Monday, November 30, 2009

When 1 meets 2

The anticipation is growing. Number 1 versus number 2 in a contest that won’t determine, but may well influence the outcome of a national championship. No – not Florida and Alabama for the SEC football championship. It’s time again for the annual dual wrestling meet between The University of Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa State Cyclones – one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. ESPN has included this event on its list of “101 Things All Sports Fans Should Do Before They Die”. If you’re a wrestling fan and have never attended – shame on you.

The meet has somewhat of a different feel this year because former Iowa State coach and Cyclone icon, Cael Sanderson, has moved on to become the head coach at Penn State. Sanderson has been replaced by Kevin Jackson who in his collegiate competitive days transferred to Iowa State after LSU dropped wrestling. His matches with Iowa’s Royce Alger are legendary.

Legend – that’s part of the appeal. Fans on both sides have their favorite moments. For many Cyclone fans it’s Dave Osenbaugh pinning Lou Banach. Fanatics in black and gold favor a similar upset by Brooks Simpson over Eric Voelker. Each was a major upset and each won the meet.

The last three editions have featured newsworthy “extracurricular” aspects. In 2006 Iowa coaches Tom Brands and Dan Gable squared off in a heated debate with Sanderson and his assistant, Tim Hartung. It generated one of the most famous photos in recent years. Then came “the curtain” in 2007. Iowa State athletic director, Jamie Pollard, decided to limit seating by curtaining off thousands of seats. (Note: this will not be done this year.) Last year’s edition brought a new NCAA dual meet attendance record. People traveled from all over the country just to be able to say that they were there that night.

This year’s battle will feature two senior-dominated lineups, but two redshirt freshmen just might provide the highlight bout of the night. Both are three-time Iowa high school champions and both are off to undefeated and dominating starts in their first year of varsity competition. The Cyclones’ Andrew Long is from Creston and the Hawks’ Matt McDonough is from Marion.

For over 30 years Iowa Public Television has broadcast this and dozens of other top quality wrestling meets. Thanks to IPTV we’ve had the chance to see future Olympic and World Champions like Kenny Monday, Kendall Cross, John Smith, Tom and Terry Brands, Randy Lewis, Ed and Lou Banach, Cael Sanderson and Kevin Jackson as collegians. IPTV has used this broadcast as a fund raising event for the past several years. In these days of statewide budget cuts they’ll need your support more than ever. A feature of the telecast has been when Dan Gable gets out his checkbook and writes his check “on air” (by the way – according to IPTV’s public records – he writes a big one).

If you’re one of the 30,000 or 40,000 people watching the telecast – please call and make your pledge. If you’re going to be in Hilton Coliseum for the live action, stop now and send your check to

Friends of IPTV
PO Box 6400
Johnston, IA 50131

Make that number 1 on your agenda.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Russians were here, the Russians were here

If you wanted to learn how to hold a wrestling event, you should have been at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA last night. The USA vs. Russia dual meet had everything a gala should have – pageantry, history, star power, mystery, excitement and a “standing room only” house.

Here are some random observations.

The kids

It was heartening to see so many youngsters at the meet. There must have been at least 40 kids from the North Cedar Wrestling Club seated near me – and what a great job their coach did! He took them on a tour of the facility including taking them to Cornell’s outstanding wrestling room.

As is always the case, dozens of kids had to get Dan Gable’s autograph. However, it was especially encouraging to see some of them – especially the younger ones – getting the autographs of the Russian athletes and coaches. There’s one young man from Linn-Mar who better hang on to that shirt.

The history

Cornell College is one of the most unique places in American wrestling history. It’s the smallest school (620 students at the time) and the only private school ever to win the NCAA Division I championship. It was my good fortune to get to meet, and sit next to, Bob Majors. Bob wrestled at Cornell in the ‘50s and was a team mate of Cornell greats like Warren DePrenger and Lloyd Corwin (who defeated 1960 Olympic champion, Doug Blubaugh in the 1955 NCAA semi-finals). It was a treat for me to listen to Bob talk about wrestling.

Master of ceremonies, Scott Casber, did an excellent job of emphasizing the historical aspects of the evening. He introduced former Cornell wrestlers Richard Small and Lynn Stiles and pointed out American wrestling legends Randy Lewis, Tom and Terry Brands and Zeke Jones.

One of my favorite memories from the event will be the looks on the faces of those young Russian wrestlers when Gable walked over and introduced himself and shook their hands. They have the same respect for him that we do.

I left the event with a distinct feeling of the links between the past of wrestling to the present of wrestling to the future of wrestling.

The crowd

I imagine that fans in other parts of the country resent hearing that “Iowa wrestling fans are the best in America”. Well – we only say it because it’s true. Last night was a prime example. It wasn’t just the size of the crowd – it was the respectful and welcoming applause for the Russian team, it was the ovation for Mike Zadick when he was introduced and the roar when Doug Schwab won his match.

Kudos go out to everyone involved in the evening, starting with the Cornell staff. Athletic director, John Cochrane, and wrestling coach, Mike Duroe, worked diligently to make the night a success. The only potential hiccup on the evening was when the sound system failed for the playing of the Russian national anthem. Assistant AD, Dick Simmons, who seems to be Cornell’s go-to problem solver, fixed it and the rest of the event went off without a hitch.

Tom Lepic and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club also deserve recognition. In case after case we’ve seen how hard it can be to raise money to support wrestling. Tom and the club recruited sponsors for the $2,000 prizes that were awarded to the winners of each match.

We also need to thank USA Wrestling for their support and encouragement.

I’ve already mentioned Scott Casber, but I can’t emphasize enough the role he played in making the event enjoyable.

When it was all over I walked to my car with only one question – “If these folks can create an event like this, why aren’t the Olympic Trials in eastern Iowa?”

(to be continued)

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming

When I was growing up in Davenport, Iowa I watched a lot of professional baseball. My dad would gather up my brother and I and take us to Municipal Stadium to watch (first) the Quad City Braves. If the weather was nice we would walk the mile and a half to the stadium. Sometimes we would stop at a stand on the way and buy a big paper shopping bag of popcorn and take it with us.

In 1962 the Quad City team became affiliated with the Los Angeles Angels – then a one-year-old expansion team. It was cheap entertainment and my dad was a fan so we went to at least one game every home stand. Two things happened in 1963 that permanently cemented my love for baseball. First, the QC Angels held a clinic for kids aged 10 – 16. I got to be down on the field and taught by REAL PROFESSIONAL baseball players. I got batting instruction from the Angels’ manager, Chuck Tanner (yep – that Chuck Tanner, manager of the 1979 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates). I was thrilled.

A few weeks later the “big club” came to town to play an exhibition game. It was a major event. The stadium was sold out. Since I wouldn’t attend my first major league game until the next year – it was the biggest crowd I’d ever seen. Bobby Knoop, Jim Fregosi and Leon Wagner were among the LA Angels that played in that game. Wagner hit a home run that took one bounce after leaving the yard and landed in the Mississippi (think McCovey Cove). To make the event even more spectacular – Gene Autry was there. He sat right behind the third base dugout, his “ten gallon” white cowboy hat visible from anywhere in the stadium.

I still rank that night as one of my favorite all-time sports experiences.

If you’re within driving distance of Mount Vernon, Iowa you have the opportunity to give your young wrestler/wrestling fan a similar experience Wednesday night (November 18th). A team of Russian wrestlers will battle a team with ties to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club in a freestyle dual meet at the Small Multi-Sports Center on the Cornell College Campus. The doors open at 5:30 and wrestling begins at 7:00.

When I first started following wrestling the legendary Soviet heavyweight, Alexander Medved, was the only foreign wrestler whose name I knew and the only time I saw him wrestle was on television in the 1972 Olympics. It wasn’t until I started to study the sport that I learned that he won 3 Olympic gold medals and 7 world titles. Since then I have come to appreciate Russian wrestlers as among the most dominant – if not THE most dominant – in the sport. The advent of youtube has allowed me to watch many matches featuring greats like Sergei Beloglazov and Buvaisar Saitiev.

This could be a once-in-a-lifetime event for you and your kids. Make the most of it. I’m no expert on Russian wrestling, but this is a good team. Yesterday (Sunday, November 15th) they defeated an American team in Chicago that featured Danny Felix, Coleman Scott, Trent & Travis Paulson, Carl Fronhofer, Andy Hrovat and Tervel Dlagnev. (See Craig Sesker’s full write up.). Wednesday the Russians will face a team that includes former Hawkeye NCAA champions Doug Schwab and Steve Mocco and Hawkeye assistant coach and World silver medallist, Mike Zadick. Tell your kids stories as you drive about your favorite Schwab or Zadick match or about Gable in the ’72 Olympics.

Go early so you can revel in the amazing history of Cornell College wrestling. Point to the 1947 NCAA championship trophy and tell the kids that this is the greatest David vs. Goliath story in collegiate wrestling history. Be sure that they see all of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame plaques. Pass on a sense of awe about the accomplishments of Paul Scott and Lowell Lange.

Gene Autry won’t be there, but I’ve been told that Dan Gable will. Get the kids an autograph. I’ve also been told that Scott Casber from Takedown Radio will don a tuxedo and be your announcer.

Tickets are $10 for adults and just $5 for kids. You can buy them today (Monday) from 10:00AM to 2:00PM at the Mount Vernon Bank and Trust, Lepic-Kroeger Realtors (2346 Mormon Trek Blvd, Iowa City) or at the Overhead Door Company (6515 4th St SW, Cedar Rapids). Tickets will also be available at the door Wednesday night.

You have an opportunity to enhance a kid’s love for the sport. Why not do it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A heavyweight's fight

In 1974 the University of Iowa battled the University of Northern Iowa in a dual wrestling meet at the West Gymnasium on the UNI campus. Mark Onstott, a member of the UNI Athletic Hall of Fame as a swimmer, was there. “My favorite, non-swimming, athletic memory from UNI was the 1974 Iowa versus UNI wrestling meet. All of the swimmers came right out of practice, sat on the front row and cheered the guys on…It came down to the heavyweight match. Randy Omvig beat the Iowa guy for the win.”

In 1975, Randy Omvig would win the NCAA Division II heavyweight championship and help the Panthers win the team title. On December 22, 2005 Randy Omvig and his wife, Ellen, experienced the ultimate parental tragedy. Their son, SPC Joshua Omvig, committed suicide after completing an eleven-month deployment in Iraq.

A few months later the Omvigs began the toughest battle of their lives – to prevent this from happening to anyone else. They began to study post-traumatic stress disorder and investigate the mental health care available to returning veterans. They created a website to share their story and got feedback from other troubled veterans and parents. They wrote letters, made phone calls and fought for better diagnosis and treatment options. Ultimately, the Omvigs approached US Representative Leonard Boswell, himself a Viet Nam veteran.

In July, 2006, Rep. Boswell introduced HR5771, “The Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act”. In May of 2007 The VA Inspector General reported that every year an estimated 1,000 veterans in VHA care commit suicide and that there are as many as 5,000 annual suicides among all living veterans. On November 5, 2007 President Bush signed the bill into law. After the signing, Rep. Boswell said this about the Omvigs, “While suffering this personal tragedy, they went on to help other veterans and their families and have advocated for improving all mental health services at the VA.” At the ceremony US Senator Tom Harkin said, “Make no mistake, this bill would not have passed without the personal engagement of Ellen and Randy Omvig.”

My dad, a Korean war veteran, taught me that when we send young men and women off to war we owe them. We owe them our prayers for their safe return home. We owe them our thanks for their service. And for those who are physically and psychologically damaged – we owe them nothing but the best care. We also owe Randy and Ellen Omvig our thanks for taking up the fight to save our sons and daughters, our husbands and wives and the kids we watched grow up.

This week we honor our veterans. Remember – we owe them.

For more on the Omvigs, visit the following sites.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Gable, Irving and Baldwin say, "California Needs Wrestling".

A Press release from the National Wrestling Coaches Association

“SANTA MONICA (Oct. 30, 2009) – Author John Irving and actor Billy Baldwin will join Olympic wrestling legend Dan Gable at a luncheon on Monday, Nov. 2, in support of the California Needs Wrestling initiative.

The three will speak to the need for supporters of the sport to mount an effort to sustain college wrestling programs in California, where the state budget crisis has left many collegiate programs in dire need of funding.

Irving, a University of Pittsburgh wrestler, and Baldwin, a Binghamton University Wrestler, who was instrumental in bringing wrestling back at Binghamton University after the sport was dropped, will speak to the role of the sport in helping to shape their lives.

Irving, whose novels include The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules, was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992. He is currently touring to promote his new book, Last Night in Twisted River.

Baldwin joined the crusade to restore wrestling at his alma mater after the university announced it was dropping the sport in 2003. With the help of Friends of Binghamton Wrestling and New York’s then-Gov. George Pataki, the program was restored the following year. Last March, Baldwin was on hand to applaud Binghamton’s first Division I All-American, Josh Patterson.

Gable has devoted his life to the sport as an athlete, coach and advocate. A 1972 Olympic freestyle wrestling champion, he went on to coach the University of Iowa to an unprecedented 15 NCAA team championships and is now Iowa’s assistant athletic director.

“Wrestling in California needs our help,” said Gable. “There are approximately 27,000 high school wrestlers in the state of California and only eight four-year college wrestling programs to support the exploding interest at the high school level. These programs are fighting to survive as California has already lost 85 college programs.”

The luncheon is being held to:

· Provide head college wrestling coaches in California with an opportunity to cultivate some of their most important alumni/donors and or key decision-making university administrators. This is particularly important in light of the current state budget crisis in the state of California.

· Help college administrators recognize the educational value of wrestling through the testimonials of highly successful wrestling aficionados.

· Promote the “NWCA All Star Classic, Presented by the Wrestling Alumni of the College of William and Mary,” scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 22, at 2 p.m. at Cal State Fullerton. The event is a fundraiser for the Cal State Fullerton wrestling program.

The wrestling alumni from William and Mary have established the non-profit Society for the Preservation of Traditional Sport (SPOTS). Its mission is to help save wrestling and other traditional Olympic sport programs before such programs are cut.”

Also – from an article by Alden Mudge on about John Irving’s new book Last Night in Twisted River:

“John Irving did not actually attend his induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, some 15 years ago. But now he wishes he had. ‘I regret it.’… ‘There have always been these two parts of my life and they don’t overlap very easily. My wrestling friends are not very easily mixed with my writing friends. But it’s an honor that meant a great deal to me because the sport was such a huge part of my life,’ says Irving, who competed in wrestling in high school and college.”

Best wishes for a highly successful luncheon.