Amateur wrestling took a step in the right direction and legendary University of Iowa Coach Dan Gable helped escort it.
The longtime ambassador of the sport in which he excelled as a competitor and coach played a key role in unifying the efforts of the sport’s top governing bodies and last week it became official.
USA Wrestling, National Wrestling Coaches Association and National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum announced June 8 in Stillwater, Okla., they have agreed to form an alliance to protect, promote and strengthen wrestling at all levels across the country.
The effort is in its infancy and will likely expand in the future.
“It’s a good start,” said Gable, repeating it for emphasis. “Whatever is next will involve more of the wrestling world. Whatever is next will involved little crucial segments that are so beneficial or something needed for the benefit of the sport.”
NWCA Executive Director Mike Moyer praised Gable for playing a vital role in the move. He also said that as much as Gable as already contributed to the sport his best might still be ahead of him.
“He’s just incredibly focused,” said Moyer, who joined USA Wrestling Executive Director Rich Bender and National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum Executive Director Lee Roy Smith for the official announcement. “He has a magical way of pulling wrestling together. He deserves a lot of credit in the formation of this alliance.”
Gable was just as complimentary of the executive directors from each agency. He said they have become very compatible.
“They are on the same page,” Gable said. “They may not have always been there, but they have evolved into that and everybody feels comfortable with everybody else.”
Gable’s involvement became more prevalent after he was no longer under contract with the UI, beginning his retirement Jan. 1. Members of the organizations wanted a little more separation from his work with the school and became a little more welcoming.
“I think once I stepped away from the University of Iowa, being under contract, then they were actually more comfortable with me from the sport’s point of view,” Gable said. “Not that they didn’t believe I had full intentions of being a catalyst for them, helping put this together.”
Gable continued to say, “It’s like I’m coaching in a different realm. Instead of coaching athletes, I’m helping coach the sport (and) the organizations. That doesn’t mean they’re going to follow everything I say, but they feel more comfortable with a leader that really has passion and that has done some extraordinary things for the sport and doesn’t plan on wanting to stop, knowing that I’d like to see us go to greater heights.”
This move was desperately needed. NCAA Division I programs are dwindling at an alarming rate, despite some signs of growth with 19 new programs being added the last year at lower levels, including in NAIA, and high school participation numbers increasing by 40,000 the last decade, according to Moyer.
UNC Greensboro, Liberty, Cal State-Fullerton and Brown University cut wrestling programs after the 2010-11 season and the University of Nebraska-Omaha, which was expected to make the move from Division II to I for the upcoming season was cut after winning its third straight national team title and sixth in the last eight years in March.
“It was a very difficult spring with the elimination of four NCAA Division I programs,” Moyer said. “It had been an extraordinarily challenging spring. Not that we haven’t had other springs like that, but the bottom line is we’re down to 78 Division I programs.”
The organizations will remain separate entities, carrying out their regular roles in wrestling. They will collaborate efforts in promoting and developing wrestling and will team for a goal to better the sport. The focus will begin at the high school and college levels.
“USA Wrestling stands proud and committed to join forces with these outstanding organizations to strengthen our planet’s greatest sport,” Bender said in a news release. “We all have a significant responsibility to work together for the greater good of wrestling. We are confident that this alliance will serve our sport well and we work hard to eliminate the duplication of efforts and create efficiencies to move wrestling forward.”
Gable said that will be achieved step-by-step, likely reaching out to include other groups who share their aspirations for wrestling. He said more meetings will come, finalizing the next step, but a move won’t be made that could jeopardize the stability of the alliance’s foundation.
“If you build it strong, it holds up,” Gable said. “If you jump to one thing for an immediate impact that’s good, but at the same time it could crumble fast. We don’t want anything crumbling. Whatever we’re going to do we’re going to do to the best of our ability.”
Expansion could take some time due to the many groups and who contribute to the sport. Gable said they are too numerous to write down on paper and get a flowing structure. He said they want everyone in the sport to feel good about their position in building it up. Unification leads to strength, which includes a stronger voice that might lead to more ears listening.
“This alliance will make good decisions and not push anybody around,” Gable said. “Just become a more effective voice and that will help our sport.
“This alliance is about helping the sport, but not at the expense of other organizations or anything else. Everything needs to get done the right way and in a fair way.”
Gable, who was an undefeated three-time state champion at Waterloo West before going on to be a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa State and a gold medalist at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, has long been a champion on and off the mat for the sport. He has heralded for his work in wrestling, especially in promotion. His retirement really isn’t one. he just has more control over what, when and how he can do things.
“It’s about a little more freedom in your life,” said Gable, who is being honored by the UI with a seven-foot statue outside of Carver-Hawkeye Arena after guiding the Hawkeyes to a 355-21-5 in 21 seasons winning 15 NCAA titles, including a stretch of nine straight and 21 Big Ten championships. “If you don’t want to get away from the sport, which I don’t, I’ll continue to try to help do what I can do, as much as I can. This is one avenue that people, I believe, think a lot of me in.”
Success in his professional, athletic and family lives have led to speaking engagements to various corporations for Gable. It becomes a chance for him to promote the effects and intangibles of the sport, strengthening the information about wrestling. The talks also places a wrestling personality front and center.
“Even though you retire from one place, you have more time to maybe go to organizations, and that can help make a difference, too,” Gable said. “Just spread the word. Spread the good word and what you believe in from a professional point of view.”
No one really expects Gable to slow down, especially at a time the sport he loves needs him the most. Wrestling, and its new leading alliance, will benefit.
“I don’t see him missing a step,” Moyer said. “In fact, I see him ramping things up. he doesn’t look like he’s ready to really retire any time soon, and selfishly I’m happy because he’s got more time he can dedicate to the sport.