No. 323: Meet Big Bertha

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The University of Iowa wrestling program recorded the 1,000th dual victory in school history in the 2018-19 season opener. The Hawkeyes are just one of four wrestling programs in the country to reach the 1K milestone, and to celebrate, is taking a look back at a handful of duals in the 109-year history of Hawkeye wrestling. This is… 1 in 1,000.


IOWA CITY, Iowa — Kurdelmeier dreamt it. Gable made it happen.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
“A few years ago (Gary) Kurdelmeier wanted to use a big mat against Michigan,” Iowa coach Dan Gable told The Daily Iowan in January, 1977. “He called it Big Bertha. Since then, he has been doing some brainstorming and it was his idea how we could actually do it.”
The men who put Iowa wrestling in the national conversation in the 1970’s had a plan. When top-ranked Oklahoma State visited Iowa City on Jan. 15, 1977, the Hawkeyes would give the Cowboys room to run, but nowhere to hide.
“Oklahoma State, their style of wrestling was more back up, back up, back up, and then shoot,” said two-time NCAA Champion Chuck Yagla. “Where we were push, push, push. In Gable’s mind, I think he thought they wouldn’t be able to back up all the way to the edge.”
And Gable was right. Thanks to Big Bertha, the edge was nowhere to be found on the 62-by-62-foot monster mat that Gable, his wrestlers, and a UI Field House maintenance crew assembled from 11 individual pieces of wrestling mats.
“We took all of our wrestling room mats, the meet mat, and pieced them all together like a jigsaw puzzle, flipped it over, and painted the whole one side a huge circle,” Yagla said. “It went from the free throw line to free throw line. It was crazy how big it was.
“It took our whole wrestling team to carry it down because we were on the third floor of the Field House. We had to take it apart and cut some of it to get it through the doors to carry it down. I think it took six maintenance guys that worked for the university to get it done. We all pitched together to do it.”
The Hawkeyes did do it. It took four hours to set up, but they did it and it worked. Iowa defeated No. 1 Oklahoma State, 22-10. It was the first time in school history (seven previous tries) the Hawkeyes beat the Cowboys in a dual. Gable knew Big Bertha would give Iowa an advantage. He identified the date on the schedule, and he and Kurdelmeier developed a plan to make it happen. The “when” and the “how” were answered. But there was more to the “why?”.
Gable gave The Daily Iowan three reasons. First, to satisfy his own curiosity. Second, to give his team a psychological advantage. “I figured it would scare them. It’s bad enough for them to come here with our reputation.” And finally, he wanted to draw fans, so “they can see a spectacle.”
It was a spectacle, and it satisfied Gable’s curiosity. But as much fun as it was, Big Bertha doesn’t get all the credit.
“It would not have changed the outcome of the victories,” Gable said. “We would have won on any size mat.”