Why Iowa wrestling's Carver-Hawkeye Arena is a special place for college wrestlers, fans alike

Cody Goodwin
Des Moines Register

IOWA CITY — Dan Gable picks up the phone to share a story. He was the head coach of the Iowa wrestling team in 1983, the year Carver-Hawkeye Arena opened.

Gable led the Hawkeyes to 15 NCAA team titles and 21 straight Big Ten tournament championships during his coaching career. His Iowa teams produced a staggering 355-21-5 dual-meet record — including a 97-1 mark in Carver.

You can guess where Gable starts this story.

“All those wins at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and I remember the one loss the most,” Gable said.

That loss: 19-18 to Penn State on Feb. 6, 1988. The Nittany Lions won on Ken Chertow’s major decision at 118 pounds, Rob Meloy’s pin at 142, and, crucially, Andy Voit’s come-from-behind 8-7 win over Brooks Simpson at 190.

“It’s easy to remember things when you have one,” Gable continues.

On Friday, the Iowa wrestling team will host dual meet No. 300 inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The second-ranked Hawkeyes (9-0, 2-0 in the Big Ten) will wrestle No. 11 Northwestern (2-0, 1-0) at 8 p.m. on ESPNU.

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Hawkeyes wrestling has dominated inside Carver

Dan Gable was the head coach of the Iowa wrestling team when Carver-Hawkeye arena opened back in 1983.

Iowa is 273-26 all-time in Carver, and 127-11 under current head coach Tom Brands. Since the 2018-19 season, the Hawkeyes are 25-1 at home, including 4-0 this year.

“Tradition, history, the present, and the future, most importantly. That’s what goes through my mind,” Brands said. “We have to keep a good thing going.

Brands went 31-0 inside Carver during his illustrious Iowa career. That includes his five wins at the 1991 NCAA Championships, which were held at Carver. The Hawkeyes won that year’s team title, and the late Mark Reiland joined Brands as an individual champ.

Carver opened in January 1983, 40 years ago this month, and the first athletic event held in the building was a wrestling dual. Iowa beat Oklahoma, 35-7. In the first match, Tim Riley beat David Rynda 18-2 at 118 pounds.

“When Gable and Riley and some of the now old-timers talk about it, there was still dust on the floor,” Brands recalled. “Guys would get slammed on the mat and dust would rise. It was like there was fog in the air because construction had just got done.”

Carver has since grown into one of wrestling’s most iconic venues. It has hosted Big Ten tournaments and the NCAA Championship. It held the U.S. Olympic Trials in 1984, 2012, and 2016, and United World Wrestling’s men’s freestyle World Cup in 2018.

Iowa has led the nation in wrestling attendance every year since Brands arrived in 2006-07, and has sold out season tickets each of the last two years, too. In the 40 years since Carver opened, the Hawkeyes have won 17 NCAA team titles.

“It’s the house that Gable built,” Brands continued. “You know the history there.”

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Was wrestling originally an afterthought?

The history here is actually kind of funny. As much as Carver has become well-known for wrestling, the original idea behind its construction was to help the basketball program.

In 1978-79, coach Lute Olson’s fifth season leading the men's basketball program, the team won 20 games and reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly a decade. But rumors swirled that Olson was on his way to USC at the end of the year.

Back then, basketball games and wrestling meets were held in the Fieldhouse. When the idea of Carver was first discussed, Olson was “clearly motivated in large degree by the prospect of a new arena,” according to an Iowa City Press-Citizen editorial.

The Iowa Board of Regents unanimously approved a $23.7 million project to construct a 15,000-seat arena on the northwest edge of campus. Money flowed in, including a $1 million donation from Roy J. Carver. Fans called the arena “The House That Lute Built.”

An Aug. 5, 1982, photo shows construction, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

On July 15, 1980, around 400 Iowa fans attended the groundbreaking ceremony. The goal was for it to be completed in time for the 1982-83 basketball season. That date was pushed back not once, but twice. Ironically, the final Iowa men’s basketball game in the Fieldhouse was a 66-55 win over USC on Dec. 11, 1982.

Iowa’s wrestlers, meanwhile, had won the first five of what would be nine consecutive NCAA titles under Gable. Gable didn’t think too much about being the first Iowa team to compete in Carver, though. He had other things on his mind.

For one, Iowa actually lost its final Fieldhouse dual, 27-23 to Oklahoma State.

Two, the Hawkeyes won the team title at the Midlands Championships that season, but just one Hawkeye wrestler, Jim Zalesky, won a title. “No one has been doing their best,” Gable told the Press-Citizen at the time.

On top of all that, when Carver opened on Jan. 3, 1983, the locker rooms weren’t finished, which annoyed Gable. But Iowa pounded Oklahoma that night in front of 8,000 fans. Birds flew around near the ceiling and parking beforehand was a mess.

“We were most pleased,” Gary Kurdelmeier, a former Iowa wrestling coach-turned-associate athletic director, said at the time, calling that first dual a “dress rehearsal” for a sold-out basketball game later that week.

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Carver is the home of countless memories for wrestling fans

A Jan. 3, 1983, photo shows the first wrestling event at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

Carver hosted the Big Ten Wrestling Championships in 1983. Iowa ran away with the team title with nine individual champs. It first hosted the NCAA Championships in 1986 and the Hawkeyes lapped the field again, with 158 points and five national champions.

Gable admits now that when he first walked through Carver’s doors, he saw the stairs that led from the top of the bowl to the arena floor and smiled. His now-legendary Carver stair workouts were likely born at that moment.

Olson left Iowa to coach Arizona following the 1982-83 season, after guiding the Hawkeyes to five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Wrestling continued dominating under Gable, a tradition that’s kept up with Brands in charge.

Carver underwent a multi-million dollar facelift in 2011, which included wrestling facility renovations. Construction on a new $31 million, 38,500-square-foot training facility began on Carver’s south side. The Goschke Family Wrestling Training Center, slated to open next April, will be connected to Carver.

Gable says there’s not a clear moment that Carver became the rowdy wrestling venue it's known as today, it happened organically over time. It helped that Iowa wrestlers provided so many memorable moments over the years.

Among them: Brooks Simpson pinning Eric Voelker in 1988. Terry Brands beating Jeff Prescott in 1992. Mark Ironside beating Cary Kolat in 1996. Tony Ramos beating Jordan Oliver 2012 and pinning his Penn State opponents in 2013. Michael Kemerer beating Mark Hall in 2020.

owa's Michael Kemerer celebrates after defeating Penn State's Mark Hall at 174 pounds in 2020.

“I watched Tony Ramos pin Jimmy Gulibon, and the place exploded,” said Max Murin, Iowa’s sixth-year senior. “It felt like the building was shaking. I was like, ‘Holy crap, this is the coolest wrestling environment I’ve ever seen in my life.’”

“...But that’s when I knew this place was different. This was like no other place I had ever seen.”

Murin’s Carver debut came on Nov. 16, 2018. He pinned Princeton’s Marshall Keller in the second period. He's since compiled a 16-4 record in Carver, with just four home dates left in his career, starting with Friday’s dual against Northwestern.

“The opportunity to wrestle in Carver has been amazing,” Murin says. “It didn’t disappoint. The fans have been awesome. I don’t have very many matches left here, so I want to take advantage of all of them and get that full experience.”

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Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at@codygoodwin.