iowa State’s Trent Hynek downed Iowa’s Wes Hand, 9-4, in Iowa City so there was every reason to believe he would pull off the upset for Iowa State in Ames. 

Hynek scored the first point with an escape in the second and almost secured a takedown with 14 seconds left in the period. He was in on a leg but Hand kicked out as Hynek rushed to take advantage. The Cyclone star’s overaggressiveness proved costly as he gave up the takedown and, ultimately, the match. 

Hand won 3-2, while Iowa survived 20-18. Gable let out a sigh of relief as he leaned against his black custom crutches. 

Iowa State almost won. 

“There’s a lot of almost in this world,” Gable said. “Almost is almost. I almost won against Larry Owings.

“Had we gotten beat in the dual and had we not won the national tournament, would I have stepped down? Probably not. That dual, and what happened after that dual, gives a guy time to think rationally. Maybe (the Iowa State dual) wasn’t the best win but that national tournament gave me enough of a decision to step down.”

December 14, 1996 — Iowa City, Iowa
Iowa 26, Iowa State 13

118: Jessie Whitmer (Iowa) maj. dec. Cody Sanderson (Iowa State), 17-8
126: Mike Mena (Iowa) dec. Dwight Hinson (Iowa State), 2-1 OT
134: Mark Ironside (Iowa) pinned Frank Kisley (Iowa State), 5:43
142: David Maldonado (Iowa State) dec. Kasey Gillis (Iowa), 3-2
150: Lincoln McIlravy (Iowa) dec. Chris Bono (Iowa State), 8-2
158: Joe Williams (Iowa) pinned Patt Patitz (Iowa State), 5:51
167: Bart Horton (Iowa State) dec. Mike Uker (Iowa), 14-9
177: Barry Weldon (Iowa State) maj. dec. Tony Ersland (Iowa), 15-4
190: Lee Fullhart (Iowa) maj. dec. Matt Mulvihill, 18-7
275: Trent Hynek (Iowa State) dec. Wes Hand, 9-4

February 15, 1997 — Ames, Iowa
Iowa 20, Iowa State 18

118: Jessie Whitmer (Iowa) dec. Cody Sanderson (Iowa State), 11-9
126: Dwight Hinson (Iowa State) dec. Mike Mena (Iowa), 6-5
134: Mark Ironside (Iowa) major decision Frank Kisley (Iowa State), 20-6
142: David Maldanado (Iowa State) dec. Kasey Gillis (Iowa), 9-3
150: Chris Bono (Iowa State) maj. dec. Eric Koble (Iowa), 20-7
158: Joe Williams (Iowa) tech. fall John DeLeon, 5:50
167: Bart Horton (Iowa State) dec. Mike Uker (Iowa), 13-2
177: Barry Weldon (Iowa State) maj. dec. Tony Ersland (Iowa), 6:49
190: Lee Fullhart (Iowa) tech. fall Matt Mulvihill (Iowa State), 6:49
275: Wes Hand (Iowa) dec. Trent Hynek, 3-2

Top 10 Team Scores At The 1997 NCAA Championships

1. Iowa - 170
2. Oklahoma State - 113.5
3. Minnesota - 71
4. Iowa State - 70
5. Lock Haven - 54
6. Edinboro - 45
7. Oklahoma - 44.5
8. Cal State-Bakersfield - 43.5
9. Illinois - 42.5
10. Penn State - 40