Imagine that feeling in the late summer of 1969 when word spread of a massive concert in New York. Everybody who was anybody was set to take the stage for an event known as the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
They came, they saw, they remember.
Not that Saturday’s Oklahoma State and Iowa dual meet inside cavernous Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City will rival Woodstock, but for collegiate wrestling fans it might just be a pilgrimage of epic proportion. Tickets went on sale in early October ― in the first few hours over 21,000 sold ― and entering the final days before the first whistle over 35,000 are expected to attend the 11 a.m. meet.
Yes, that Kinnick Stadium. Home to the Iowa football team with a capacity of 70,585. Saturday marks the first time two programs of this stature have wrestled on a football field. And with the unbeaten Iowa Hawkeye football team hosting Big Ten rival Minnesota Saturday evening, a few extra bodies will be in Iowa City. Football tailgaters might translate to a large walkup crowd if the weather cooperates.
“Iowa is known for being able to run wrestling events, so I’m not concerned with how this thing is going to run,” said Oklahoma State head coach John Smith, whose Cowboys open the season ranked No. 1 by most prognosticators. “Never experienced anything like this. It is going to be something exciting, something different for everyone involved.
“I wrestled in some very cold gyms, some places where it was very uncomfortable. Getting warmed up is going to be a big part of this thing. Having this thing outside adds another element to a dual that is already full of intensity.”
The University of Iowa and Oklahoma State have faced off 49 times in wrestling. Although plenty of verbal and physical exchanges have occurred between wrestlers, fans, and coaches outside the confines of a wrestling arena, Saturday marks the first time the two programs meet in an outdoor dual meet. The spacious black and gold mat familiar to Carver-Hawkeye Arena will be relocated to an end zone of Kinnick Stadium.
Mother Nature will dictate the implementation of any last minute changes. The forecast calls for temperatures in the high 50s with plenty of sunshine. Midwesterners know things can change in a matter of hours. If necessary, because of rain … snow … or “unplayable” conditions, the dual will be moved inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena which has a capacity just under 16,000.
Brands, Brooks, Meyer, Ryan and Gilman discuss Saturday's Grapple on the Gridiron at Kinnick Stadium: https://t.co/LjiAjTHdo9— Hawkeye Wrestling (@Hawks_Wrestling) November 10, 2015
The two rivals dominated collegiate wrestling throughout the twentieth century and have combined to win eight NCAA team titles since 2000. Overall, the Cowboys and Hawkeyes own 57 NCAA Championships between them. When the rumor mill started churning out a possible wrestling match at Kinnick Stadium, an event expected to smash the NCAA dual meet attendance record, there really was no question who the opponent would be.
“It was very much a team effort with the administration,” Iowa head coach Tom Brands said. “It was our brainchild, but we are not the originators. People have been wrestling outside since the beginning of time.
“It’s a big deal because it’s about two storied programs and a rivalry that continues.”
Brands and Smith know a thing or two about competing in environments not necessarily conducive to a wrestling singlet. Brands, starting his 10th year in Iowa City, won a gold medal in freestyle at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and also won a World title. Smith won four World Championships and Olympic gold in 1988 and 1992.
“If it’s cold, you grow a beard and throw on a stocking cap,” joked Brands when they announced the schedule change. “The important thing is that we’ve got fans out there that embrace this sort of thing. They are nutty enough, wrestling enthusiasts, then you throw in the tailgate crowd (for football).”
Added Smith, “You hope the weather doesn’t play too big a role, but you better be ready to go. You better get good and warmed up before you get on the mat; that’s really important.”
Iowa junior 125-pounder Thomas Gilman, fourth at the 2015 NCAA Championships, does not expect the weather to be a factor.
“Weather doesn’t matter. Whether it’s 20 degrees or 70 degrees we are going to be ready to go,” Gilman said. “Once we are warmed up, it won’t matter. We run in the cold weather, we hand-fight in the cold weather … when that cold air hits our lungs we are going to excel. I’m not sure how that cold weather is going to work for those Oklahoma State guys.”
The annual OSU-Iowa meeting usually takes place in January or February, a couple of months into the season and after a few questions are answered about each squad’s lineup. Saturday marks the first dual meet of the 2015-16 campaign for both.
“You have to get your mind right a little earlier than usual,” said OSU All-American Kyle Crutchmer, expected to go at 174 pounds. “Last year at this time we were getting ready for the Lindenwood (Mo.) Open, so it is a bit different this year. It’s going to be fun. I haven’t stop thinking about it since I found out about it.”
Despite the early season conditioning levels and a lack of March sharpness, the dual is expected to feature plenty of hotly-contested bouts.
For the Hawks, four All-Americans are expected to take the mat ― Gilman, Corey Clark (133), Brandon Sorenson (149), and Nathan Burak (197). The Cowboys counter with five All-Americans ― Eddie Klimara (125), Dean Heil (141), Alex Dieringer (165), Crutchmer, and Austin Marsden (285). Last January, Iowa hammered OSU, 30-7, on the Cowboys’ home mat. The last meeting in Iowa City saw the Hawks dominate, 24-6.
The only meeting of the 2015-16 season most likely will not be remembered for who won or lost, however. Instead, with a little cooperation from the weather, talk may be about the 35,000-plus in attendance at the first Division I collegiate wrestling match staged on a football field.
“It’s one of those things you don’t want to miss,” said one mat fan planning on making a 10-hour drive. “You don’t want to hear about it from somebody else, you want to be there to check it out. It would be incredible if they got like 50,000 or something. It’s just something, if you are a wrestling fan, you’d want to see.”
Combat sports have plenty of history in outside venues. In American sports lore, boxing holds a special place.
Jack Dempsey fought Gene Tunney in front of 104,000 at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1927. Joe Louis knocked out Billy Conn in a 1941 title fight at New York’s Polo Grounds with 54,000 in attendance. The 1980 Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium drew just over 46,000.
Might Saturday be the beginning of a new wrestling tradition?
A dual meet between Penn State and Pittsburgh inside the Bryce Jordan Center drew an NCAA record 15,996 in December 2013. Saturday could see in excess of 40,000.
And maybe like Woodstock, wrestling fans will be talking about this one for years to come.