The Best There Ever Was
Wrestling. The sport of the gods and the ancients. No athletic endeavor tests a human being's mental and physical mettle quite so well, nor so cleanly. It is quite likely the finest measure of human strength and physical endurance. Other events are longer. Others yet require more brute strength. But none exceeds wrestling's nuanced technique, mental resilience, and raw physcality.
In the Midwest, wrestling enjoys a hallowed prominence that is scarcely found elsewhere in the country. A quick perusal of America's Olympic wrestling medalists bears this out. They're overwhelmingly midwestern.
Of the top six teams in the history of the sport, three hail from the B1G. The other half comes from the Big XII. Other leagues need not apply. Even more impressive is the fact that in this young century, B1G teams have won 11 of 14 team national titles. Furthermore, six of those titles were earned by defeating another B1G team in the finals.
The B1G also lays claim to the most famous persona in the history of the sport: Danny Mack "Dan" Gable. Gable's name is synonymous with excellence on the mat. The term "Gable Trained" is wrestling-speak for the gold standard. As a grappler at Iowa State, Gable amassed one of the most impressive records in all of college sports: 181-1. His only loss was his final college match--a fall that cost him his third national title. In 1971, he won gold at the world wrestling championships in Sofia, Bulgaria and at the Pan-American games. A year later in Munich, he won Olympic gold without surrendering a single point to any of his opponents. No other American wrestler has matched Dan Gable's feats. He was one of the greatest athletic competitors of his time--or any time.
After stepping out of the circle for the last time, Gable turned his talents to coaching. In 1976 he took the reins of the Iowa wrestling program, where he had been an assistant for four years under Gary Kurdelmeier. The Hawkeyes had just won the 1975 national title--the first in the program's 65 year history--when Kurdelmeier stepped down. Gable found himself following a very tough act.
The champion didn't miss a beat. His Hawkeye team won the title again in his first year as coach. And they won it again the next year. And again the next. And again and again and again. All told, the Hawkeyes won the NCAA wrestling title for a record 9 years running, and 11 of 12 from 1975 to 1986. They won the B1G an astounding 25 seasons in a row from 1974 to 1998. Nobody wrestled like Dan Gable, and no team wrestled like Dan Gable's Iowa Hawkeyes.
Gable retired from head coaching in 1997 after a hip replacement. His final act as the head grappler at Iowa was to upset the heavily favored Oklahoma State Cowboys (the winningest program in the history of the sport) for the national title. The Cowboys were expected to easily dispatch the Hawkeyes to claim Okie State's 31st crown. Coaching on a set of crutches, Gable had other plans. The Hawkeyes didn't just upset Oklahoma State: they mauled them. The Hawkeyes won their 23rd national championship with a score of 170 points--the highest score in NCAA history. A fitting departure for the sport's greatest figure.
In true B1G fashion, Dan Gable did not win the Big Ten Coach of the Year award until 1993. By that time, he had amassed 17 Big Ten titles in 17 years of coaching. By comparison, Minnesota coach J. Robinson has been awarded the COTY seven times.
Ever the competitor, Gable returned to Iowa as an assistant coach in 2007.
Big Ten Wrestling Today
As you might suspect, Iowa isn't the only heavy in the B1G. In fact, recent history has Penn State as the flagship program of the conference. The Nittany Lions have won the NCAA title four years in a row, twice defeating Minnesota for the championship. The Gophers, still under J Robinson, are still a force to be reckoned with. Since their 2007 title, they've twice finished second in the NCAA (behind PSU, obviously). Ohio State, whose longtime coach and former Gable roommate Russ Hellickson retired this year, has also nabbed two second place finishes (2008, 2009). The B1G has run an SEC-like dynasty on wrestling. Except longer, and more thoroughly.
The 2014-2015 season is shaping up to be another ear-mangling grudge match. Iowa (13-0) sits atop both the league and the nation. Ohio State (12-3) holds the number three slot, with Minnesota (11-2) and Penn State (10-3) rounding out the top five.
As in football, the B1G has some solid cellar dwellers, too. Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State are winless in match competition. Michigan is 4-4, which is far more akin to their football program than they'd like. Or vice versa. All told, four B1G teams have no wins or one win in league competition. Rutgers is the best of the worst with two wins.
Names to Know
Logan Stieber (Ohio State) Probably the most interesting single name in B1G wrestling right now is Logan Stieber. The 141-pounder is a three-time NCAA national champion. He currently leads the NCAA "Most Dominant Wrestler" poll, averaging 5.41 points per match. Points are given for type of victory (Pin fall, Tech fall, Major decision, Minor Decision).
Isaiah Martinez (Illinois) The Fighting Illini's 157-pounder is a tech fall machine. A technical fall is a win by a 15-point scoring margin, rather than by pinning one's opponent. It's essentially the mercy rule. Martinez currently leads the nation with 10 tech falls this season. He holds a 3-fall lead over the closest D1 competitor.
Taylor Walsh (Indiana) Walsh currently holds the second-place spot in the NCAA total falls list, with 13 falls. He's currently tied with Oklahoma's Ross Larson, but the 157-pounder bests the Crimson & Cream imposter by 22 seconds in total. Walsh amassed 13 falls in 26:31 of match time, compared to Ross' 26:53.
Brandon Sorenson (Iowa) For a state that's known for cornfields, superior wrestling talent seems to grow on trees in Iowa. The Cedar Falls native is only a freshman, but has amassed a 22-2 record in his first season. Many expect him compete for a national title in the 147-pound class.
Teams to Watch
Iowa. Of course. With last Sunday's victory over Penn State, the Hawkeyes claimed at least a share of the B1G title. As an undefeated powerhouse, it's likely that they'll add another national title to their trophy case this year.
Nebraska. While not a threat for the national title per se, the Huskers are narrowly clinging to the #2 spot in the B1G currently. A few good matches could keep them near the top, which would be a great finish for the former Big 8 contender.
Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the most likely challenger to Iowa in the league this year, though they're trailing Mizzou in the national rankings.
Growing up in Ohio, I had a choice. Basketball or wrestling. I wasn't a great wrestler. Heck, I wasn't even really a good one. But I was an abysmal basketball player. So my folks tossed me on the mat at the local Biddy Wrestling club at age 9 and the die was cast. I aspired to achieve consistent mediocrity on the mat. In Ohio, even being a mediocre wrestler is sort of a feather in a young man's cap-or so I tell myself. Wrestling enjoys a hallowed reputation in the the broader Midwest that doesn't always translate to those outside the sport. It's hard to describe to someone who's never wrestled what it's like to expand every last ounce of energy in a 6-minute frenzy.
Dan Gable famously said that once you have wrestled, everything else in life is easy. That's not really true. Not for me, anyhow. Many things in life are still plenty hard. But I will grant the champ this: once you have wrestled, everything else in life is in perspective. The hardest physical events of my life have, in the recesses of my mind, been compared against the trials of a sport so brutal that it made my teeth hurt. For me, it is one of the enduring lessons of sport. Wrestling teaches you about yourself most of all.
Wrestling is beautiful, ancient, primal, and unforgiving. And the B1G owns it.