InterMat Reads: A Spartan Journey

Dale Anderson with his book "A Spartan Journey: Michigan State's 1967 Miracle on the Mat"

Quick question: Which Big Ten wrestling program was the first to win an NCAA Division I team title while a member of that conference?

No, it wasn't University of Iowa. Nor was it Penn State. Or Ohio State. Nope, not University of Minnesota, either.

While all these current members of the Big Ten can claim at least one NCAA team championship, the school that did it first was none other than Michigan State, at the 1967 NCAAs at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

Dale Anderson was a member of that history-making Michigan State wrestling team that helped propel the Spartans to that team title nearly a half-century ago after having been a struggling, cellar-dwelling squad just three years earlier. Now he tells that story -- along with what he describes as "a travelogue of my (wrestling) life" that intersects with a number of familiar names in the sport -- in his brand-new book "A Spartan Journey: Michigan State's 1967 Miracle on the Mat."

Meet Dale Anderson

Dale Anderson
Dale Anderson was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa -- birthplace to legendary college wrestling champ and coach, the late Bill Koll -- exactly nine months after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. His family moved around the state, for a time settling on a farm in Humboldt, Iowa, hometown for Frank Gotch, who won the world professional wrestling championship in 1908, and whose fame and superstar status helped fuel amateur wrestling in high schools and colleges throughout the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Anderson's family eventually settled in Waterloo, Iowa, a community known internationally as the home of Dan Gable. Dale Anderson and Dan Gable both wrestled at Waterloo West High School for Bob Siddens, one of the giants in prep wrestling coaching; Anderson was a senior when Gable was a sophomore. ("There was very little intersection with Dan Gable, but a lot with his dad," Anderson told InterMat.)

Dale Anderson won two Iowa high school state titles at Waterloo West ... then headed east to Michigan State, where, wrestling for Grady Peninger and the late Doug Blubaugh, he tallied three Big Ten championships and back-to-back NCAA titles in 1967 and 1968.

The path to write 'A Spartan Journey'

Anderson started writing "A Spartan Journey" with one purpose in mind ... only to eventually widen the scope of the story.

"Originally I was going to tell only about the 1967 team title," Anderson told InterMat. "As I was working on it, I expanded it to make it more autobiographical ..."

That said, Anderson's book is very much a wrestling memoir that concentrates on his mat careers at Waterloo West and Michigan State. In fact, "A Spartan Journey" pretty much ends after that championship season ... without any coverage of his life and career since 1967 which has focused on the law, as a lawyer, prosecutor, instructor and author of a number of law books.

In the preface of his "A Spartan Journey," Anderson cites fellow Michigan State alum Magic Johnson, member of the 1979 NCAA championship basketball team, in a speech to the 2000 title-winning Michigan State basketball squad, saying, in essence, they would not fully appreciate what they had done for a long time, perhaps 50 years.

"As I relax in front of my fireplace, I begin to feel that way about our NCAA championship team of 1967 -- now some 50 years ago. That's one of the main reasons I wrote this book. This is a story I only later in life am beginning to fully appreciate ..."

In that preface, Anderson said a motivating factor for taking on this assignment was reading "The Dream Team of 1947" by Arno Niemand, about the wrestling program at tiny Cornell College of Iowa defeating much larger mat powers of the time such as Oklahoma State, Lehigh and University of Illinois to win the team title at the 1947 NCAA championships.

However, Anderson originally had no intention of writing about the 1967 Michigan State "miracle on the mat" himself. "I tried to induce many great authors to write this story," Anderson revealed in his preface. After having no takers, the two-time NCAA champ set about writing it on his own. "It took about three years to write what ended up being ten drafts," Anderson told InterMat. "A lot of people think you can just drink a six pack and the book is done."

"As anyone who has even attempted to write a book, it's a much tougher undertaking," Anderson added. "But I loved the journey."

Intersecting with giants of the sport

Reading Dale Anderson's "A Spartan Journey" and you can't help but notice that his mat career crossed paths with many iconic figures in wrestling. In fact, it's easy to think of Anderson as being somewhat like Zelig and Forrest Gump -- two movie characters who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time with historically significant individuals. So many big-name wrestlers and coaches were significant in Anderson's life ... and not just Dan Gable, his high school teammate.

Anderson's coach at Waterloo West High was Bob Siddens, one of the all-time great prep wrestling coaches in the nation. Siddens' positive influence on Anderson is mentioned by example throughout Anderson's book in the form of endearing -- and enduring -- sayings that helped propel the former Wahawk mat champ through some challenging times at Michigan State.

One expected benefit of Anderson's decision to write about more than that Spartan championship of 1966-67 is his detailed description of his college recruiting process that is eye-opening, and at times perhaps even jaw-dropping. His recollections of his dealings with two of the most successful collegiate coaches of the Sixties -- Oklahoma State's Myron Roderick, and Iowa State's Harold Nichols -- make for a fascinating peek into the recruiting process a half-century ago.

After initially selecting Iowa State, Anderson had a change of heart and decided to transfer to Michigan State. It was at the East Lansing school that Anderson's wrestling journey crossed paths with two legendary coaches with deep roots within the state of Oklahoma: MSU head wrestling coach Grady Peninger, and assistant coach Doug Blubaugh. (As Anderson pointed out in his book's dedication to Blubaugh, the former Oklahoma State NCAA champ and 1960 Olympic gold medalist is the only individual affiliated with the team-title-winning Spartans of '67 to have passed away. Blubaugh died in a motorcycle accident in his northern Oklahoma hometown in May 2011.)

Refreshingly disclosing

One of the strongest aspects of Dale Anderson's wrestling memoir is in its refreshing honesty. The two-time NCAA champ provides clear, honest portraits of his coaches, opposing coaches, his teammates, and his rivals. Wrestlers and coaches who weren't alive in 1967 will recognize many of the names sprinkled throughout "A Spartan Journey" but even those who remember '67 will be surprised by some of the revelations Anderson provides. (His recollections of the 1964 murder of Dan Gable's sister Diane, including insights into her killer, and what the crime did to the Gable family, are among the most powerful I have read about that tragedy.)

That said, Anderson is arguably most revealing in presenting himself, on the mat -- and off. "I went into the zone before a match," Anderson said. "I had a crazy, berserker attitude ... In about my junior or senior year (of high school) I started making it work for me."

Moments later, Anderson told InterMat, "I don't think I had a high level of self-awareness. I never thought of myself as competitive. I only came to that conclusion after it was pointed out to me."

Anderson takes readers inside the Michigan State mat program, into practice sessions and actual matches, with clear recollections as if the incidents he described took place last week. He also provides sharp portraits of his Spartan teammates. Perhaps most refreshing, however, is that Anderson is very open and honest about his own struggles with serious illness and injuries, making weight, and off-the-mat challenges in making the transition from high school and living at home with family, to being alone far from home, getting accustomed to life at a large Big Ten school.

Anderson has done a masterful job in telling his wrestling story. "A Spartan Journey" provides uncanny insights into the world of amateur wrestling in the 1960s. It serves up a behind-the-scenes look at Waterloo West, one of the nation's high school powerhouses of that time, as well as at Michigan State, a college program that went from the cellar of the Big Ten to penthouse (1967 Big Ten and NCAA champs) in three short seasons. And it provides fascinating reading on coaches and competitors who remain well-known a half-century later.

Anderson's clear description of the 1966-67 championship season at Michigan State would have made for a compelling book on its own. However, by expanding his focus to go beyond that magical year to become a truly personal "wrestling memoir" crafted with candor, Anderson has made "A Spartan Journey" even more powerful reading for coaches, wrestlers and fans of all ages and locations. This writer is thankful Anderson made the decision to expand his story and share it with the wrestling community with such honesty, and to do it on his own, rather than have another author write about him and his team.

To learn more about "A Spartan Journey" and purchase the book, visit the official website:


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