Gary Kurdelmeier's lasting legacy a decade after his death may well be as the architect whose planning and efforts thirty-five years ago helped put Iowa at the top of the collegiate wrestling world in 2008 (Photo/National Wrestling Hall of Fame)Gary Kurdelmeier wore many hats in his life. Although he was a two-time Iowa high school state champ, a Big Ten titlist, an NCAA champ, and coach whose wrestlers won conference and national titles, Kurdelmeier's lasting legacy a decade after his death may well be as the architect whose planning and efforts thirty-five years ago helped put his Iowa Hawkeyes at the top of collegiate wrestling as 2008 NCAA team champions.
Long before Tom Brands, or Jim Zalesky, or Dan Gable, Gary Kurdelmeier was the head wrestling coach at the University of Iowa in the early 1970s. In just four seasons (1972-1976), Kurdelmeier's Hawkeyes won their first Big Ten individual and team titles in a decade, and their first-ever NCAA team titles. Kurdelmeier's coaching talent and innovative ideas helped set the foundation for Iowa to win 21 NCAA and 28 Big Ten team titles since 1974.
Even history-minded wrestling fans may only know Gary Kurdelmeier as "the man who hired Dan Gable." True, Kurdelmeier brought in the legendary Iowa State wrestler an assistant coach at Iowa in 1972 -- the year Gable won the freestyle gold medal at the Munich Olympics. But his own accomplishments as wrestler, coach and tireless innovator make Gary Kurdelmeier a significant figure in U.S. amateur wrestling in his own right.
Growing up in a wrestling hotbed
Gary Kurdelmeier was born in 1936 in Cresco, Iowa, a prosperous farming community of approximately 4,000 in the northeastern corner of the state, about a dozen miles south of the Minnesota border. From the 1920s into the early 60s, Cresco was a major force in wrestling in a state where the sport verges on being a religion. Among the famous men who wrestled at Cresco: Future Iowa State head coach Harold Nichols and his brother Don… Tom Peckham, Cyclone star of the mid 1960s … Dale Henson, University of Minnesota's second-ever NCAA champ and World War II hero… and Dr. Norman Borlaug, another Golden Gopher wrestler who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his lifesaving work in agricultural science has fed billions throughout the world.
While at Cresco High School, Gary Kurdelmeier was involved in a wide range of extra-curricular activities, including sports. According to his biography in the 1954 Spartan yearbook, he was a Film Operator all four years, a class officer his sophomore year, in two plays his junior year, and on the yearbook staff his senior year. All four years he was on the track team, and played baseball and football, earning All-State tackle honors his senior year.
But the sport where Gary Kurdelmeier really made a name for himself was wrestling. In 1952, he won a gold medal wrestling at 160 pounds at the YMCA tournament in Waterloo, Iowa. The following year, as a junior, Kurdelmeier won the conference title, then the heavyweight title at the 1953 Iowa high school state tournament, defeating Dave Shakespeare of Cedar Rapids Roosevelt in the finals. His senior year, Kurdelmeier won a second conference crown, followed by a second state championship, this time beating Algona's Joe Funk in the heavyweight title match. He concluded his prep mat career with a perfect 23-0 record.
From Spartan to Hawkeye
Gary Kurdelmeier graduated from Cresco High in 1954, then headed almost straight south to the University of Iowa at Iowa City on a wrestling scholarship. Back in the 1950s, per NCAA rules, first-year student-athletes were not allowed to compete in varsity sports; freshman year was considered to be a time to adapt to the academic rigors of college coursework, make friends, and get comfortable with being away from home.
Gary KurdelmeierIn his sophomore year, Gary Kurdelmeier went out for football, playing tackle for head coach Forest Evashevski. (One of the Cresco native's teammates on the Hawkeye football team: Alex Karras, future NFL star, and familiar face on TV and movie screens.) However, Kurdelmeier injured his knee during that first season, and that was the end of his gridiron career.
Back when Kurdelmeier was the Hawkeyes' starter at 177 pounds, the Iowa wrestling program was enjoying a period of success under Dave McCuskey, who, before coming to Iowa City in 1952, had piloted the Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa) wrestling program during its glory days in the 1940s, working with mat legends such as Bill Koll, Gerry Leeman, Bill Nelson, and Bill Young.
Gary Kurdelmeier's college wrestling teammates were mostly Iowa boys who had made names for themselves in high school; like Gary, many were state champs. At least two of his fellow Hawkeyes eclipsed their prep success in significant ways. Terry McCann, 1952 Illinois state champ who won his title in just 37 seconds, became a two-time NCAA champ at 115 pounds (1954, 1955) who went on to win a freestyle gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome (Click HERE to read a profile on Terry and Fran McCann) … and Simon Roberts of Davenport, Iowa, the Hawkeyes' 147-pounder who was the first African-American to win an Iowa high school state title (1953) … then wrote another chapter of history by being the first black to win a national collegiate wrestling title at the 1957 NCAAs. (To read more about Simon Roberts, click HERE.)
In a 2007 interview with RevWrestling.com, Simon Roberts weighed in with his opinions on the Iowa head coach: "Dave McCuskey was a tough guy. He ran you through your paces, but he was a fair guy."
"He helped produce a lot of great wrestlers."
The stats back up Roberts' statement. From 1954 through 1958 - the years Roberts and Kurdelmeier wrestled for the University of Iowa - Dave McCuskey's Hawkeyes had eight individuals win Big Ten titles, and a total of five Hawkeyes become NCAA champs. Both Kurdelmeier and Roberts belong in both groups.
Sophomore season: Big Ten finalist
In Gary Kurdelmeier's sophomore year (1955-56) -- his first season as Iowa's primary 177-pounder -- Iowa posted a dual-meet record of six wins and just two losses (losing to the University of Michigan, and the University of Oklahoma, where he moved up to heavyweight, losing to defending champ Gordon Roesler on an end-of-match takedown).
At the 1956 Big Ten conference championships at Northwestern University, Kurdelmeier was one of Iowa's finalists. In the 177-pound title match, the Cresco native faced off against Jack Marchello of the University of Michigan. There was a lot of pressure riding on the shoulders of both wrestlers; the winner of this match would determine whether the Hawkeyes or the Wolverines left Evanston, Illinois with the Big Ten team title.
Jack Marchello (Photo/University of Michigan Sports Information)Jack Marchello remembers considerable details from the 1956 Big Tens. "In the semifinals, I wrestled Ahmet Senol of Purdue, nicknamed The Turk because he was from Turkey, and considered unbeatable. He had pinned me in 45 seconds in a dual earlier that season." This time, a reversal of fortune: the Wolverine got the win over the Boilermaker from Turkey, setting up the finals match-up vs. Kurdelmeier.
"We had never wrestled each other in a dual," discloses Marchello, who was born in East Moline, Illinois but moved to suburban Chicago (Harvey) at age twelve. "At the Iowa/Michigan dual, I went up against someone else, Cal Jenkins, I believe."
"(In my Big Ten title bout,) I gave away ten pounds," Marchello continues. "But that was typical. I was more a 167 than 177, so I usually wrestled guys bigger than me."
"Gary was tremendously powerful. He had huge shoulders and arms. I knew I wasn't going to out-muscle him. I had to be fast on my feet. Instead of tying up with a guy like Gary, I controlled the legs, worked to keep him off his base. I was an excellent control wrestler."
"I remember getting one takedown on him," says Marchello, who, like Kurdelmeier, was a sophomore. "I think I took him by surprise."
The final result: Jack Marchello defeated Gary Kurdelmeier by the score of 4-2 for the 1956 Big Ten 177-pound crown. With that win, Michigan claimed the conference team title.
"We never wrestled each other again. The following season, I pretty much wrestled 167," according to Marchello, who, at age 72, still designs wrestling headgear for Cliff Keen Athletic, as well as protective gear for the physically challenged for his own company in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
A few weeks later, at the 1956 NCAAs -- held at venerable Gallagher Hall at Oklahoma State -- Jack Marchello dropped down to 167 … while Gary Kurdelmeier stayed at 177. The Hawkeye was seeded fourth; the top seed was defending champ Dan Hodge of Oklahoma.
Kurdelmeier drew a bye in the opening round … then got a 6-1 victory over Iowa State's Gene Frank. In the quarterfinals, the Iowan defeated University of Toledo's fifth-seeded Dick Bonacci 6-1. However, Kurdelmeier's title dream was derailed in the semifinals by the champ; Dan Hodge pinned the Hawkeye at 4:35, and went on to win his second title. However, Kurdelmeier bounced back in the consolation round, placing third, and earning All-American honors along with teammates Harlan Jenkinson (third at 167), and individual champs Terry McCann at 115, and Ken Leuer at 191. The Hawkeyes placed fourth in the team standings -- their best showing ever.
Junior year: Big Ten champ
Gary Kurdelmeier's junior year saw the Hawkeyes improve to a 7-2 dual meet record. In the first match of the season, the Iowan went up against the man who had pinned him at the 1956 NCAAs, two-time champ Dan Hodge. In wrestling historian Mike Chapman's 2005 book Wrestling Tough, Kurdelmeier reported that the Sooner's grip was so powerful, he had black-and-blue marks on his arms days afterwards. "When you knew you were wrestling Hodge, you didn't get too many good nights of sleep," the Hawkeye 177-pounder was quoted as saying. It was a typical match for Hodge; the native of Perry, Oklahoma put Kurdelmeier's shoulders to the mat in their January 1957 dual.
Bill Wright (Photo/University of Minnesota Sports Information)The 1957 Big Tens were hosted by Ohio State. At St John Arena, Gary Kurdelmeier got a 4-2 win over Michigan's Karl Lutomski, shut out Bob Killian of Indiana 2-0 in the quarterfinals, and, in the semifinals, edged out Illinois' Steve Szabo 4-3. In the finals, the Hawkeye took on Bill Wright of Minnesota … and got the 7-5 decision over the Golden Gopher to win the 1957 Big Ten 177-pound title.
Gary Kurdelmeier wasn't the only Big Ten champ from Iowa that year; Ralph Rieks won the 137-pound crown. The Hawkeyes placed third in the conference team standings.
Just after the conference championships - and before the NCAAs -- 1957 Big Ten champ Gary Kurdelmeier wrestled at the 1957 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championships in Ames, Iowa, moving up to the 191-pound weight class. In the finals, he went up against Iowa teammate Gordon Trapp, who had moved down from heavyweight. Kurdelmeier was the fall guy, getting pinned by Trapp at 4:08, and placing second.
In late March, Gary Kurdelmeier and the Hawkeyes headed east, to the University of Pittsburgh, to compete at the 1957 NCAAs. The Big Ten 177-pound champ competed at the 191-pound weight class (which wasn't wrestled at Big Ten dual meets or the conference championships), and was seeded fourth. In the first two matches, he held his opponents scoreless. Sadly, the Iowan ran into a roadblock again in the semifinals, losing to the top-seeded, hometown hero (and eventual champ) Ron Schirf of Pitt, 1-0 … then fell to Colorado's Jack Himmelwright on a referee's decision in the consolation round, failing to place. Iowa placed eighth in the team standings, with two All-Americans: Ralph Rieks (3rd at 137), and 147-pound champ Simon Roberts.
Senior year: NCAA champ
In Gary Kurdelmeier's last season in Iowa City (1957-58), the Hawkeyes boosted their dual-meet record to 10-3. Kurdelmeier could rest somewhat easier, knowing that three-time NCAA 177-pound champ Dan Hodge had graduated from Oklahoma. However, he might have had a sleepless night before his second dual meet of the season. In that January 1958 bout, Kurdelmeier stepped up for his team big time … going up against defending heavyweight champ Bob Norman of the University of Illinois. The Iowan gave up considerable poundage to the Illini big guy, suffering his only dual-meet loss of his senior season.
Gary KurdelmeierThe 1958 Big Ten conference championships were held at Huff Hall at the University of Illinois in Champaign in early March. The 1957 Big Ten champ Gary Kurdelmeier successfully wrestled his way through the 177-pound bracket. His 4-0 win over Purdue's Gil Mesic in the semifinals put him in the finals for the third straight year.
In the 177-pound title bout, Kurdelmeier went up against Michigan State's Tim Woodin. The strapping Spartan was on a six-match pinning streak, scoring falls over all his opponents at the Big Tens. Unfortunately for Kurdelmeier, the streak continued; Woodin put the hirsute Hawkeye's shoulders to the mat at 8:21 using a half-Nelson and body scissors, according to Amateur Wrestling News.
At the end of March, the Hawkeyes traveled west to the 1958 NCAAs, hosted by the University of Wyoming. Gary Kurdelmeier was seeded fourth at 177. The top seed was Iowa State's Frank Powell, 1958 Big Eight champ and undefeated all season… while Big Ten champ Tim Woodin of Michigan State was second. The Spartan continued his pinning ways, getting falls in his first two bouts, and shutting out his semifinals rival 3-0.
Kurdelmeier drew a bye in the opening round, then got a 7-4 victory over Colorado State's Ed Rath in the second. In the quarterfinals, he shut out Merv Miller of Cornell College of Iowa, 7-0. In the semifinals, it was the battle of Iowa, with Kurdelmeier facing off against the Cyclones' Frank Powell, who was on a nineteen-match win streak. The top-seeded ISU senior had won his first three bouts rather convincingly, by the scores of 5-0, 8-2, and 9-3. However, all that didn't matter; the Hawkeye scored a 6-4 upset over Powell, the Big Eight champ. Now Gary Kurdelmeier's sights were set on the man who pinned him for the Big Ten title: Tim Woodin.
It's not hard to imagine that Gary Kurdelmeier wanted to avenge his Big Ten finals loss when he faced Tim Woodin for the NCAA title. Here's what the Des Moines Register wrote in its post-NCAA report: "Gary Kurdelmeier, badly beaten and pinned by Woodin in the conference test, scored two takedowns and an escape in beating the former National Amateur Athletic Union king, 6-2."
In its more colorful and descriptive analysis, Amateur Wrestling News said that the Iowa senior "pulled an upset by out-horsing" his Michigan State rival, who "found it impossible to break Kurdelmeier's leg ride."
Gary Kurdelmeier got his revenge against Woodin … but, more importantly, concluded his college mat career with the 177-pound national title. (Iowa's Jim Craig placed third at 191, joining Kurdelmeier as an All-American at the 1958 NCAAs.)
Off the mat at Iowa
Thumb through the Hawkeye yearbooks covering Gary Kurdelmeier's time at the University of Iowa, and the immediate question is: When did this guy sleep? In addition to being on the Iowa football team one season, and the wrestling team all four years, Kurdelmeier was the very picture of the active, involved student. Among his activities as a junior: he was elected to the nineteen-person Student Council, and was an officer of Hillcrest men's dorm, and sang in the dorm's choir. In his last year at Iowa, Kurdelmeier was elected secretary of the senior class, president of the Lettermen's Club (organization of letter-winning varsity athletes who served as ushers for sporting events and did charity work), president of the Phi Epsilon Kappa professional fraternity for physical education and recreation majors, president of Delta Upsilon men's social fraternity, and involved in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps).
From Iowa to Iowa Falls … Back to Iowa
Gary Kurdelmeier graduated from the University of Iowa in 1959 with a bachelor's degree in physical education from the College of Liberal Arts. As an Iowa Hawkeye wrestler, he compiled an impressive 28-3-1 dual-meet record. Kurdelmeier was a three-time Big Ten finalist, winning the 177-pound title at the 1957 Big Ten championships. He was a two-time NCAA All-American (1956, 1958), capping his wrestling career at Iowa with the 1958 NCAA title at 177.
After graduating, Kurdelmeier accepted an ROTC commission, serving six months as a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves. He then launched his coaching career at Iowa Falls High School in the north-central part of the state. From 1960 through 1966, he was the head wrestling coach, as well as assistant football coach… and also served as athletic director. While at Iowa Falls, Kurdelmeier earned his master's degree in physical education from the University of Iowa.
For the 1966-1967 school year, Gary Kurdelmeier served as wrestling coach at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High, where his varsity J-Hawks were 10-4-0. In 1967, Gary Kurdelmeier returned to Iowa City. He was hired by his college coach, Dave McCuskey, as an assistant wrestling coach. Five years later, when McCuskey retired, 36-year-old Gary Kurdelmeier took the helm of the Hawkeye wrestling program.
Reversal of fortune for the Hawkeyes
Wrestling has been a staple at the University of Iowa since 1911. The Hawkeyes have a long, rich history of individual wrestlers winning Big Ten and NCAA titles, going back to Leslie Beers claiming the 158-pound crown at the very first NCAAs in 1928.
However, two years before Gary Kurdelmeier became the Hawkeyes' head wrestling coach in 1972, Iowa tied for thirty-second in the NCAA team standings. The program had never won an NCAA team title. It had been a decade since a Hawkeye had won an individual national title; Iowa big man Sherwyn "Thumper" Thorson was the last, winning the NCAA heavyweight title in 1962. That was also the last year Iowa had claimed a Big Ten team title.
In the four seasons Gary Kurdelmeier was head coach (1972-1976), Iowa made an amazing turnaround. The Hawkeyes compiled a 51-7-5 record, earning a .850 winning percentage -- second only to Dan Gable among past Iowa coaches. Against Big Ten rivals, Iowa built a 24-3-4 dual-meet record. Under Kurdelmeier, Iowa won three Big Ten and two NCAA team titles … with seven Hawkeyes winning ten Big Ten individual crowns, and five individuals bringing six NCAA titles back to Iowa City. For orchestrating Iowa's incredible reversal, Kurdelmeier was voted Coach of the Year in both 1975 and 1976.
A winning plan to put fans in the stands
In recent years, the Iowa Hawkeyes have set national home attendance records for dual meets… but it wasn't always so. Steve Hunte, who wrestled for Gary Kurdelmeier at Iowa in the early 1970s, paints a picture of how it once was: "The first wrestling meets when I was a freshman they would only pull out one bleacher because there were only about 75-100 fans in 1973. During those meets, joggers were allowed to continue to run, and other students were still playing pickup basketball."
"However, soon, with win after win, suddenly beating big-name teams, the fans started coming to watch the Iowa wrestling team, the underdogs, starting to beat teams no one would have predicted the year before," says Hunte. "The turning point was going to Iowa State my freshman year. Their arena was packed with 12,000 screaming fans. I remember sitting with fellow freshman Chris Campbell at the edge of the mat, saying to each other almost in disbelief, 'We're going to beat Iowa State!' over and over. After that, Iowa fans started coming in greater numbers to see the new phenomenon, underdog, upstart Iowa, beat teams in dual meets that were very exciting and very, very close."
"Getting us that match against Iowa State really put us on the map," Hunte adds. "They were one of the top programs of the era. We hadn't wrestled them in years. Then, (Kurdelmeier) got us to wrestle the Cyclones twice a year, once at each school, usually the first dual would be right after New Year's, to get fans excited about the season, and the last match of the season, just before the NCAAs, to give us momentum and publicity for the nationals … It was a great situation for both schools. We'd pack both halls."
In a profile Iowa City Press-Citizen wrestling writer Andy Hamilton wrote on Gary Kurdelmeier for the 2006 book The History of Collegiate Wrestling, Minnesota head coach J. Robinson -- a graduate assistant at Iowa in the 1970s -- described what Kurdelmeier achieved: "He became the head coach of a team that was terrible, and two years later, he won the NCAA two years in a row. That's pretty phenomenal when you think about it."
From big mats to big money, Iowa's innovator
Gary Kurdelmeier also put fans in the stands with innovative promotions. For instance, for the 1975 dual meet vs. Oklahoma, he made a deal with the local McDonald's: If the Hawkeyes held the Sooners to fewer than ten points, each fan in attendance would score a free hamburger.
Gary KurdelmeierThe promotion didn't stop there. For that Iowa vs. Oklahoma dual meet, Kurdelmeier had a 74-foot square mat put down on the floor of the Iowa Field House. "The mammoth mat practically covered the entire basketball floor, and the circle extended beyond the basketball foul lines on each end," according to Steve Hunte, Iowa's 134-pounder at the time.
"Oklahoma was notorious for playing the edge, hence the huge mat. You should've seen the looks on their faces when they came out into the gym and saw that huge mat for the first time … It really got the Iowa crowd excited."
The big mat worked. The dual meet was wrestled in just 56 minutes, with action being stopped only once for going out-of-bounds. The Hawkeyes drubbed the Sooners 34-5. As then-assistant coach J Robinson told Andy Hamilton for The History of Collegiate Wrestling, "It just about broke McDonald's. All of the sudden they had 9,000 people descending on them for a free hamburger."
In the "Ask Dan Gable" column at Iowa Public TV's College Wrestling website, the legendary wrestler/coach weighed in on the big mat: "The matches were quick because of very few whistle stops. No edge-of-the-mat controversial calls. Scared our opponents. Their coach said, 'It was like getting caught in an Iowa cornfield and not being able to find your way out.' Had a few meets, then it was outlawed by the wrestling rules committee. Rule based on inequality, that not everyone could afford to have a mat of that size."
Another innovation was Gary Kurdelmeier's partnership with Roy Carver, the multi-millionaire wrestling fan from Muscatine, Iowa. Carver's financial backing helped establish and sustain the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, which allowed wrestlers to continue their training after college … and share their knowledge and experience with the young college grapplers in Iowa's wrestling room.
This legacy of innovation didn't emerge from thin air in the 1970s. Even in the 1950s, Gary Kurdelmeier impressed his college teammates as a thinker and innovator. In the InterMat Rewind profile of Simon Roberts, the first black NCAA champ spoke with fondness about his Iowa teammates, including his friend from Cresco, who he described as being "an innovator, as a wrestler, coach and college administrator. He was always a step ahead in his thinking about wrestling. He liked to call me to talk about ideas he had."
Ken Leuer, 1956 NCAA champ for Iowa at 191, weighed in with his impressions of Kurdelmeier in The History of Collegiate Wrestling: "Gary was always thinking. He always had plans… He always had ideas of how wrestling should be in the nation, how things should happen, and a vision. He brought that to Iowa wrestling. From my perspective, I would say the quarter-century in which Iowa dominated was the result of Gary's planning, organization, and putting things together and getting the right people to execute the plan."
In terms of laying the groundwork for the long-term success of the Iowa Hawkeyes, it's easy to consider Gary Kurdelmeier's most significant "innovation" was hiring Iowa State superstar Dan Gable as an assistant coach for the Hawkeyes.
In terms of laying the groundwork for the long-term success of the Iowa Hawkeyes, it's easy to consider Gary Kurdelmeier's most significant "innovation" was hiring Iowa State superstar Dan Gable as an assistant coach for the HawkeyesHere's how Andy Hamilton described the recruiting process in his profile on Kurdelmeier for The History of Collegiate Wrestling:
Kurdelmeier inherited the Hawkeye program in 1972 and immediately pulled off his biggest recruiting coup when he snatched Gable away from Iowa State and into the Iowa wrestling room. He worked behind the scenes to lure Gable to Iowa City. He respected Gable's wish to focus on training for the Munich Olympics but frequently contacted Gable's friends and family.
In March of 1972, Kurdelmeier called Gable again to gauge his interest in coaching at Iowa. He told Gable to take his time with the decision. "The very next day, he calls me back and says, 'Gable, I want you to know I've had a little change of heart. I'm going to ask you to take the job or leave it,'" Gable recalled. Gable asked for time to consult with his father. He called friends. Everyone seemed to be in agreement that he should accept Kurdelmeier's offer. An hour later, Gable was the cornerstone in Kurdelmeier's blueprint for excellence.
A bit later in Hamilton's profile of Kurdelmeier, Gable tells of being called into his boss' office one month into his first season as an Iowa assistant. "I can see right now that you can do a better job training the athletes than me," Kurdelmeier told Gable. "I'm going to turn the wrestling room, practices, training, all that stuff over to you."
Wrestling for Kurdelmeier
Steve Hunte was a two-time New York state champ from Bellmore Kennedy High School on Long Island who was recruited by a number of colleges. His dad, Ken Hunte, an All-American at Syracuse who was long-time coach at Long Island prep powerhouse Mepham, wanted Steve to wrestle at the U.S. Naval Academy. However, Steve Hunte had competed twice at the Junior Nationals held in Iowa City. "I'd seen that (University of) Iowa had a great recruiting class ahead of mine, and my class was shaping up the same way," recalls Hunte. "Those factors, along with John Marks' recruitment efforts, made me a believer."
Among Steve Hunte's highlights as a Hawkeye: he defeated Rick Thompson of Slippery Rock at the 1977 NWCA All-Star event… and he was a two-time Big Ten champ, winning the 134-pound conference title in 1977 and 1978.
"Gary Kurdelmeier was very much a man of his word," according to Hunte. "He'd say, 'As long as you work hard and come to the wrestling room every day, you'll have your scholarship here at Iowa.'"
When asked to describe his college coach, Hunte said, "More of a traditional coach. Loved wrestling. A workaholic. Smart guy. A real man. Not flashy. Always dressed in jacket and tie for meets."
"Unlike some coaches, Coach Kurdelmeier always took a more subdued position in public announcements about other teams. He was never cocky, never bragged."
"He was a big, strong guy with powerful arms and a bull neck. He still wrestled with us in practice … (though) Gable was more the technique man, Kurdelmeier the strategist."
"He genuinely liked his wrestlers. He never belittled us. Instead, he'd say 'I know you can do this.' From him, we learned we had so much potential inside us."
"We wanted to succeed for him, to earn his respect."
"I remember when a couple of us ran off after he had asked us to move some mats. Next day, he called us into his office, and chewed us out. You didn't want to disappoint him."
"He had Red Flag Days, where practice would go an extra half-hour," recalls Hunte. "No advance notice. Sprints to the top of the Field House. Shark-bait drills of non-stop wrestling. More sprints. Carrying guys piggyback to the top of the Field House. The grueling intensity was unimaginable. Your lungs would be burning, muscles reacting -- pulling, pushing, grasping, grabbing, slapping, shooting, pounding, smashing, denying, fighting, grinding, tripping, punishing, prying, wrestling in pools of sweat, no break, no rest, giving it 100% as if your life depended on it, for three hours straight."
"At the end of a Red Flag Day, a lot of the wrestlers would lie on the mat for a half-hour or so… By the time we walked out onto the mat for a match, we could handle anything because we'd been through all this."
When Gary Kurdelmeier announced he was officially passing the head coaching job to Dan Gable in 1977, the Iowa Hawkeyes were in good hands. Thanks to the valuable hands-on coaching experience gained right from the start as an assistant, Gable built upon the foundation crafted by the Cresco native. During his incredible 21-year career as Hawkeye head coach, Gable compiled a 355-21-5 record, bringing home 21 Big Ten and 15 NCAA team titles.
What lured Gary Kurdelmeier away from coaching duties? A promotion; he was named assistant athletic director at the University of Iowa, a position he held for nine years. While in that job, he was inducted into the Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1978. This facility, located in Kurdelmeier's hometown of Cresco, honors great Iowa-born amateur wrestlers and coaches.
In 1985, Kurdelmeier left Iowa City to serve as Executive Director of U.S.A. Wrestling. During his three years at the helm, he helped the sport to expand, and was instrumental in moving the organization's headquarters from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Colorado Springs. After a brief retirement, Gary Kurdelmeier got back into the action all over again, helping set up the wrestling program at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and then serving as head coach from 1991-1995. At that time, he also served as a volunteer leader for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
In early October 1998, Gary Kurdelmeier died in Pensacola Beach, Florida at age 62. The cause of death was Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), a degenerative fatal brain disorder that's extremely rare, affecting only one person in a million each year, or about 200 individuals in the U.S. annually. Typically, the onset of symptoms occurs at about age 60, with approximately 90 percent of patients dying within one year.
Since his passing, Gary Kurdelmeier was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma in 2000 as a Distinguished Member, and, in 2003, was welcomed into the Glen Brand Hall of Fame at the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute & Museum in Waterloo, Iowa. In addition, his family and friends established a Gary Kurdelmeier Wrestling Scholarship at the University of Iowa.
Gary Kurdelmeier's legacy as a wrestler and innovative coach continues to light the way for the Hawkeyes a decade after his passing. "I think of him as the spark that lit the flame that still burns at Iowa," says Steve Hunte.
For photos of Gary Kurdelmeier in high school, college and as Iowa's head coach -- along with pics of some of his college teammates and opponents, and the individual NCAA champs during his tenure at Iowa City -- visit the Vintage Amateur Wrestling Yahoo group by clicking HERE
DVD copies of the original silent films of the 1958 NCAAs -- the year Gary Kurdelmeier won the national title -- are available for purchase direct from the host school. For contact information for the University of Wyoming archives, email mark@RevWrestling.com