Dan Gable in letter jacket, congratulating Cael Sanderson in robe, at Hilton Coliseum in 2002Before stepping onto the mat, these legendary college wrestling champs -- and thousands of mat stars of the past -- wore robes over their wrestling uniforms.
Nowadays, most college wrestlers wear warmups or sweat suits before and after matches. That has not always been the case. In the early 1900s, wrestlers at a number of schools wore sweaters while on the sidelines. As for robes ... that tradition of wrapping wrestlers in robes goes back decades at a number of colleges and high schools in the past, roughly from the 1930s into the 1960s and early 70s when they were largely replaced by warmups.
The idea of resurrecting robes may be gaining some traction, as at least one major college wrestling program is openly discussing the idea.
In the past, Iowa State wrestlers came out into the arena decked out in robes of cardinal and gold -- the school colors. At the 2013 NCAAs, Kyven Gadson -- 2015 NCAA Division I champ at 197 pounds -- wore the robe of his late father Willie Gadson, an NCAA All-American for the Cyclones in the 1970s. In the past couple weeks, there's been discussion at Iowa State about bringing back the classic look of robes, with some Cyclone wrestlers -- and head coach Kevin Jackson -- weighing in with their opinions. That discussion appears to have carried over at other wrestling websites and online forums.
Could Iowa State resurrect the robe?
A couple weeks ago, the Iowa State Daily student newspaper had a feature story titled "ISU wrestling considering bringing back wrestling robes." The article opened with the story of Kyven Gadson talking about his father's Cyclone wrestling robe. Willie, a two-time All-American for Iowa State in 1975 and 1976 after transferring from Nassau Community College in New York, went on to coach his son to two undefeated seasons at Waterloo East High School in Waterloo, Iowa.
Kyven Gadson wearing a robe (Photo/Iowa State Daily)Three years ago, Willie Gadson was battling Stage IV bone and lung cancer. As he was about to be transported to the hospital having been given hospice care at home, Kyven asked his dad if he might want to put on that prized robe one last time.
"I was like, 'Dad, do you want to put on the robe?'" Kyven Gadson told Iowa State Daily. "Because [ISU wrestling] was something he was really prideful about. We put him in his robe, and that was the last thing he had on before they changed him."
After battling cancer for more than a year, Willie Gadson passed away in early March 2013. Less than two weeks later, Kyven wore his dad's robe at the 2013 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in Des Moines.
"It was a very emotionally charged moment for Kyven," the Iowa State Daily's Ben Visser wrote. "Growing up, Willie wouldn't let Kyven wear his robe. After Willie's passing, Kyven's mom, Augusta, gifted the robe to Kyven with a few adjustments.
"'Willie' was embroidered on the right sleeve, and 'Kyven' was embroidered on the left sleeve. "Gadson Legacy" is embroidered right under the big block "Iowa State" lettering on the back of the robe."
Once Kyven wore his dad Willie's robe, that got Iowa State's coach Jackson thinking about having his Cyclones wear robes ... following in the footsteps of one of his predecessors, Harold Nichols. Nichols, who guided Iowa State to six NCAA team titles during his tenure from 1954-1985, came up with the idea of enrobing his wrestlers in terrycloth robes. (It certainly helped that the entrepreneurial Nichols owned a fabric business in Ames that made the team's robes.)
That said, Iowa State wrestlers weren't the first to wear robes instead of warmups before and after matches.
From Cowboys to Crims, wearing robes
Oklahoma State head wrestling coach Ed Gallagher takes off the robe of Lloyd Ricks, 1937 NCAA heavyweight champ (Photo/1936 Redskin yearbook)It would be nearly impossible to declare that a particular wrestling team was the first to wear robes in a specific year. Thumbing through my own archives of college wrestling images going back nearly a century, about the oldest photo I have of a wrestler in a robe is from the 1936 Redskin yearbook at Oklahoma State. The image shows Cowboy wrestling coach Ed Gallagher pulling a knee-length robe off the shoulders of Lloyd Ricks, 1937 NCAA heavyweight champ. Ricks is wearing the Oklahoma State uniform of that era: wool trunks, with no shirt. (This was decades before today's one-piece singlets were OK'd as a uniform by the NCAA.) Interestingly, this is the only image I can find of an Oklahoma State wrestler in a robe from my collection of wrestling images from the Redskin from roughly World War I through modern times. (By contrast, there are a number of photos of Cowboy wrestlers from the 1920s and '30s dressed as, um, Cowboys -- complete with Stetsons, flannel shirts, and chaps -- as they sometimes wore those clothes on trips back East to reinforce the notion that they were from what was then the American frontier.)
Cornell College of Iowa
It appears Iowa State weren't even the first college wrestling program in the state of Iowa to wear robes. During the 1946-47 season -- the first year college wrestling was "back to normal" after a good number of wrestlers were away from school, serving in World War II -- an unlikely team from a tiny college located about a half-hour from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids upset the top programs of the era, including Lehigh and Illinois. That school was Cornell College of Mount Vernon, Iowa. With a total enrollment of approximately 700 students at the time, Cornell of Iowa was the smallest college to ever win an NCAA team title, in 1947. (This was back before college wrestling programs were organized into NCAA Division I, II and III.)
Photo from Arno Niemand's "Dream Team of 1947" book shows Cornell College wrestlers in robesDuring that Cinderella season -- and in other years as well -- Cornell College wrestlers made an impressive showing before even stepping onto the mat. On the road or at home, the Cornell Purple (that was the team name back then -- now the Rams) wore what The Cornellian student newspaper described as "purple boxing robes." Under the boxing robes, Purple wrestlers wore purple tights with a white stripe on the side of each leg, running from waist to foot, with white shorts that fit snugly over the tights. Normally, the Cornell of Iowa wrestlers competed bare-chested. (Wrestlers at many colleges and high schools in the Midwest and West wrestled stripped to the waist; shirtless wrestling was allowed by NCAA rules until the mid 1960s.)
University of Oklahoma
It appears the Oklahoma Sooners were another program that had robes for its wrestlers when they weren't engaged in mat combat.
One OU wrestler who was photographed more than once all wrapped up in a robe was none other than Dan Hodge. The man whose name now graces the Hodge Trophy presented each year to the best college wrestler was arguably the greatest collegiate mat star of the 1950s. Dan Allen Hodge was a three-time Big Seven conference champion and three-time NCAA titlewinner at 177 pounds from 1955-57. (In Hodge's day, freshmen were not able to compete for conference and national titles.) Hodge had earned the nicknames of "Dangerous Dan" and "Homicide Hodge" -- and for good reasons. As a Sooner, Hodge compiled a perfect 46-0 record. Of those wins, 36 were by fall, for a pinning percentage of 78%, one of the all-time highest in NCAA history. He is also one of only two three-time NCAA champs to have won all three title matches by pin (the other being Oklahoma State heavyweight Earl McCready, 1928-30). Hodge defeated the studs of the era who had won (or would win) conference and national titles, including Oklahoma State's Ned Blass and Jim Gregson, and Iowa's Gary Kurdelmeier.
Oklahoma Sooner wrestler Dan Hodge holding infant son Dan Jr.When he wasn't on the mat making short work of his opponents, Hodge was often wearing an Oklahoma Sooner robe. There's a photo of the Perry, Oklahoma native on the sidelines with Sooner head coach Port Robertson (in a business suit) along with teammate and 1956 NCAA heavyweight champ Gordon Roesler (ready to wrestle in white trunks, no shirt). And there's the classic image of Hodge the nurturing daddy in his mid-20s, sitting on the bleachers, enwrapped in a robe, with his infant son on his lap.
The athletic programs at Yuma High School in Yuma, Arizona all wear the unusual name of the Criminals (reportedly because the community is home to a major state prison). In the early 1960s, Yuma wrestlers wore silky, boxing-style robes while on the sidelines. Arguably the most famous of those robe-wearing wrestlers at Yuma High was Curley Culp.
Three years ago, Culp was welcomed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, having completed a stellar NFL career as a defensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions. However, prior to being drafted into the NFL, Culp was a genuine two-sport athlete, excelling at both football and wrestling, first at Yuma High, then at Arizona State.
As a wrestler at Yuma High, Culp was a two-time Arizona high school state champion at heavyweight in 1963 and 1964. After graduating from Yuma, Culp enrolled at Arizona State, where, as a Sun Devil wrestler, Culp won three WAC (Western Athletic Conference) titles and was a two-time NCAA qualifier, winning the heavyweight title at the 1967 NCAAs by pinning his finals rival in just 51 seconds. (In case you were wondering, Culp and his ASU teammates wore warmup suits, not robes.)
1963 Yuma High school wrestling teamYuma wrestlers of the early 1960s weren't the only robe-wearing wrestlers at the high school level. This writer has found more recent examples of prep programs such as Detroit Central Catholic wrestlers entering the gym in robes in a 2011 video ... and, in 2015, when Rutgers mat alum Scott Winston became coach at Camden Catholic High in his native New Jersey, he waxed nostalgic about the program he was about to join: "When I was a young wrestler, I always looked up to the kids at Camden Catholic. They had the robes, the tradition and pretty much ran New Jersey wrestling when I was a kid. I want to return them to that level."
Gable, Cael = robe-wearing Cyclones
As mentioned earlier in this article, Iowa State had a long history of having their wrestlers wear robes during the 30+ years that Harold Nichols was head coach. That era included some all-time great Cyclone mat champs, including Les Anderson, Ron Gray, Larry Hayes, Tom Peckham, Veryl Long, Jason Smith, Ben Peterson, and Chris Taylor, to name a few. Arguably the greatest of the Nichols era was Dan Gable.
While at Iowa State, Dan Mack Gable put up some impressive stats. In three years wrestling varsity for the Cyclones (he was among the last collegians not allowed to wrestle varsity as a freshman), Gable racked up 118 wins, 83 of those by fall, for an impressive pinning percentage of 70.3%. He also claimed three Big 8 conference titles (1968-1970) and back-to-back NCAA championships -- the 130-pound title at the 1968 NCAAs, and, the following year, the 137-pound crown at Nationals. When he wasn't on the mat, Gable was on the sidelines, wrapped in a cardinal and gold robe.
Fast forward three decades, to a guy from Heber City, Utah that rewrote the book on college wrestling, achieving a level of perfection rarely seen. Cael Norman Sanderson came to Ames to wrestle for head coach Bobby Douglas, and proceeded to rack up win after win. In four years as a Cyclone (1999-2002), Sanderson tallied a flawless 159-0 record, four conference titles, and four NCAA individual championships, becoming only the second wrestler in NCAA history to win a quartet of National titles.
As part of Cael's quest for perfection and a fourth title, Sanderson was often seen wearing an old-school wrestling robe that would have made him look right at home back in the Harold Nichols era.
Any chance that Iowa State wrestlers will go back to wearing robes like previous generations of Cyclone matmen?
If ISU head coach Kevin Jackson had his way, the answer would be yes.
Jackson told the Iowa State Daily that he wants to keep the robe as classic as possible -- a cardinal-color, terrycloth robe with cardinal trim. The only gold on the robe would be the belt and the lettering.
"We need the cardinal color," Jackson told the student paper. "The cardinal color is hard to produce."
The Iowa State Daily featured design ideas and artist sketches for robe proposals from coach Jackson, as well as wrestlers Kyven Gadson, and Earl Hall. There was significant variation among the three designs in terms of color and material, with Hall preferring a silk robe. All three did agree on one element: the robe must have a hood.
"I definitely want to bring [the robes] back with a little different twist," Jackson said. "Maybe put a hood on them and make it a current robe that's going to be good for our fans to see. Bring back some old memories. I'd absolutely love to bring back the robes."
So what's stopping Iowa State from a throwback look? As of now, they can't find a company to produce the robes.
"If you're aware of any company out there that can produce a cardinal robe with a hood, let me know and we'll invest some money in your company," Jackson said.
If that happens, it could launch a whole new trend for college and high school wrestling programs that brings together nostalgic respect for the past ... and a bit of contemporary swagger, too.
Want to know more about what wrestlers once wore? Check out these InterMat articles on old-school wrestling gear ... and how that gear affected wrestler strategy.