The House of Seven Gables – by Randy Lewis InsideTexasWrestling.Com
The House of Seven Gables
By Randy Lewis
©2005 InsideTexasWrestling.com, All Rights Reserved
He is, without question, the most famous American wrestler ever. He’s also the most successful college coach in any sport in NCAA history. He won nine straight NCAA Championships and 15 in a 21-year stretch, while serving as a head coach at the University of Iowa. When people find out that I wrestled for, and coached with Dan Gable for 15 years, they always ask the same question. What was Gable like?
Gable: The Punisher
It was 1972. I first heard of Dan Gable when I was in 7th grade. People told me that he was the best wrestler in the world. Nobody could beat him. At the time, I was a three-time state AAU age-group champion, and a national AAU age-group champion. My career record at the time was 60-0. I remember thinking, if I was as big as Dan Gable, I could beat him.
Nineteen years later, I would find out I was wrong. In 1991, I was thirty years old and I wrestled at 149.5 pounds, the same weight-class that Gable won the Olympics (without giving up a single point!) in 1972.
I wrestled a dual meet against the 1989 world champion Russian, Boris Budaev. I was pounding him 13-4 and ended up sticking him. One week later, I asked Gable if he wanted to wrestle. At the time Gable weighed about 160 and was 41 years old. I was up to about 163. Gable said yes but wanted to warm up a bit. I just sat there and watched him. Gable went through a 45-minute session of drilling and stretching, moving around, getting ready to tangle with yours truly.
By this time his shirt was drenched. He was ready to go to war. I warmed up in about 30 seconds. I slapped his hand and asked him if he was ready. Gable said, “go” and I jumped across the mat and threw him with what I would call a Steven Segal-type judo throw and headlock. He went right to his back.
Two seconds later, Gable scored a reversal. For the next forty-five minutes he tortured me. What he likes to do is put you on your back, bar your arm and torture you. Then he will sort of let you off your back, but he will keep the bar arm with just your shoulder down. Sort of like isometrics, only diabolical. Finally, he will let you go and when you get back on your feet, you can barely feel your right arm.
Then, he’ll take you down again and start on your left shoulder. Pain must balance. When you finally get back on your feet both shoulders are numb. Your arms are useless. Death is a fleeting moment away.
After that “workout” somebody asked me how I did against Gable. I said “Oh, he beat me about 50-5.” They said “no way.” I said “way.” Actually the score was 50-4!
I’ve spoken with hundreds of people who went one-on-one with Gable in the room and they all say the same thing. Unless you have actually wrestled him, you can not understand what it is like. I have wrestled the best in the world ?” having competed against 27 world and Olympic medalists and countless others in practice. Nothing is like wrestling Dan Gable.
Gable: The Master Psychologist
My freshman year, I won a close match 13-12 against Bob Logan from Marshalltown, Iowa during our team’s wrestleoffs. One week later, we wrestled in our first competition of the year at a tournament in Minnesota. In the semifinals on the other side of the bracket, a freshman named Ryan Kaufman from the University of Minnesota beat Logan 17-2.
I was to meet Kaufman in the finals. Gable came up to me before the match to get me fired up. I was a little worried that Kaufman had just beaten someone 17-2 that I only beat 13-12. Gable told me that Kaufman had told him earlier that he should have recruited him (Kaufman) instead of me, and that he was going to beat the hell out of me in the finals to prove it.
I started getting psyched up, thinking who does Kaufman think he is, saying that to Gable. Telling my coach that he is going to whip me! I ended up getting ahead 10-1 in the second period, then pinning Kaufman.
It wasn’t until seven years later, in a casual conversation with Gable when Kaufman’s name came up. I asked Gable if he remembered when Kaufman told him that he should have recruited him instead of me. And, that he was going to beat me. Gable thought about it for a second, and then said, “Oh, Kaufman never said any of that. I just made it up to get you psyched up for that match.”
Gable: The Disciplinarian
Later that season, my freshman year, in a dual meet against Northwestern, I came out and pinned my opponent in about 20 seconds. After the match Gable told me “Lewis, you didn’t even break a sweat, you need to get a workout in.” I laughed and went over and sat down on the bench to watch the rest of the matches. A few matches later, Gable saw me on the bench and said “Lewis, what are you doing, I thought I told you to get a workout in.”
I said, “I thought you were joking.” He wasn’t. I said, “Gable, pinning people is what I do. If you are going to punish me for pinning someone, you are going to take away my motivation to pin. You don’t want to do that do you?” Gable thought about it, frowned and then said, “Well, okay, I don’t want to ruin your motivation.”
Believe me. That was the only time I got out of a workout.
Our conditioning was always different, and we never knew how many sprint laps or how many of anything we were going to do. When Gable was the Olympic coach, many wrestlers from around the country came and trained in Iowa. During one of our morning conditioning practices, Gable had us doing sprint laps in our gym with a sprint lap being about 300 yards. We would get a short rest after each sprint lap, and then Gable would line us up again and blow his whistle.
After about the fifth one, former NCAA Champion and world-team member Mike Land asked me how I paced myself during these laps. I said, “what do you mean?” He said, “how do you know how fast to run if you don’t know how many laps you are going to run?” I said “I just run every one as fast as I can. I act like it is the only lap I am going to run.” I had never really thought about it, and it had never even crossed my mind to consider pacing myself.
Gable: The Motivator
Just because Gable believed in winning the right way, by attacking and being aggressive and wrestling hard the whole match didn’t always mean his wrestlers would do that. In 1981, in a dual meet against Michigan State, Tim Riley was winning his match but he was getting tired and was backing up.
The Michigan State wrestler was being more aggressive. Gable didn’t like it. He got right up next to the mat and yelled at the referee that Riley was stalling. He kept putting up his hands like he was warning Riley for stalling. With his own coach calling stalling on him, the referee figured Riley must have been stalling. Gable kept telling the referee to call stalling and the referee kept calling it.
Riley was eventually disqualified for stalling, and Gable applauded the referee when he cautioned Riley out. Riley told Gable afterwards that he thought he was an ***whole, but the next night Riley wrestled like a Hawkeye should and went on to become a three-time All-American.
Gable: The Mentor
In 1983, Riley was struggling, having lost a match by about 14 points to Randy Willingham from Oklahoma State. Ed Banach had lost three times to Mike Mann from Iowa State. Senior Harlan Kistler was also down. Gable decided that these three wrestlers needed something to give them a mental edge.
He decided to put them through some special workouts. For the last month of the season, Gable would pick all three of them up at 4:00 A.M., four times a week to put them through a workout at 4:30 A.M. This was in addition to the regular two or three times a day that the team was already practicing. Gable told them that they were working out at 4:30 in the morning because they would know that nobody else in the country was doing what they were doing to prepare for the nationals.
At the NCAA tournament that year, Ed Banach won his third NCAA title, beating Mike Mann in the finals. Tim Riley defeated Randy Willingham to become an All-American. Harlan Kistler finished the season strong and ended up 3rd in the NCAA’s. All of them won the Big Ten’s that year, as Iowa won the Big Ten championships with nine champions out of ten weight classes.
Years later, I was out of coaching and lived in Phoenix, Arizona. Sometimes when I came home late at night I would call the Steiner brothers, Terry and Troy, and wake them up back in Iowa ?” usually around 3:00am. I would then crank out about 100 pushups and I would tell them that a forty-year old just did a 100 and what are they doing right now to get better? They would drop the phone, hit the floor and do 100 pushups each. Only then they would go back to bed. They both won NCAA titles.
Gable: The Beguiler
One thing Gable was great at was varying our workouts. You never knew how long the workout was going to last, or what you would do next. Gable also had a different concept of time than the rest of us. A three-minute period often took ten minutes. It didn’t take long in the room to understand that a “Gable minute” was not sixty seconds.
In 1984, Gable was named as the Olympic coach for the U.S. Freestyle Team. That year many wrestlers from around the country trained in Iowa.
I remember at the end of one practice when Gable said, “ Let’s go a three minute period.” Fifteen minutes later, we were still wrestling, when someone yelled out “Gable, this is bull****, that’s more than three minutes.” That someone was not me ?” but he was an Olympic Champion. Gable then said “I just wanted to see how long we would go before somebody snapped.”
Gable: The Icon
When I came to Iowa as a freshman in 1977, I had to ask the other wrestlers what do we call Coach Gable? Do we say Mr. Gable, Coach Gable, Dan, Sir or what? The wrestlers on the team looked at me and said, “We just call him Gable.” I tell you this because it is significant to understand the relationship that Gable had with his wrestlers. The wrestlers who came to Iowa were among the best in the country. Gable was almost God-like to us, and we were his disciples. We all felt at ease enough to simply call him, Gable.
I do recall one time however when someone called him something else. In 1990, Gable was giving a speech to our team before a pre-season practice. He said this year’s squad could win the NCAA title but we had to do everything just right. In walks two-time NCAA champion Royce Alger, obviously late, and Gable says, “Alger, stuff like this, you being late, is why you lost to Melvin Douglas and didn’t make the world team.
Alger didn’t break stride as we walked towards us and said, “what’s that, Larry?” Gable had a confused look on his face for a second and then hit him. He lowered his head, shaking it back and forth covering his eyes as he started laughing. Alger beat both Douglas and Kevin Jackson later that year and made the world team. He went on to win a silver medal.
Gable is sometimes a mystery to some people. I found it easy to get to know him, much harder to fully understand him. It’s funny, but the world is made up of two groups: those who know or think they know Dan Gable. And those who wish they did.