The biggest upset in a century of collegiate wrestling is simply known as Gable-OwingsThe biggest upset in a century of collegiate wrestling is simply known as Gable-Owings ... shorthand for the 142-pound title match between Iowa State's Dan Gable, and Larry Owings of the University of Washington, at the 1970 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at Northwestern University on Saturday, March 28, 1970.
Forty years later, this single match remains one of the most talked-about within the U.S. amateur wrestling community. It was named the "Best Match" by wrestling historians and fans in online balloting for the 75th anniversary of NCAA wrestling in 2005. Fans who weren't among the 8,800 at McGaw Hall that blustery Saturday -- or who watched it on a tape-delay basis on ABC-TV's Wide World of Sports a couple weeks later -- can still view the match online right now.
Meet the finalists
Dan Gable's wrestling credentials are widely known. Born in Waterloo, Iowa on October 25, 1948, he had taken up the sport at his hometown YMCA where he was also a swimmer and enjoyed playing baseball. As a child, his sports hero wasn't Dan Hodge, but New York Yankee superstar Mickey Mantle.
Dan GableGable's mat career really took off at Waterloo West High -- within sight of his family's home -- where he competed for legendary coach Bob Siddens. As a Wahawk, Gable was 64-0, with three Iowa high school state titles (95 pounds in 1964, 103 in 1965, and 112 in 1966). (Freshmen were not eligible to wrestle varsity at the time.)
Dan Gable brought that perfect record to Iowa State, where he was coached by Dr. Harold Nichols of the Iowa wrestling hotbed of Cresco. Gable's pursuit of perfection continued through college, bringing home NCAA titles in 1968 and 1969, three Big 8 conference titles (1968-1970), and, up to the 1970 NCAA finals, a perfect 118-0 collegiate record. Perhaps just as impressive, he had pinned 83 his 118 opponents in college, winning an incredible 70.3% of his matches by fall.
Hundreds of miles to the west of Waterloo, Larry Owings was making a name for himself on the mats of the Pacific Northwest. Born in Oregon City on June 12, 1950 and raised on a farm, Owings was introduced to the sport by brothers who wrestled. He got off to a not-so-great start; nicknamed Porky, Owings lost all eight of his matches in his first year in junior varsity competition at Canby High, wrestling for coach Larry Wright. However, Owings turned things around, becoming a two-time Oregon high school state champ, winning the 136-pound crown as a junior in 1967, and the 138 title in 1968 (pinning all his opponents at state). His senior year, he earned a spot on Wrestling USA magazine's 1967-68 High School All-American team.
Larry OwingsAs Sports Illustrated reported in its coverage of the 1970 NCAAs, "Owings was far more accomplished than most people realized. He had won more than 200 matches in high school."
Just after graduating from high school, Larry Owings traveled to Ames, Iowa to compete in the 1968 U.S. Olympic Trials. While there, he faced off against Iowa State sophomore Dan Gable, and lost to the recently-crowned 130-pound NCAA champ, 13-5.
Larry Owings' high school mat accomplishments attracted the attention of a number of college wrestling programs, including Oklahoma State, and, according to Nolan Zavoral's A Season on the Mat, his 1997 book on Dan Gable and the Hawkeyes, even Iowa State. However, Owings' love of the Pacific Northwest -- and desire to go to a school with a good architecture program, his intended major -- Owings chose the University of Washington, where he was coached by Jim Smith.
The pre-match hype
In 1970, there was no InterMat -- or any other Internet-based amateur wrestling Web sites. No online wrestling forums for fans to post their opinions and make their predictions. Yet, there was still plenty of discussion -- and distraction -- before the fateful finals.
1970 NCAA Wrestling GuideSports Illustrated set the scene in its April 6, 1970 issue covering the NCAAs. In an article titled "A Good Littler Man Wins Big" veteran sportswriter Herman Weiskopf reported:
The buildup for this match began on Wednesday when Owings registered to compete at 142 pounds. People snickered. Gable, on the other hand, came to the championships at Northwestern with the biggest advance billing any college wrestler has ever had. He was going to be the first to be undefeated in both high school and college. His celebrity was such that he had been constantly accepting awards, giving speeches, posing for pictures, signing autographs and enduring interviews. And during the past year he had been replying to more than 20 letters a week.
As Weiskopf made clear, a number of wrestlers had deliberately avoided the 142-pound class -- and Gable -- by going up to 150 or down to 134. Owings was the exception. He took special pains to set a course for meeting Gable on the mat, cutting his weight from 173 pounds to make this happen. (In 1970, there weren't today's strict weight certification requirements. Wrestlers could easily jump from one weight to another to fill a gap in their team lineup -- or avoid facing a particular foe.)
"I want to face Gable for the championship," Owings is quoted as saying on the first day of the NCAAs, according to Sports Illustrated. "I faced him at the Olympic Trials in '68 and he beat me. I was a high school senior, and he was already a national champ. I made up my mind back then that I wanted to meet him again and beat him."
"I weighed 173 last fall, and during the season I wrestled three times in the 177-pound class and won all three," the Washington Husky told Sports Illustrated. "Then I really cut down. I got to 155 easy. I had to work harder and eat less to get to 148, and then I almost had to stop eating completely to make 142."
"I think 142 is right for me. Last year I made a mistake at the nationals by cutting too much weight. I had decided to avoid Gable (Dan competed at 137 pounds), so I cut down to 130. I won three matches. Then I lost 14-12 because my stamina was low. Right then I decided to go after Gable this year."
Owings apparently harbored some resentment of the Cyclone senior, at least according to the 1980 biography Owings! by Michael Gerald: " ... Larry had a certain repugnance about the situation of a man who had managed to taste all of the sport's laurels and honors without ever having experienced the deep lesson of defeat. And, as he later admitted, 'There's always a measure of revenging a loss.'"
The sophomore from the University of Washington made a splash right from the start of the 1970 NCAAs. Owings told the media that he was on a quest to beat Dan Gable.
The biography Owings! describes a TV interview conducted by ABC TV's Bud Palmer at Saturday's weigh-ins:
"Larry, why, particularly with such a successful sophomore season in the Pacific loop at 158 pounds, would you drop a weight class that will be impossible to win because of Gable's presence?" Palmer asked.
Larry's eyes burned audaciously. He was first silent, then he spoke slowly and concisely.
"I'll beat him," he stated in the most determined tone imaginable.
Did anyone believe the Husky 142-pounder could do it?
"There was probably not 10 people in that crowd of 9,000 or so who would have bet on Owings," Myron Roderick told Bob Sherwin of the Seattle Times in a 1999 article titled "Whatever Happened to ... Larry Owings, the Man Who Beat Gable." Roderick, who in 1970 was the head coach at Oklahoma State -- and, before that, three-time NCAA champ for the Cowboys in the mid-1950s -- continued, "I thought it would be a contest. Larry was tough. He wasn't scared and had nothing to lose. Dan had a lot of pressure on him. It's hard to win a third NCAA title. Larry took the match to him."
Many people believed Dan Gable was unbeatable going into the 1970 NCAA finals match (Photo/AP)"There was probably one, two or three people who thought I had a chance," Owings said in his 2007 interview with Mike Finn for WIN (Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine). "One was myself. One was my brother, John, who lived in California. And I think Dan Gable may have thought that, too. I heard stories later that for the first time he had scouted me wrestling because he heard how I had cut weight to meet him.
"I think I had him a little bit worried."
In the ESPN.com article "Almost Immortal" -- part of a series of stories tied into the New England Patriots' pursuit of a perfect season -- author Eric Neel described the impact Owings' pronouncements had on Dan Gable:
Three days before the final, he read a headline: Owings said he had come to the tournament to beat him. Gable never read headlines. Why now? Two nights before the match, he attended a banquet in which he was honored as wrestling's man of the year. He never went to banquets. He didn't care about awards. Why now? In his early matches in the tournament, he found himself glancing up, eyeballing Owings on another mat. He never looked anywhere but straight through the heart of his opponent. Why now?
Thirty minutes before the final, when he should have been going through his routine, 10-9-8 ... he was taping a television interview, stumbling through takes in which he looked into the camera and tempted the fates: "Hi, I'm Dan Gable. Come watch me finish my career 182-0." Why now?
"When I got to the tournament, I still felt fine -- that I could win and do everything I thought I could do," Gable is quoted as saying in the 1999 Seattle Times article about Owings. "But I was distracted by Larry Owings. It was a name I had not come across too much ahead of time, but I began paying more attention to him. I don't know if he planned it or not, but he got inside my head."
The Seattle Times article continued:
Gable began scouting Owings' matches. He noticed that the UW wrestler was making "all kinds of mistakes but still ended up pinning his opponent." The pins were accomplished by Owings' best move, an inside reverse cradle that left his opponent unable to escape.
In the book Owings!, Larry Owings' college teammate Lyle Ballew -- a Pacific 8 conference champ who had lost in the 150-pound quarterfinals -- described what he saw Friday night after the semifinal matches had been wrestled: "I was in the workout room that night sparring with (teammate) Hajime Shinjo. I think Larry had gone to bed. Gable was working out with (Iowa State wrestler) Dave Martin. Dan went through every conceivable counter to the reverse cradle. That was one of Larry's favorite pinning combinations so I guess they had been scouting him pretty closely."
Collision course to the finals
The 1970 NCAAs were held March 26-28 on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, immediately north of Chicago. The event was held in what was then called McGaw Hall, now named Welsh-Ryan Arena, familiar to wrestling fans as the site of the annual Midlands, the prestigious post-Christmas wrestling classic.
Welsh-Ryan ArenaAll the hype surrounding Gable's swan song had helped to fill all 8,800 seats at McGaw. As Ken Kraft, long-time wrestling coach and athletic director at Northwestern -- and one of the two commentators for the ABC-TV broadcast (along with Frank Gifford) -- pointed out in the ESPN SportsCentury documentary on Dan Gable, up to that time, it was very rare for an NCAA finals to be a sellout event.
The 142-pound bracket at the 1970 NCAAs had 42 wrestlers -- there were ten pigtail bouts ahead of the first-round action, one involving Dan Gable. (Owings did not have a pigtail match.) Back then, only ten competitors were seeded in each weight class, compared to 12 at the 2010 NCAAs. Defending champ Dan Gable was the top seed; Larry Owings was seeded second. While Gable was undefeated that season (and all three years of intercollegiate competition -- back then, freshmen could not wrestle varsity), Owings came into the NCAA finals with 33 wins and just one loss -- to Oklahoma's Mike Grant, who was competing at 150 in Evanston.
Gable pinned his way through his side of the bracket. In his pigtail match, the champ pinned Central Michigan's Larry Hulbert at 3:11. In the first round, he scored a fall vs. unseeded Steve Welter of Indiana State, 5:28; in the second round, the Cyclone senior put unseeded Minnesota matman Gary Pelci's shoulders to the mat at 4:29. In the quarterfinals, Gable got his fastest fall of the tournament, pinning No. 8 seed Bill Beakley of Oklahoma at 2:27 ... then, in the semifinals, got the fall at 6:33 over No. 4 seed Wayne Bright of Old Dominion.
On the other side of the bracket, Larry Owings was dominating in similar style. In the first round, the Washington sophomore pinned unseeded Russell Reid of Virginia Tech, 5:12 ... followed in the second round with a fall at 1:30 vs. Michigan's unseeded Mark King. In the quarterfinals, Owings showed unseeded Dan Silbaugh of Wyoming the lights at 6:02. No. 3 seed Keith Lowrance of Michigan State was Owings' last fall guy. The 1970 Big Ten champ was pinned in the semifinals at 3:29.
The 142-pound finals bout between Gable and Owings was the fourth of the evening. Greg Johnson of Michigan State had won the 118-pound title; twins Dwayne and Darrell Keller of Oklahoma State claimed the 126 and 134-pound crowns, respectively.
A 21-year-old Dan Gable stepped onto the mat one last time, wearing the Iowa State uniform of that era: a sleeveless jersey, with separate trunks and tights, in school colors of cardinal and gold. Larry Owings, just 19, wore a one-piece blue-black singlet with a script "U of W" monogram on the chest, along with matching tights (which were required 40 years ago). Each wore white headgear and white kneepads. Gable looked to be a bit more muscular than his challenger; the square-shouldered Owings appeared to be a bit taller.
Pascal PerriReferee for the match was Pascal Perri, a long-time mat official. According to his Hall of Fame biography at the Friends of Long Island Wrestling Web site, Perri officiated over thirty NCAA tournaments and more than forty EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association) Championships. In addition, Perri had impressive wrestling credentials. During his last two years at prep powerhouse Mepham High School, Perri was an undefeated wrestler and twice a Long Island champion. Perri went on to become the captain of Syracuse University's wrestling team, and won two EIWA individual titles.
Years after the 1970 NCAAs, Perri was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma as an Outstanding Official and as a Distinguished American for his service to amateur wrestling.
The house lights were dimmed, with only the overhead lights framing the mat in the center of McGaw Hall, adding to the drama. The two rivals shook hands. It was time to wrestle for the 1970 NCAA 142-pound title.
First period: Right from the start, Larry Owings pressed the action in a way that wasn't typical of Dan Gable opponents, who usually took their time feeling out their undefeated rival, and wrestled with caution, fearful of making a mistake that would get them pinned. The Husky's aggressiveness fired up an already excited capacity crowd. More than one report has used the word "deafening" to describe the sound level in the hall; referee Pascal Perri described the noise as "comparable to Niagara Falls during the spring thaw." Various reports indicate that neither wrestler could hear Perri's whistle, and that he had to shout instructions to them, even though they were standing within a couple feet of the official.
Within the first 30 seconds, Gable scored a takedown, making the score 2-0. As the book Owings! describes the next bit of action:
Owings was nearly dropped backwards but defended by initiating a twisting bridgeback. Perri eyed the action closely. Although Larry's shoulders were momentarily in the predicament position, Owings' defense motion was never stopped nor controlled by Dan. By officials' signals, Perri precisely indicated that Gable merited no points from the sequence, just as Larry suddenly completed his escape. (Score: 2-1 Gable)
Loyal followers in the Gable camp may choose to argue the previous judgmental call and they may certainly do so with some credence since Owings was belly-up hardly a shorter time than Dan was later in the match ...
While he reviewed the mach film at a 1978 showing, Dr. Harold Nichols, Gable's coach and the enduring force behind the Cyclones' perennial wrestling preeminence, was understandably silent in reviewing this emotional moment of his coaching career but did choose to comment, "Dan should have had points there."
However, as Owings! points out, neither mat judge questioned Perri's call.
With both men in the neutral position, Owings brought Gable to the mat in the closing seconds of the opening period. With that takedown, the Husky sophomore took the lead, 3-2, at the end of the first.
"When we started, all I was thinking was, 'God, don't get caught in the cradle. Don't get caught in the cradle,'" Gable told Nolan Zavoral for A Season on the Mat. "I didn't really through my proper focus and concentration and warm-up. Within a minute I was dead tired. I had never been that tired before. I wrestled so many matches when I was dead tired, but I never knew it until after the match. Now I knew it right away. Tired and weak."
Second period: Gable won the disc flip, and chose to start the second period on top. Owings managed to score the escape, but Gable pancaked his opponent to the mat. However, Owings then went for a fireman's carry, lifting the Cyclone into the air, then taking him down, to make the score 6-2. Gable made a move towards the edge of the wrestling surface, and was penalized for intentionally fleeing the mat. Suddenly, the score was 7-2 Owings.
As Herman Weiskopf of Sports Illustrated described the remaining action towards the end of the three-minute second period, "In quick succession, Gable got a reversal, Owings an escape and Gable a takedown. The round ended with Owings in command 8-6 ..."
By this point, both gladiators were soaked in sweat, and the crowd was in near hysterics. Dan Gable had battled back to erase part of Larry Owings' lead. Would the Cyclone senior be able to take back the match in the last two minutes?
Third period: The last period started with Gable in the down position. From there, he scored a reversal, knotting the score at 8-8.
Just as suddenly, Gable's scoring momentum was interrupted when one of his contact lens popped out. Perri stopped the action as the senior reinstalled the lens.
With about one minute left in the title bout, Gable applied the bar-arm, one of his signature moves usually leading to a pin ... but Owings did a sit-out escape, retaking the lead, 9-8. However, Gable had riding time in his favor, which, in 1970, would count for two additional points at the end of the match ... so the Cyclone thought he was still in control of the match, and that a third NCAA title would be his.
However, Larry Owings had managed to last this long against Gable, who had rarely wrestled an entire 8-minute match (thanks to the Cyclone's pinning prowess) ... and was not going to throw in the towel at this late stage of the finals. Here's how the Seattle Times concisely described the end-of-match action in its 1999 article:
Only 30 seconds remained in the match; and Gable, despite the fact that he could coast to a one-point win, continued to stand up and circle with Owings.
"I had two minutes more riding time, so I was pretty much in control of the match," Gable said. "(But) I got greedy."
He tried an arm-bar move, coming over Owings' shoulder in an attempt to lock him up and take him down. This was Owings' opportunity, the fateful moment when his never-used leg sweep caught Gable by surprise.
Owings! described it as, "A simple straight-up lift, and Larry dropped Dan awkwardly on his buttocks." (Years later, Gable said it was "kind of like a slow-motion fall.")
Referee Perri later said the takedown was "the greatest single move of Owings' career."
But that wasn't the end of it. Owings overhooked Gable's left arm, continued to lift the right knee, and drove full forward into the Cyclone's chest, tipping him backwards toward his shoulders. With just 22 seconds left, Gable responded by twisting out of the possible pinning situation. Quickly, Perri indicated one point for Gable for an escape, and two nearfall points for Owings.
Adding to the drama, the scorer had not seen the near-fall signal because an ABC-TV cameraman gotten in the way, so Perri stopped the match to notify the scoring table.
Dan Gable is stunned by the scoreboard with 17 seconds leftThe challenger had scored five points in the period to Gable's one, to make the score 13-11 (factoring in two points riding time for Gable) with just 17 seconds left in the match.
The two wrestlers faced each other with Owings near the edge of the mat. What could Gable do? His coaches were urging their wrestler to make a move to take Owings out-of-bounds, but Gable was reluctant, having been penalized for fleeing the mat earlier, and, apparently thinking that the score was closer than it really was, being to take it into overtime.
The contestants went off the mat; Perri whistled a stop to the action. As he walked back to the center of the mat, Gable glanced at the scoreboard and was stunned at what he saw. Three seconds left. Two points behind, even with riding time factored in. To get a tie he needed a takedown.
Match outcomes have changed in that amount of time; just ask Lehigh's Jon Trenge, who was about to win the 197-pound title at the 2003 NCAAs when Minnesota's Damion Hahn scored a takedown in the last three seconds to come from behind to win the match ... and championship.
"At that point, once I saw the score and only three seconds left, I knew he couldn't get two points," Owings said.
Larry Ownings gets his hand raised (Photo/AP)In fact, in those last three ticks, it was the University of Washington sophomore who actually attempted the takedown, not the wrestler who needed one to tie the match.
"I got to the finals by being offensive, and I wanted to stay offensive," Owings is quoted in A Season on the Mat. "Not once did I back up or slow up or stall. I made that shot, and it was probably stupid. If he had known that, he could have spun around behind me."
Gable offered his explanation for what he didn't do at the end of the match to A Season on the Mat author Zavoral:
"I gave up. I was disgusted. It wasn't a good match from the beginning." Gable's voice broke. "I was crushed. I hurt."
Owings had won the match, 13-11 ... the 142-pound crown at the 1970 NCAAs at Northwestern ... and a place in the history books as responsible for one of the all-time biggest upsets in any sport.
The immediate aftermath
Here's how Michael Gerald's book Owings! described the moments immediately after the end of the eight-minute match:
The two exhausted athletes had dropped to their knees, facing each other tightly. Larry extended his hand toward Dan for the sportsmanlike clasp, and, in the perfect role as conqueror, began to rise from the mat first.
The suddenly all-too-human Dan glared through glazed eyes at the bold young wrestler from beyond the Cascades who had dared to challenge the legend. He really didn't understand what had happened, only that he lost. The Loss came at a time when everything in his perfect career had depended on the absolute sure bet of his winning. The lights, the heat, the crowd, the cameras ... it was all too confusing. Gable rose, his head drooped, and the pair again shook hands as Perri raised Larry's other arm in the dramatic sign of the victor.
After the pair had removed their identifying anklets, never having been more needed in such a high-scoring (25-point) finals match, the pair staggered off opposite sides of the mat amid the wild and appreciative applause of every last soul at McGaw Hall. Coach Smith caught his prodigy in a zealous bear hug at the edge of the mat, while Gable stumbled into the sympathetic arms of (Iowa State head coach Harold) Nichols, (assistant coach Les) Anderson, and his fellow teammates, three of whom awaited their respective turns at the finals. The complete coliseum was in a state of disorder and the normally smooth procession of matches became temporarily stalled. The overall atmosphere of the hall gave testimony to what all persons there seemed convinced of: they had just witnessed one of the most dramatic and historic moments in all sport.
The Owings! biography also captured the reaction of two other native Oregonians who also won titles at the 1970 NCAAs. Oklahoma Sooner Mike Grant, ready to wrestle in the next finals match at 150 pounds, later told Bob Dellinger, the late, legendary sportswriter for the Daily Oklahoman: "Larry isn't the type to get psyched out. He'll try harder rather than be more cautious. I think that was a determining factor. I sure wouldn't want to go out there and wrestle him tonight."
Defending heavyweight champ Jess Lewis of Oregon State -- who had won the Oregon high school state title the year Owings was a freshman at Canby, "could only pace and shake his head in disbelief," according to Owings! author Gerald.
The book also quoted Owings' coach Jim Smith's reaction: "They fought toe-to-toe but in the end Larry beat him on his feet. It will go down as the most classic college match ever ... just tremendous, both of them!"
After the 150-pound finals (which Grant won), medals were presented to the top six placers in the 142 weight class who had earned All-American honors. As he was about to be presented with his second-place medal, Dan Gable, whose chin had been on his chest, slowly raised his head, to a standing ovation that lasted at least a full minute (some reports indicate it was two minutes; Ken Kraft is quoted in A Season on the Mat that the ovation went on for five minutes).
Larry Owings: "I didn't talk to him. What could I say?"From the top of the winner's platform, Owings shared his perspective in A Season on the Mat: "I finally won the NCAA. I was on the victory stand. I had time to think about it. The guy next to me had won every match, and it took a hell of an effort to beat him. I sensed the emotion in him. I saw the tears rolling down his cheeks. But instead of being a big baby, he stood up and took it. That's a heck of a mark of a man. I didn't talk to him. What could I say?"
When interviewed by reporters shortly after the match and medal ceremony, Gable said, "I thought I'd win on riding time after I caught up. I don't know what happened in those last 40 seconds. I looked at the clock with three seconds, he was ahead by four and I couldn't believe it."
"I made a lot of mistakes early and I couldn't ride him very well. He's real squirmy. He really tired me out although I had a lot of riding time."
"Even though I could have won it right up to the end, I felt like I was getting beat the whole time."
In his post-match interviews, Larry Owings told the media, "Tonight I tried anything and everything. When it was over, I looked at Dan and he looked like he didn't know what had happened."
When asked at the time if superior conditioning had made a difference in the victory, the Husky champ seemingly dismissed the idea, saying he had trained no harder than normal ... then followed with, "Once during a physical exam, the doctor told me that my lung capacity was much larger than normal. I guess that helped make difference."
Team Standings -- 1970 NCAAs:However, in A Season on the Mat, Nolan Zavoral wrote that Owings wanted to "out-Gable Gable." "It was probably the stupidest strategy in the world, but I'm a big one on conditioning, and mental conditioning," Owings is quoted as saying. Zavoral's book goes on to say:
1. Iowa State, 99 points
2. Michigan State, 84
3. Oregon State, 80
4. Oklahoma State, 79
5. Iowa, 45
6. Oklahoma, 44
1. Iowa State, 99 points
2. Michigan State, 84
3. Oregon State, 80
4. Oklahoma State, 79
5. Iowa, 45
6. Oklahoma, 44
He ran three miles in the morning on the Washington indoor track, averaging a six-minute pace, sprinting the last quarter-mile in under a minute. Owings wrestled two hours a day. He didn't fear a pin, although Gable had four falls in the tournament by the time they met. "I knew I could go the distance with him."
Owings' coach Larry Wright offered another explanation as to why his wrestler defeated the previously unbeaten Cyclone. "I believe the fireman's that Larry threw in the second period completely psyched Gable," Wright is quoted in Owings! "It was just too difficult for him to come back after that."
Individual Champs -- 1970 NCAAs:It's not much of a surprise to learn that Larry Owings was unanimously voted Outstanding Wrestler at the 1970 NCAAs. Dan Gable won the Gorriaran Award -- given for the most pins in the least amount of time -- for the second straight year. However, as Owings pointed out in Mike Finn's 2007 interview for WIN, "I pinned mine a little faster and I liked to think that I did a little bit better than he did," said the former Washington wrestler.
118: Greg Johnson, Michigan State
126: Dwayne Keller, Oklahoma State
134: Darrell Keller, Oklahoma State
142: Larry Owings, Washington
150: Mike Grant, Oklahoma
158: Dave Martin, Iowa State
167: Jason Smith, Iowa State
177: Chuck Jean, Iowa State
190: Geoff Baum, Oklahoma State
Hwt: Jess Lewis, Oregon State
118: Greg Johnson, Michigan State
126: Dwayne Keller, Oklahoma State
134: Darrell Keller, Oklahoma State
142: Larry Owings, Washington
150: Mike Grant, Oklahoma
158: Dave Martin, Iowa State
167: Jason Smith, Iowa State
177: Chuck Jean, Iowa State
190: Geoff Baum, Oklahoma State
Hwt: Jess Lewis, Oregon State
A quick calculation of the match durations listed in the brackets posted at Jay Hammond's WrestlingStats.com website confirms Owings' statement, in terms of average duration of each of his matches. However, Gable indeed scored the most falls in the quickest time, thus earning the Gorriaran.
The days after the finals ...
As Eric Neel wrote in his "Almost Immortal" article for ESPN.com describing the aftermath of the loss for Dan Gable, "The drive back to campus was quiet. He couldn't speak. Had no idea what to say."
Here's how the Associated Press opened its article, released Saturday night, immediately after the conclusion of the 1970 NCAA finals, with just about all the focus on the Gable-Owings bout:
"I made too many mistakes ... I can't remember anything that happened in the last seconds ... I couldn't believe it."
Those were some of the remarks of Dan Gable after his stunning loss to sophomore Larry Owings of Washington in the finals of the NCAA wrestling championship Saturday night.
Gable, 142-pounder from Iowa State, was one bout from one of the great feats in sports history. He hadn't lost a single previous bout in high school or college, piling up a string of 181 victories, 138 by falls.
Despite Gable's defeat, Iowa State had little trouble in winning its second straight NCAA championship by piling up 99 points to 84 for runner-up Michigan State ...
The AP article then had two paragraphs listing the other individual titlewinners before going back to the champ, Larry Owings ...
Owings, however, provided the biggest surprise of the meet and was named the tournament's outstanding wrestler with his 13-11 triumph over Gable.
"When it was over," said Owings, "I looked at Dan and he looked like he didn't know what had happened."
"The takedown in the first round really helped. I thought then I would get him. When I got a two-point predicament (a near-pinning position) in the third round, I knew I had him."
Speaking of newspaper coverage ... the headline that spanned the top of the sports section of the Sunday Des Moines Register -- the state newspaper for Iowa -- said, "Cyclones win title -- Gable fails." In the ESPN SportsCentury documentary on Dan Gable, Iowa State teammate (and 1970 NCAA 158-pound champ) Dave Martin, said, "We lived together off-campus. When we got back home and he saw the headline, he burst into tears."
Another teammate -- Ben Peterson, who won silver and gold medals at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, respectively -- said, "One morning he was having a beer. I remember him saying, 'I can't win when I don't drink, what difference does it make?'"
However, Gable eventually came around. As Neel's ESPN story states, "(Gable) walked into Beyer Hall, the recreation center at Iowa State, went up to the wrestling room and found someone who would get down on the mat with him. No variation. No distractions. 'I was still good,' he says. 'That kind of shocked me. It made me know I could go on.'"
... and years further down the road from the upset
1971 NCAA Wrestling GuideIn the four decades since Larry Owings beat Dan Gable, the two finalists have been the subject of plenty of attention from the mainstream media as well as wrestling websites and publications.
The following year: The 1971 NCAA Wrestling Guide -- an annual publication that provided results and photos from the previous college wrestling season, and a preview of the upcoming season -- featured Larry Owings on the cover. (Gable was the cover boy for the 1970 edition.) Owings' upset victory was mentioned in not one but two separate stories. Here's what famed wrestling writer Bob Dellinger wrote about the 142-pound champ:
There's a new sheriff in college wrestling's boom town.
Larry Owings, University of Washington junior, is the top draw now, but in the tradition of the Old West, he's also the target for every gunslinger within range of this 142-pounder.
Owings earned his star by cutting down Dan Gable of Iowa State in the 1970 NCAA finals, winning a 13-11 duel in perhaps the most dramatic shootout in wrestling history.
Owings will not feel all the glaring heat of Gable's flawless stretch of 100 varsity victories, having been beaten in the NCAA tournament as a freshman, and by two-time champ Mike Grant of Oklahoma during a 34-1 sophomore season.
But "high noon" will come often enough ...
1984: Nearly fifteen years later, in its huge preview issue for the Los Angeles Olympics, Sports Illustrated had a multi-page profile of Dan Gable, U.S. Olympic freestyle coach, and University of Iowa head coach at the time. There was also a sidebar article by Jack McCallum titled, "The Man Who Spilled The Ink." According to that profile of Larry Owings, the 1970 NCAA champ was, in 1984, an industrial arts teacher in Oregon City, Oregon, active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and a father of three. The article from 25 years ago updated readers on what The Man Who Beat Gable had been up to in the 14 years since that March night.
"The pressure was pretty intense on me after the victory over Dan," Owings said. "There was simply no way I would allow myself not to get to the finals the next two years. I had to." He did, but he lost to Oklahoma State's Darrell Keller, 16-12, as a junior -- Gable presented the trophies that year -- and to Michigan State's Tom Milkovich, 8-4, as a senior. Few wrestling fans remember that Owings finished his college career with an 87-4 record and a 52-1 mark in dual meets; they just recall that he was the man who beat Dan Gable and that he never won a national title after that.
After he graduated from Washington in 1972, Owings was sick of wrestling, but he decided to go to the Olympic Trials in Anoka, Minnesota anyway. And though he weighed only about 138 pounds, he elected not to cut down to the next lower weight, 136.5, but to wrestle in the 149.5-pound division, Gable's class.
"I was tired of cutting weight, tired of being top dog, tired of the pressure and tired of wrestling," says Owings. "Besides, it was no secret that Dan wanted me. I wasn't prepared mentally for it, but I went up and wrestled him anyway." Upon being asked if he more or less offered himself up to Gable, Owings says, "Well, it might not be quite that simple, but basically, I guess I did." And Gable took the offering, beating Owings, 7-1, to gain the Olympic berth that helped spread his fame worldwide.
However, according to that 1984 Sports Illustrated profile, in 1983, Larry Owings decided to see about getting back into wrestling. In his early 30s at the time, Owings had started working out, and was getting into competitive shape when he was revisited by persistent shoulder pain, later diagnosed as degenerative arthritis. That ended his comeback hopes.
"What was my goal?" Owings asked McCallum. "Well, a lot of people would laugh, but in the back of my mind I was thinking about the Olympics. I know at my age it sounds ridiculous. And I hadn't been at a national tournament in 11 years. But that's what I was thinking about." Who knows? Maybe he had a shot. After all, the coach knows what he can do.
1997: Meanwhile, half a country away, the loss at the 1970 NCAAs was apparently difficult for Dan Gable to talk about even decades later. A Season on the Mat author Nolan Zavoral -- who knew Gable well, having covered the Hawkeyes as a sportswriter for the Iowa City Press-Citizen before chronicling the team during the 1996-1997 season for his book -- got the Iowa coach to watch a videotape of match. Here's how Zavoral described the scene:
A quarter-century later, Gable still had a tape of the match. He hadn't watched it in years -- too painful. But, at a friend's suggestion, in 1997, he brought it from home to the wrestling office and slipped it into the VCR ...
This time, alone in the wrestling office, Gable watched grimly, pulling up a chair to just a couple feet of the screen. He saw himself score the first points of the match with a takedown. "Should have pinned him right there. But he was double-jointed in the shoulders or something. Always got away." He saw himself try an arm bar, and Owings slither out of it. "Got to get his arm back more." Gable sounded resigned ...
The tape ran out. Gable took it out and switched off the VCR. "Well, that's it," he said. He meant, "That's enough."
However, elsewhere in A Season on the Mat, Dan Gable told author Zavoral in 1997: "Bottom line is that match helped me. I needed to get beat. Because it not just helped me to win the Olympics, but it helped me dominate the Olympics. But more than that, it helped me be a better coach. I would have a hundred times rather not have that happened, but I used it. I used it."
1999: Remember that takedown Owings scored in the last half-minute of the match that resulted in backpoints for the Washington wrestler that broke open the lead? In 1999, Owings told the Seattle Times, "It was a move I had never done before or since."
The Times continued:
Gable was told Owings' comment and said he didn't realize the infamous leg sweep was not a practiced move.
"If he had never tried that before, then that tells me it's desperate. Desperation is something that brings out unusual things," Gable said. "I had never heard that before. That makes it worse now from my point of view. I kind of wish he had gotten me with his best move."
In that article from the Seattle Times from just over a decade ago, Owings said of the man he defeated, "He was a good, solid all-around wrestler who did not make a lot of mistakes. He was in excellent condition. In that way, he and I were similar. Conditioning was a big part of my preparation."
This decade: There's even been some ink spilled in the past couple years about Gable-Owings. In 2007, WIN magazine's Mike Finn interviewed Larry Owings. Asked if he thought he had scored an upset, Owings responded, "No, because I thought I was going to win."
"I don't believe there was anyone in the world who could have beaten me that night. I was in top physical condition and I was in top mental condition, too. I refused to give into any points any time he had me in trouble during the match and I refused to go."
Then, just last fall, Mike Finn again revisited the 1970 NCAAs, this time with Dan Gable. In a November 2009 interview for WIN about a reunion of the Iowa State wrestlers from that 1970 championship season, Gable confirmed a story that had been considered by many to be folklore from the 1970 NCAA finals, claiming that Iowa State teammate Chuck Jean was refusing to wrestle his 177-pound title bout, reportedly because he was disgusted by the audience booing Gable during the match. Here's how Gable described the scene at McGaw Hall that night:
"Chuck was a guy who had to wrestle after I lost my championship match (to Larry Owings) in 1970. I remember that I was sitting in the locker room by myself and I noticed that someone was taking a shower. I finally looked in there and it was Chuck Jean. Right before I looked, he was called up on deck to wrestle his championship match. I yelled to him, saying, "Chuck, you're on." He looked at me and basically had tears in his eyes and said, "Gable, I've never wrestled in a lineup after you lost. I'm not about to now. He was going to forfeit his match.
"I believe my role as a coach started right there. Whatever bad feelings I had about my match, I jumped on him right away and told him, "What you are doing now by not wrestling will hurt me in the long run." He jumped into his uniform and ran out, won the match."
Why we're still talking four decades later
Why the continued fascination with a college wrestling match that took place 40 years ago? One could argue that a No. 2 seed beating a No. 1 seed isn't that huge of an upset, and, in fact, happens just about every year at least once in the NCAA finals. In the case of Gable-Owings, the match itself was close, with the lead going back and forth; it wasn't a lopsided blowout.
A couple aspects come to mind as to why wrestlers, coaches and fans still want to know about a match that occurred when they were young -- or, for many, took place before they were even born.
One ties into the divergent paths the two combatants' lives took after March 28, 1970. Dan Gable went on to win a gold medal in freestyle at the 1972 Munich Olympics in dominating style (without a single offense point scored against him). Then, immediately after that triumph, Gable launched a coaching career at the University of Iowa that spanned a quarter-century -- four years as an assistant to Gary Kurdelmeier, then 21 as head coach -- that made the Hawkeyes THE collegiate wrestling program of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and, with that success, laying a foundation for Iowa winning the last three straight titles at the close of this decade. Gable has become an iconic figure in amateur wrestling -- a spokesman, a goodwill ambassador, subject of documentaries and books, including Nolan Zavoral's 1997 classic A Season on the Mat which chronicles Gable's last season at the helm of the Hawkeyes. His name even adorns the facility known as the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum in his hometown of Waterloo.
By contrast, Larry Owings is not as visible. True, he was the subject of the 1980 biography by Michael Gerald titled Owings! and a number of articles ... but is not the omnipresent wrestling icon Gable has become.
According to the 2007 WIN story, Owings is now a retired schoolteacher living in Aurora, Oregon.
Another aspect that makes Gable-Owings still a point of discussion is the denial of perfection. Larry Owings spoiled Dan Gable's otherwise perfect career that spanned high school and college. To be undefeated in a sport as physically and mentally demanding as wrestling for that many years is a truly mind-boggling achievement.
Cael Sanderson defeated Jon Trenge to finish his college wrestling career undefeatedLet's look at a similar situation from more recent history: fellow Iowa State wrestler Cael Sanderson's quest for an undefeated college career. Think back to the 197-pound finals at the 2002 NCAAs in Albany, New York, where the 158-0 Cyclone faced off against the physically imposing Jon Trenge of Lehigh. Like Gable-Owings, it was a battle of the two top seeds in the bracket. Like Gable, Sanderson was the undefeated senior, seeded No. 1; like Owings, Trenge was the second-seeded sophomore. And, like Owings, Trenge had dominated his way through his side of the bracket, pinning his first three opponents, then getting a 16-6 win in the semifinals. However, in the title bout, it was Sanderson who prevailed, getting a 12-4 win over the goggle-wearing grappler from Lehigh, to win his fourth NCAA title and complete his college career with a blemish-free 159-0 record.
In his ESPN.com article "Almost Immortal," Eric Neel analyzed Gable's situation after losing to Owings in the 1970 NCAA finals, resulting in a 181-1 high school and college record:
The losses, first Diane (Gable's older sister, his only sibling, was murdered at home while the rest of the family was away on a fishing trip, Memorial Day, 1964) and then the match to Owings, made him. He didn't just go on, he got better. That was the hardest part, he says. The focus came at such a high price, with so much hurt underneath.
You ask him: What is perfection? What has it meant to chase it for so long?
He's still in pursuit, he says: "If I could figure out how I could have gone back and saved Diane, and how I could have gone back and not had that loss in that tournament, and still gone on to be the same person I am today, that would be perfect."
One question wrestling fans can't help but ask: Have the two talked in the years since they last met on the mat?
The 1999 Seattle Times article closes with the answer at that time: Not in person, but, they once talked over the phone. In 1980, Owings called Gable to consider a high school wrestler in his district. According to Owings, the subject of the 1970 NCAAs never came up ... and the two had not talked since ...
Until 2006 ... According to Mike Finn's 2007 story for WIN, the two talked in person in the stands of Ford Center in Oklahoma City at the 2006 NCAA Division I Championships.
"I saw Dan Gable sitting in the same section that we were," Owings told Finn. "I went down and said hi to him. It was a little bit later in the tournament that he actually came up with his daughter and introduced her to me. He sat down and talked to me for a while. We just sat down and talked like two old wrestlers. I don't hate Dan Gable. I never have. I think he is a tremendous coach and a tremendous competitor. He's deserved everything that he's earned."
It's highly likely that wrestling fans and the media will still be talking about Gable-Owings 40 years from now.
Video of the Gable-Owings 1970 NCAA finals is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3P8LJEgRGw; videocaptures from the match are on display in a gallery at the Fans of Dan Gable Yahoo group. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/FansOfDanGable