Barry Davis remembers the moment as if it just happened. The lesson he learned has lasted a lifetime, too.
As The Gazette looks back over the remarkable career of former University of Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable, the most famous and oft-told story is when Davis went AWOL before the 1982 Big Ten Championships.
It was March 1982, the day of weigh-ins in Ann Arbor, Mich., when Gable found Davis outside a grocery store in Iowa City. It was a day that defined Gable’s career as a coach.
“I’ll never forget that,” Davis, the 49-year-old wrestling coach at Wisconsin, said during a recent phone interview. “All he said was ‘Barry, what do really want to do? Do you want to wrestle or not?’ I just said, ‘Yeah, let’s go.’
“He could have been all over me, but he wasn’t.”
Gable, 62, retired from coaching after the 1997 season and his 15th NCAA team title but remained at the university as an assistant to the athletics director. He officially retired from the school Friday.
Back in 1982, Davis was more than a bit overweight and needed to cut down to 118 pounds for the meet, a qualifier for the national tournament. The defending Big Ten champ, Davis “broke” during a workout and walked away.
Gable searched for hours, and after he found him at the store, the two — along with Gable’s wife, Kathy — drove to Cedar Rapids and caught a flight to Chicago for a connection to Detroit. The rest of the team already was in Ann Arbor.
During their delay in Chicago, Gable and Davis grabbed a taxi and went to a hotel to work out, hoping to get Davis’ weight down as much as possible.
“He worked out with me,” Davis said.
They returned to the airport, had to run to catch the flight to Detroit and then drove to Ann Arbor, making the weigh-ins just in time.
“After that, it was all business,” Davis said.
He made weight and went on to win the Big Ten title, but the story didn’t end in Ann Arbor.
Two weeks later, in the final stages of preparing for the NCAA Championships, Gable found Davis working out at the Field House. Gable was leaving early for an NCAA seedings meeting and asked Davis if he was OK.
“He said, ‘You’re not going to go ‘Cool Hand Luke’ on me, are you?’ ” Davis said.
Davis told Gable he was fine, but when he heard the big practice room door slam shut, he began to worry.
“I ran to the door, opened it and yelled, ‘Coach, I’ll go with you!’ ” Davis said.
Gable was waiting around the corner. He came back into view and simply said, “I thought so.”
“This is how he knew his athletes,” Davis said.
Davis went on to win the NCAA title, the first of three. He earned an Olympic silver medal in 1984, and his 162 career wins remain No. 1 in school history.
“He knew what I wanted,” Davis said, still in awe. “He just wanted me to say the words.”
So what did Davis really have in his hands when Gable found him at that grocery store 28 years ago?
“I had two packs of M&Ms and a six-pack of doughnuts, but they weren’t cream-filled,” he said.