Editor’s Note: With the completion of the Southern Scuffle and Midlands, college wrestling has hit the halfway point of this season. Legendary coach Dan Gable recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about what teams are making the biggest moves with two months to go before the 2013 NCAAs.
WIN: Many of the coaches whose teams competed at the Southern Scuffle or Midlands commented they liked such tough events because they got a chance to see where their wrestlers stood against other tough wrestlers. So what do we know about the top programs at the mid-season point of 2012-13?
GABLE: Based on what I’ve seen, Penn State backed up what people already think. There are quite a few good teams right now, but Penn State showed firepower beyond ten guys. (The Nittany Lions) went to backups and they came through. And based on the strength of David Taylor, even though he lost to Kyle Dake, Ed Ruth and Quentin Wright, I don’t think any other team has those types of guys on their team right now. They may have guys who are capable of becoming that but they have to show it first.
Those three guys carry a lot of weight and are influencing their team. I probably have switched my mind since from the beginning of the season when I was leaning more towards Minnesota and some teams like Iowa, Ohio State and Oklahoma State have to prove themselves yet. Even though Penn State is the defending NCAA champion, it looked to me that Minnesota might be stepping up to the plate, but based on what we’ve seen, (the Gophers) are not quite there.
Consistency is what I am looking for and the only team so far that has been consistent is Penn State. No other team has three guys like Taylor, Ruth and Wright who have consistently stepped up. But January will be a big month so time will tell.
WIN: Regarding Penn State, considering coach Cael Sanderson sat two of his talented wrestlers — Andrew and Dylan Alton — from competing in the Southern Scuffle for breaking team rules, what kind of message is a coach is delivering to his team? Was it a message intended for the entire team and not just those two guys?
GABLE: I do think what has happened at Penn State — regarding the football problems — has changed the landscape at Penn State. Sanderson had to pull those two guys but what the effect was that it proved just how strong the Penn State program really is when back-ups are also scoring points.
WIN: Iowa coach Tom Brands was not happy with his team or his coaching even after his team defeated Ohio State, Jan. 5. He was upset his wrestlers were not competing at their highest level. Do coaches need those moments to remind their teams what should be important this time of year heading towards the NCAAs?
GABLE: I don’t think (Ohio State coach) Tom Ryan was happy either. That’s why I said I think Penn State is the only program where the coaches have their kids competing like they want them to. Brands wants his kids to compete. In watching the Iowa-Ohio State dual, there was talent on both sides, but the kids were not utilizing their talents very well.
There was too much strategic-type wrestling and not enough combat-type wrestling. When (Iowa’s Mike Evans) took (Ohio State’s Nick Heflin) to his back in overtime (of the 165-pound match), that’s what fans and coaches are looking for. When wrestlers are hesitant or just trying to win, there are not too many good situations. And when that match ended the way it did, it got the crowd even more involved in the dual with their noise.
Whatever coach of these top teams, other than Penn State, can bring out that fight from their kids are the ones who are going to be able to put themselves in position to challenge Penn State down the stretch.
This is a tough sport because of the mind. Coaches have to read the faces of their guys during tough matches. How much emotion do they show? How much hustle do they show? Just going one pace during a match is not going to do it.
WIN: Are you saying it comes down to what wrestlers believe in themselves more?
GABLE: Oh yeah. But it just does not come to them by themselves. It comes from their surroundings, from other athletes and coaches, everything. Coaches know there is more to be gotten from wrestlers. One reason for our success was because of the number of athletes I got to be strong during a match and make their own breaks. That’s what Penn State is doing now.
WIN: Ohio State did not have its top-ranked 133-pounder Logan Stieber available to wrestle against Iowa. When a team does not have its “stud” wrestler, how much momentum and energy does that take away from the entire team?
GABLE: Wrestling is an individual sport, but for some reason, some guys’ confidence depends on what or who is around them. Not having Stieber definitely affected the rest of the Ohio State line-up. But there were some Buckeyes, like the heavyweight (Peter Capone, who upset Iowa’s Bobby Telford), who showed it had no affect.
WIN: Some of the returning All-Americans this season appear to be wrestling with a little less confidence. Why is that?
GABLE: I think a guy like Matt McDonough is the guy who should be coached even more this year because he is a fifth-year guy who has been dealing with the “same old-same old.” I remember I messed up with John Bowlsby. (Bowlsby, 1975-’79, finished third nationally as a freshman, and fifth as a sophomore and junior but did not place as a fifth-year senior.) By the time he was a fifth-year senior, his drive was not as much as what it was during his first year. And the same thing happened with Mark Reiland, who was a fifth-year guy, who won a championship as a junior (in 1991) and did not place as a senior (1992). I didn’t step in early enough. Sometimes we take too much for granted.
I think it’s important for returning All-Americans to look for even higher goals like why not become an Olympic champion? There are always ways to help these guys.
WIN: At 165 pounds, the pressure of the moment doesn’t appear to bother Cornell’s Kyle Dake at all. Does it have something to do with the fact that he has wrestled at four different weight classes and many things are new this year?
GABLE: For what he has done, including spending the past summer training with the Olympic freestyle team, I think he is a pretty confident kid and he feels like he can win the tough situations.
WIN: On a flip side, (2012 Hodge Trophy winner) David Taylor of Penn State has lost twice to Dake this year. How should the Penn State coaches handle him?
GABLE: I would work on his positives. Remind him he actually beat someone like Oklahoma State’s Tyler Caldwell worse than what Dake did earlier this year. There are plenty of things the coaches can do to take away the void of losses. Coaches have to keep building him up to take the next step.
WIN: So where do teams go from here, especially during the dual meet time of the season? Is it even more critical for teams to make changes now considering Penn State appears to be wrestling so well?
GABLE: Yes. Penn State is in the driver’s seat right now. If it were two weeks from now, we’d know pretty much who is going to win (the NCAA championship).
Every team is pretty much in the same boat now and I don’t think any team will hold an edge from the standpoint of what their schedule is. By the time March comes, there could be another contender and that will be whatever of those teams get their athletes to step up and be more dominant and learn how to win close, tough matches.
The season is not over by any means. While most wrestling analysts would say it’s clearly Penn State, I don’t think that’s the case. There are some other good teams out there but they don’t know it yet.