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X Marks The Spot Of A College Wrestling Blunder

X Marks The Spot Of A College Wrestling Blunder

Iowa boldly predicted it would win the 1987 NCAA Championships but Iowa State had other plans.

Jun 18, 2024 by Kyle Klingman
X Marks The Spot Of A College Wrestling Blunder

The Dan Gable School of Coaching has a set of core principles.

Nothing is given. Everything is earned. A win is only guaranteed once the match is over. 

That’s why the 1986-87 wrestling season is so puzzling. Iowa had won nine straight NCAA championships and sought to become the first team in college sports history to win 10 consecutive national titles.

Gable’s team was so confident that a tiny X was sewn on the bottom of each singlet, and the schedule poster boldly stated “Going for X.”

X was the Roman numeral 10.

Iowa was coming off a monumental season where the 1986 team scored a then-record 158 points and earned five individual national titles — a first in NCAA Division I history. Several wrestlers returned in 1987, including national champions Brad Penrith (126) and Jim Heffernan (150). 

“I was 100 percent against the X,” Penrith said. “I just didn’t like it. I was already cocky as it was but I wasn’t that cocky.”

Eyes On The Prize

Iowa State had its eye on the national championship after defeating Iowa in the final dual of the 1986 season. The Cyclones had all the pieces in place, and the addition of Kevin Jackson — a three-time All-American from Louisiana State — only strengthened the team. 

“They had the Roman numeral 10 sewn on their singlets and everyone knew that they had won nine titles in a row and we knew they were going for 10,” said 158-pound starter Stewart Carter. “We weren’t obsessed with the 10 as much as they were with having it on their singlets. We weren’t as focused on stopping Iowa as we were winning it ourselves. I think our focus was more on that.”

How could Gable — the man who lost in the 1970 NCAA Championship finals after winning 181 high school and college matches in a row — allow his team to look ahead? ABC had him pre-record a message urging viewers to watch him win a third national title he eventually lost. Didn’t he know this was a bad idea? 

Apparently not.

Overconfident And Undisciplined

“Two words. Overconfident and undisciplined,” Gable said. “You can’t be overconfident in life. Every year is a new year. I was thinking of promotion. What do I need next? I’m winning national titles every year and that’s a fact.

“The reason I say undisciplined is because the two go hand-in-hand. When you’re overconfident you tend to slip over the major points or back off and think you can do it no matter what. My home life was not good at that particular time. By that, I mean less disciplined. 

“I was taking for granted that we’re going to win a 10th championship. I should have never done that but it happened over time. It didn’t just happen at that moment. When you become less disciplined in your own life that opens up another floodgate.”

Starting The Streak

The floodgate to Gable’s winning streak opened under the strangest circumstances. Iowa defeated Iowa State by half a point at the 1978 NCAA Championships in College Park, Maryland. 

Top-seeded Frank Santana could have sealed a victory for the Cyclones had he won his 190-pound finals match over Wisconsin’s Ron Jeidy — an opponent he defeated twice during the season. Jeidy led 3-1 in the second period but there was a pop in Santana’s knee during the action. 

Santana continued but his knee was so bad that Iowa State's Harold Nichols — Gable’s college coach — threw in the towel, ending the match and giving Iowa the title. The Hawkeyes went on a championship-winning spree, taking the next eight titlles by a 38-point average margin of victory. 

Things Aren't Going Right

The 1987 season was supposed to cap an incredible run by a team that captured the country’s imagination. Iowa dominated its first three duals but lost to Penn State, 27-15, on December 3, 1986. Iowa State notched a 23-12 win on January 11, 1987, but fell to the Hawkeyes, 18-15, during the final dual of the season. 

“I realized the X was a bad idea pretty early,” Gable said “It was maybe the middle of December or January. You know things aren’t going right.”

Greg Randall, a three-time All-American and two-time national finalist at 134 pounds, moved to 142 for his senior season. However, injuries and discipline prevented him from reaching his full potential. 

”He got hurt and had a bad injury,” Gable said. “He also moved up a weight and I thought he was good enough to go up a weight and win, and he was, but I forgot about his issue of liking to go out. When he had to watch his weight he wouldn’t go out. Now that he didn’t have to watch his weight, he could go out more. It was a discipline thing. It all falls within that general frame of discipline.”

Streak Stoppers

As fate would have it, the 1987 NCAA Championships were held in College Park, Maryland, where Gable won his first title as head coach during his second season. Randall went 1-2 and was eliminated from the tournament, but the Hawkeyes still had a shot. 

Iowa State had five finalists to Iowa’s four, but three were head-to-head. Hopes were dashed when Penrith was spladled and pinned by Billy Kelly at 126 and Jim Heffernan lost to Tim Krieger at 150. Royce Alger's win over Kevin Jackson wasn’t enough for Iowa to win its 10th title. 

Iowa State 133. Iowa 108.

The streak ended at nine. 

“We were a mentally stronger team at that point, and we executed under pressure,” Iowa State’s second-year coach Jim Gibbons said. “I’m amazed today, and everyone else from the team gets the same feeling, at how continually rewarding winning the 1987 NCAA tournament was. It was great when it happened, and nothing can replace that Iowa State was the team that stopped the streak that Dan had. What Iowa was able to do during that streak was magnificent.”

Moments after winning the title, Gibbons said this: “I’m happy for us, it’s great, but I feel sad for (Iowa) because they could have set the record.”

Iowa State fans during the 1987 NCAA Championships

Still Overconfident And Undisciplined

Iowa’s issues with overconfidence and discipline didn’t end at the NCAA Championships. Upon the team’s return to Iowa City, Randall “borrowed” a school-issued van and drove to Texas. 

“That got me in trouble, too,” Gable said. “He took advantage and drove it to a spring break party in Texas. He was the one who led the group. I don’t know how many guys went. 

“I got ahold of him as soon as I found out and it got back here quickly. We got in a lot of trouble for that. We got banned from using university vehicles, which is fine. You have to learn your lessons. It’s part of why you straighten your ass up.”

Iowa finished second, sixth, and third at the next three NCAA Championships before winning six of seven titles from 1991 until Gable’s retirement in 1997. 

1987 NCAA Championships — Team Standings

Iowa State — 133
Iowa — 108
Penn State — 97.75
Oklahoma State — 85.25
Bloomsburg — 47.25
Clarion — 46
North Carolina — 42.75
Edinboro — 38.25
Arizona State — 35.75
Lehigh — 32.25

1987 NCAA Tournament Results: Iowa State vs Iowa

Iowa StatePerry Summit118DNPIowaJohn Regan118DNP
Iowa StateBill Kelly1261stIowaBrad Penrith1262nd
Iowa StateJeff Gibbons1343rdIowaDNQ134DNQ
Iowa StateDNQ142DNQIowaGreg Randall142DNP
Iowa StateTim Krieger1501stIowaJim Heffernan1502nd
Iowa StateStewart Carter1581stIowaJohn Heffernan1586th
Iowa StateKevin Jackson1672ndIowaRoyce Alger1671st
Iowa StateSteve Metzger177R12IowaRico Chiapparelli1771st
Iowa StateEric Voelker1901stIowaDNQ190DNQ
Iowa StateAndy Cope275DNPIowaMark Sindlinger2754th