Monday, October 27, 2008

A tale of two icons

Dan Gable turned 60 Saturday. The event went relatively unnoticed. Wrestling historian and writer, Mark Palmer, made note of it on the internet Friday and I’ve seen or read little else about it.

As I’ve said before, my love for the sport started when a friend asked me to ride to Ames with him to watch Gable wrestle – just about 40 years ago. I’m not going to try to write any type of biography here. I’ll leave that to the better writers and those that know Dan well. However, when you have some time, I suspect that you’ll enjoy following Dan’s life through the articles written about him in Sports Illustrated (this may not be a good idea if you’re at work). Here are some of them, from the SI Vault.

The Pancake Man Flattens 'em March 24, 1969

A Kid Who Doesn't Kid Around June 19,1972

Look Homeward, Hawkeye March 22, 1982 (includes the famous Barry Davis
Doughnut story)

The Ultimate Winner July 18, 1984

Cedar Rapids, IA, 1997 March 31, 1997

The Pride of Iowa March 12, 2007

If Sports Illustrated has been featuring you in articles for 38 years, I think you can legitimately be called a sports icon.

Today (October 27, 2008) is the 150th birthday of another icon – and another member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame – Theodore Roosevelt.

Winner of both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize, Teddy Roosevelt is one of the most complex men in American history. He was a very sickly child, suffering frequently debilitating asthma attacks. He often spent days at a time sitting up – struggling to breathe.

In an effort to improve his health, his father started “Teedy” (the family nickname) on an exercise regimen that included learning how to box. He was a club boxer at Harvard and developed a lifelong interest in the martial arts – including wrestling. Frankly, he wasn’t a very good wrestler, but he loved the sport and the men who practiced it – once entertaining Frank Gotch at the White House.

Here’s a section of a letter from Roosevelt to his son Kermit that mixed martial arts fans may find interesting, “Since Sunday we have not been able to ride. I still box with Grant, who has now become the champion middleweight wrestler of the United States. Yesterday afternoon we had Professor Yamashita up here to wrestle with Grant. It was very interesting, but of course jiu jitsu and our wrestling are so far apart that it is difficult to make any comparison between them. Wrestling is simply a sport with rules almost as conventional as those of tennis, while jiu jitsu is really meant for practice in killing or disabling our adversary. In consequence, Grant did not know what to do except to put Yamashita on his back, and Yamashita was perfectly content to be on his back. Inside of a minute Yamashita had choked Grant, and inside of two minutes more he got an elbow hold on him that would have enabled him to break his arm; so that there is no question but that he could have put Grant out. So far this made it evident that the jiu jitsu man could handle the ordinary wrestler. But Grant, in the actual wrestling and throwing was about as good as the Japanese, and he was so much stronger that he evidently hurt and wore out the Japanese.”

Roosevelt is also credited with starting the organization that eventually grew into the NCAA.

Oh yeah – then there was that Panama Canal thing… and National Parks… and trust busting…

Anyway – I hope Dan Gable had a happy birthday and I hope that at least a few of us take a second to remember Theodore Roosevelt.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Road to Cedar Rapids - Volume 1

When Clayton Rush ran on to the raised mat for the finals of the NCAA Division III wrestling championships last March I was excited that I might be witnessing history – Coe College’s first ever national champion. I saw Clayton wrestle several times last year and became a fan. His performance in the DIII portion of National Duals was dominant in every sense of the word.

No – I’m not a Coe alumnus (St. Ambrose ’74 – Go, Bees!), but I have lived within walking distance of the Coe campus since I moved to Cedar Rapids in 1988. Many small colleges have a claim to fame and Coe is no exception. Two Coe alumni have been named “Coaches of the Year” in two professional sports. Bill Fitch led the Boston Celtics to the 1981 NBA title and Marv Levy coached the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances. Former Kohawk, Fred Jackson, is now a running back for the Bills.

I became a Coe wrestling fan when John Oostendorp became the head coach. John was always among my favorite Hawkeye wrestlers and his 1993 third place finish, where he defeated both Billy Pierce and Rulon Gardner in the consolation bracket, stands as one of my favorite Hawkeye performances.

Clayton took down Seth Flodeen from Augsburg almost immediately in their finals match and quickly also scored nearfall points. The Coe fan section erupted and I was confident that we were all going to see that history made. Then, Flodeen escaped, scored a takedown and eventually locked up a cradle, pinning Clayton and winning the NCAA title.

Coe did make history that night. Sophomore, Tyler Burkle, won the 165-pound title and became the school’s first national champion. The team also scored their highest finish ever – 4th – and Coach Oostendorp was named Coach of the Year.

In June, history of another kind was made in Cedar Rapids – a devastating flood that left thousands homeless. Coe College and Clayton Rush were among the victims. You have to be familiar with Cedar Rapids to understand just how incredible it was for flooding ever to reach the Coe campus – but it did. The power plant was under water and Coe was without power for several days.

Clayton’s house was also flooded. “I was fortunate enough not to lose anything of value. I was, however, flooded out of the house I was renting. I had planned to remain in Cedar Rapids all summer to work out, and had to return home to Illinois. Coe College was closed for a time and had no power, so our team lost it’s wrestling room and I did lose great workout opportunities, along with training with my team everyday of the summer.”

Downtown Cedar Rapids was particularly hard hit by the flood. According to Mary Lee Malmberg of the Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), “This summer’s flood impacted 450 businesses in the downtown area.” The CVB office was among that group. “(The CVB) was inundated with about 4’ of flood water causing extensive damage. Everything was lost with the exception of what was taken out of the office when CVB staff evacuated.”, said Malmberg.

Cedar Rapids will again host the Division III championships next spring – and both Coe and the city are preparing.

Says Clayton, “Our goal is to be the National Champs. Our coaching staff preaches that day in and day out. All we have running through our minds is to be the National Champions.” As for himself, “I have been training to be a 3x national champion. I don’t want anything less, nor do my teammates. Our goal is to be the National Champions. I have been lifting hard and working out when and where ever I am able. I ended up working for my Dad pouring concrete most of the summer. That along with lifting has really, I believe, helped me gain quite a bit of strength.”

And Cedar Rapids – according to Mary Lee Malmberg, “As of today, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and Grant Wood Studio have reopened, and the Science Station is featuring a new dinosaur exhibit in temporary space located at Lindale Mall. On October 24 (also at Lindale Mall) Theatre Cedar Rapids will begin their season in a remodeled theater and the National Czech & Slovak Museum will open an exhibit and gift shop while their permanent structures are rebuilt. These attractions have accepted the challenge created by the flood and have found new, creative ways to serve the public.

Once again there is availability in local hotels and the Convention & Visitors Bureau is spreading the word that visitors are welcome and encouraged to see Cedar Rapids’ comeback.”

When I asked Mary Lee what Division III wrestling fans could anticipate, she replied, “Wrestling fans can expect an enthusiastic welcome from Cedar Rapids when they visit in March. Eighty-six percent of the city was not impacted by the flood, and many of the businesses in the flood zone will have re-opened by then.

The Cedar Rapids Area Convention & Visitors Bureau will staff an information booth at the U.S. Cellular Center for fans arriving on Friday. Information on downtown restaurants that are open will be available as well as other visitor information. Maps and directions will also be provided.”

Recovery from a disaster of this magnitude frequently brings out the best in people. Back in June I wrote a couple of blogs about the flood. Clayton’s mother read them and shared them with him. I pointed out in one of them that my friend Terrance and his family had lost everything in the flood – including all of the Hawkeye wrestling memorabilia that he had collected over the past few years. Clayton’s response was to send Terrance an autographed Coe wrestling tee shirt. Terrance loves that shirt.
Thank you.

So - wrestling fans, mark your calendars for March 6th and 7th and join me at the US Cellular Center for the 2009 Division III Championships. The wrestling will be exciting and you’ll have a great time.

PS If you would like to contribute to the Cedar Rapids flood recovery, please visit

Monday, October 13, 2008

75 miles of glory

I’ve been known to drink the occasional beer or glass of wine. The lounge in the Cedar Rapids Marriott is my favorite watering hole – in no small part because the bartender wrestled in high school and is a Hawkeye wrestling fan. Last Thursday evening I was on my usual perch when two young men and a young woman rolled in. They were sporting white cowboy hats and Cornell College tee shirts. “We just drove all the way from Houston in a Ford Ranger.”

“Are you here for homecoming?”, asked the bartender.


Then absolutely out of the blue one of the men said, “Man I’m glad Terry Brands is back at Iowa. We’ll sure see that old ‘Gable style’ now”. May God strike me down if that is not true. Wellllll - bartender Lenny and I are now ecstatic. The wrestling talk poured as freely as the spirits. After 20 or 30 minutes the young woman asked why we were so involved in our discussion. Her friend replied, “because this is Iowa and wrestling’s a big deal here.”

Go forward one night. One of the managers at the Marriott is the step-brother of a Hawkeye wrestler and we were discussing the video of an Iowa practice that had recently been posted on the internet. The person sitting next to me was a Cornell alum, in town for homecoming. “Do you follow wrestling?”, he asked – followed by – “Did you know that Cornell is the smallest school ever to win the NCAA wrestling championship?”

Bartender Lenny (who attended UNI in the early ‘70s), “Did YOU know that UNI also won an NCAA team title?”

I checked to make sure I had a pulse, because this is my idea of heaven – wrestling talk with strangers – TWO NIGHTS IN A ROW!

I’m a wrestling history geek and the idea for this blog was spawned by those two nights of conversations.

Waterloo/Cedar Falls and Mount Vernon are roughly 75 miles apart. In the post World War II years, Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) and Cornell College joined the “Big boys” of college wrestling – and each won a title. The story of Cornell’s amazing 1947 season is one of the greatest David vs. Goliath tales in the annals of college sports. You can read about it in Mark Palmer's Rev-Rewind article.

Iowa State Teachers College was a power from 1947 through the early ‘50s, winning the NCAA championship in 1950 and producing three 3-time NCAA champs, an Olympic silver medallist and an Olympic champion.

Certainly almost all college wrestling programs would hope to have that history of success. Perhaps, however, what those 2 programs have meant to the sport since the 1950’s is the greater heritage.

Success rarely drops from the sky. That is the case with these two schools. The foundations for Cornell’s emergence were laid in the 1920’s with Hall of Fame coach Dick Barker who recruited Olympic silver medallist and Hall-of-Famer LLoyd Appleton to Mount Vernon. After leaving Cornell, Coach Barker founded the wrestling team at Michigan. Hall of Fame coach Paul Scott took over the helm at Cornell in 1941 and lead the Purple (now the Rams) to their post-war success. In addition to winning the 1947 NCAA and AAU championships he coached 3-time NCAA champion and Hall-of Famer Lowell Lange and NCAA champ Dick Hauser.

Hall of Fame coach Dave McCuskey was a 1930 graduate of Iowa State Teachers College who led the Panthers from 1933 – 1952. In addition to the 1950 NCAA championship mentioned above, Coach McCuskey’s Panthers were NCAA runners-up four times and won three AAU national titles.

From there the influence grows. Cornell grad Lloyd Appleton coached at West Point for 19 years and helped establish what would become the US military wrestling organization – leading us to the likes of Hall-of-Famer Greg Gibson and 2008 Olympian Dremiel Byers. Lowell Lange revived the Georgia Tech wrestling program and his Yellow Jackets interrupted Auburn’s Swede Umbach's 25 year run of (now) SEC titles. Lange’s team mate Dale Thomas went on to coach at Oregon State University, where his 616 victories still stand as the all-time NCAA record.

The Iowa State Teachers College teams of that era have had even greater influence. UNI Olympic gold medallist, Bill Smith is one of the very few individuals to coach high school championship teams in 2 states – Illinois and California. He also coached the Olympic Club of San Francisco team to three national freestyle and four national Greco-Roman championships. Three-time UNI NCAA champs and Hall-of-Famers Bill Koll, Bill Nelson and Keith Young would all go on to be influential coaches – Koll at Penn State, Nelson at the University of Arizona and Young at Cedar Falls High School. Additionally, Bil Koll’s son, Rob, would go on to a stellar collegiate coaching career.

It wasn’t just the Hall of Fame wrestlers from UNI that have influenced the sport. Leo Alitz, a member of those powerful post-war Panther squads, is in the Hall of Fame for his longtime career at the US Military Academy, where he coached Army’s only NCAA individual champ. Hall-of-Famer Bob Siddens was also a part of those outstanding UNI teams. His career at Waterloo West High School is legendary, but he is, perhaps, most famous for being the first coach of a guy named Gable.

Unfortunately – late Friday night – this blog took a sad turn when I learned of the death of UNI Olympic silver medallist and NCAA champ, Gerry Leeman. Like his team mate, Bill Smith – and so many athletes of that era - Leeman’s career was interrupted by World War II, where Gerry served as a naval fighter pilot. When the Osage, IA native returned to Iowa State Teachers College he won a title and was named outstanding wrestler of the 1946 championships. Then, in 1948 he won an Olympic silver medal. In 1953 Hall of Fame coach Billy Sheridan selected Leeman to succeed him as head coach at Lehigh University. While at Lehigh Leeman’s dual meet record was 161-38-4. He won six EIWA championships and had six wrestlers win nine individual NCAA championships – including the legendary “three-timer”, Mike Caruso.

Gerry Leeman

He was more than a coach. In a quote from a 1967 Sports Illustrated article about Caruso, Bethlehem (PA) shoemaker John Pappajohn says, "That Mr. Leeman, he is a very special man. I never forget one time, eight, nine year ago, when he come to get a shoeshine. 'You no look so good, Pappajohn,' he says to me. I say no, things is bad. My daughter is very sick in the hospital and need blood transfusions. You know what he do? He not even let me finish his shoe before he go over to the phone, and he call up the captain of his team. Before the day is through, every single one of his boys is down at the hospital, giving blood so's my daughter can have her transfusions. No, I can never forget that man."

He is survived by his wife, Darlene of Cedar Falls; two sons, Mark Leeman and Jay (Judy) Leeman of Bethlehem, Pa.; one daughter, Jerilou (John) Willmore of Hubbard; two brothers, Wayne (Susie) Leeman of Pinehurst, Ill., and Bill Leeman of Cassa Grande, Ariz.; two sisters, Beverly (Jim) Hoy of McHenry, Ill., and Barb (Larry) Campbell of Winterset; grandsons, Jayson Leeman, Cody Leeman and Travis Moseley; granddaughter, Heather (Justin) Dyar; stepgrandson, Ben Willmore; great-grandsons, Ayden Dyar and Prentice Dyar; sister-in-law, Betty Buckles; and special nieces, Becky (Darrel) Willhite and Bonnie Dunham. He was preceded in death by his parents; siblings, Albert, Dale, Keith, Donald, and Shirley; and brother-in-law, Gene Buckles.
As luck would have it, I attended UNI’s “Night of Champions” earlier this year where Gerry was one of the honorees. I feel honored to have been there.

(My thanks to Mark Palmer for his help in preparing this blog).

Monday, October 6, 2008

Brotherly love

My brother, Bruce, moved to Seattle about 35 years ago. He is a couple of years younger than me and for most of our youth we shared a room. We also argued, fought and competed – in everything from Jeopardy to Risk to whiffle ball.

When it came time to leave the nest, Bruce and I and our friend, Doug, rented a two-room apartment across the street from the Pink Poodle in Davenport (it’s a laundromat – not a strip club). Our sibling rivalry occasionally erupted there and shouting matches would ensue.

After several months of this living arrangement we all three went our separate ways – Doug back to UNI and I to a different apartment and roommate. Bruce stayed on 15th Street and took on someone else to share the rent. Not long after that Bruce moved to the Pacific Northwest.

In that 35 years we have seen each other far too rarely - the deaths of our parents, an occasional business trip – I was even his “date” for his 35th high school reunion. For a short time Bruce taught at the University of Illinois law school and we did get together a few times during his tenure in Champaign. One of those times I drug him to a Hawkeye wrestling meet. He didn’t enjoy it at all. He couldn’t tell you this – but he got to see Tom and Terry Brands wrestle that night.

Last week, in a move that has been rumored on the internet since before the Olympics, Tom hired Terry to come back to Iowa City and be a Hawkeye assistant coach. That’s right – two of the most volatile (and successful) twin brothers in the history of wrestling have reunited and will be working together. The rivalry between these two in their younger days is legendary.

Hawkeye-land is certainly abuzz and the rumors – and questions – continue to fly. Will Olympic gold medallist, Henry Cejudo, and heavyweight, Steve Mocco follow Terry from the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to train in Iowa City? Is Terry coming to Iowa City as much to restore the Hawkeye Wrestling Club to its past glory as he is to join the rebuilding of the University of Iowa’s wrestling dynasty? Will tempers ever flare?

The Hawkeye fan in me reacted like this.

The wrestling fan in me has more questions.

Most American wrestling fans were disappointed in the overall performance in Beijing – just 3 total medals. It wasn’t long before there were calls for a restructuring of the USA Wrestling coaching staff – even by national freestyle coach, Kevin Jackson, himself. In the past two weeks Jackson has resigned to become head coach at Sunkist Kids and former World Champion, Zeke Jones was hired to replace him as national freestyle coach. Then, resident development coach, Terry Brands left the OTC for Iowa City.

Are these just the natural personnel changes that inevitably follow a sub-par performance by a national sports team – or could they lead to a fundamental shift in how we train our Olympic wrestlers? Do we really need a national training center?

Do regional training opportunities make more sense? Many of our top competitors work as collegiate assistants to support themselves. For much of the year it is a conflict for them to leave their jobs behind and get to Colorado Springs for valuable freestyle coaching. Is it more logical to have top international-level coaches available at locations all over the country? The changes of the last couple of weeks have given us a de facto opportunity to find out.

Kevin Jackson moving to Arizona, Terry Brands to Iowa City and Zeke Jones to Colorado Springs certainly offers a high level of coaching at those three locations. Throw in John Smith in Stillwater, the New York Athletic Club and emerging private clubs like Sean Bormet’s Overtime and you have the potential for a network of training sites.

Is this an opportunity to create a new development model? As it always is – money will be a major factor. The United States Olympic Committee allocates funds to the governing bodies of all Olympic sports – including USA Wrestling. The level of USOC support, in large part, determines how much is invested in developing our national wrestling teams. At Sunkist Kids, Art Martori and others generously support the betterment of the sport. Are there enough other private funding sources to support the clubs in Iowa City, Stillwater and elsewhere to a level that will produce world and Olympic champions? Can a structure be created that allows the USOC to help with regional center funding?

Are these concepts worth discussing?

Come on fans – what do you think?