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Celebrating 75 years of Oklahoma State wrestling at Gallagher-Iba Arena

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This weekend, the college wrestling program with the most individual NCAA champions and team titles will mark its 75th year competing in the only major college arena in the nation to be named in honor of a wrestling coach, reported Thursday.

On Sunday, Oklahoma State wrestling will celebrate 75 years of competing in Gallagher-Iba Arena, named in part for Ed Gallagher, the coach who not only built the Cowboy mat dynasty, but has also been called "the Dean of Collegiate Wrestling" and "the Knute Rockne of the Mats" (referring to the legendary Notre Dame football coach killed in a plane crash a few years' earlier).

In his time at Oklahoma State, Gallagher transformed amateur wrestling in the U.S., by applying scientific principles to everything from holds to diet… incorporating positive psychological reinforcement to his athletes… and sharing his knowledge by writing instructional books, turning out dozens of high school and college wrestlers who spread the Gallagher way across the nation, and even engaging in state-of-the-art promotion for the sport by being featured in Life magazine and from playing up a cowboy image, complete with Stetson hats in road trips to the east, and even a visit to the White House.

College Wrestling Examiner has put together a photo-album, sharing images of the man, the coach and the building named in his honor that now celebrates 75 years.

Want to know more? Check out the article about the 75th anniversary of Gallagher-Iba Arena.. a story about the women of Oklahoma State wrestling at the official Cowboy website... and an historical feature on Ed Gallagher at InterMat.

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Ed Gallagher, the multi-sport athlete who never wrestled
Ed Gallagher, the multi-sport athlete who never wrestled 1941 Redskin Yearbook (Oklahoma State)

Ed Gallagher, the multi-sport athlete who never wrestled

These days, most head coaches of the nation’s top college wrestling programs can claim impressive on-the-mat credentials, such as NCAA All-American honors or individual conference and national titles. Some can even boast of being Olympic wrestlers.

Yet Ed Gallagher, one of the all-time great collegiate wrestling coaches, never stepped onto a mat as a competitor. That said, Gallagher was a natural athlete who successfully competed in a number of other sports.

Born on a farm in rural Kansas in 1887, Edward Clark Gallagher ran track and played football in high school. As a student at Oklahoma State -- then called Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, or Oklahoma A&M for short -- Gallagher set 100-yard dash and hurdle records that stood for thirty years. In 1908, he ran 99 yards for a touchdown against Kansas State.

About the photo: This image shows Gallagher holding the football in the middle of a team photo as a student-athlete at Oklahoma State.

Gallagher returns to Oklahoma State to coach
Gallagher returns to Oklahoma State to coach 1922 Redskin (Oklahoma State yearbook)

Gallagher returns to Oklahoma State to coach

After Ed Gallagher graduated from Oklahoma State in 1909 with an engineering degree, he stayed in Stillwater as the school's track coach. In 1913, he was lured away to Baker College in Baldwin City, Kansas, where he coached all sports ... however, two years later, he was back at Oklahoma State, being named athletic director while still in his mid 20s.

During the 1914-1915 school year, Oklahoma State launched its wrestling program, with A.M. Colville as coach. That first season, the Cowboys wrestled only one dual meet -- held in conjunction with a gymnastics event -- and were trounced by the University of Texas. The following year, Ed Gallagher took the helm of the wrestling program. That first season under Gallagher, the Cowboys lost their one dual meet, again to Texas. However, in his second season, Gallagher’s wrestlers won two out of three dual meets, tying with Arkansas in the third.

Wrestling was suspended at Oklahoma State because of World War I. After the war, coach Gallagher took his wrestling program to new heights.

About the photo: A portrait of  a young Ed Gallagher as wrestling coach at Oklahoma State, from the 1922 Redskin.

Gallagher builds a mat dynasty at Oklahoma State
Gallagher builds a mat dynasty at Oklahoma State 1928 Redskin (Oklahoma State yearbook)

Gallagher builds a mat dynasty at Oklahoma State

With Ed Gallagher as head coach, Oklahoma State became the college wrestling dynasty throughout the 1920s and 30s.  

During his 24 seasons at the reins, Gallagher's Cowboys racked up a 136-5-4 overall record for an incredible .952 winning percentage. That includes nineteen undefeated seasons, and eleven NCAA team titles. (The first NCAA wrestling championships took place in 1928.) Gallagher coached 22 wrestlers to earn 37 individual national championships; seventeen of his Cowboys wrestled in Olympic competition, with three winning gold medals.

About the photo: Gallagher stands with his 1928 Oklahoma State wrestlers who took four of the seven individual titles -- and the team title -- at the first-ever NCAA championships that year. (Note: Back then, the Cowboys wrestled in full-length wool tights, without shirts. This was before today’s synthetic-fabric singlets.)


Gallagher generous in sharing his scientific approach to wrestling
Gallagher generous in sharing his scientific approach to wrestling 1939 Life magazine

Gallagher generous in sharing his scientific approach to wrestling

Ed Gallagher’s engineering background guided him to create a then-new analytical approach to wrestling, which up until the 1920s had been more about brute strength and power. Using his knowledge of leverage – and with the help of a human skeleton – Gallagher came up with a reported 400-500 wrestling holds. He expected his wrestlers to master at least 200 of them.

Gallagher was also a pioneer in nutrition and diet as a tool to help his Cowboys to succeed.

Just as important, Gallagher wasn’t afraid to share his knowledge with others. In the 1920s he published two groundbreaking wrestling instructional books… and, in 1939, allowed photographers from Life magazine to capture images of his wrestlers in the practice room for a three-page spread in the popular weekly.

Gallagher’s gospel also spread across the nation, as his wrestlers became successful high school and college coaches who employed his methods to their programs. Among his pupils: University of Michigan’s Cliff Keen, and Rex Peery at University of Pittsburgh.

About the photo: This is one of the images from the three-page photo-spread in Life magazine, showing coach Gallagher as he watches Oklahoma State three-time NCAA champ Stanley Henson dominate teammate Clay Albright, a 1940 NCAA runner-up.

Gallagher’s scientific approach extends to wrestlers’ minds
Gallagher’s scientific approach extends to wrestlers’ minds 1939 Redskin (Oklahoma State yearbook)

Gallagher’s scientific approach extends to wrestlers’ minds

In addition to instructing his wrestlers about physical aspects of wrestling such as leverage, Ed Gallagher was a pioneer in the use of the power of positive thinking and other psychological techniques. There are stories of how Gallagher would work on a wrestler’s mind in the week leading up to a big match against a feared opponent, starting small (“I think you’ll be able to score a point on this guy”), then building his confidence through the week bit-by-bit, ultimately assuring his wrestler he would win the match… then, just as the Cowboy was about to enter the ring, Gallagher would say something like, “You’re going to pin that guy in the first period.” And, according to the stories, Gallagher’s predictions would come true.

In reading numerous articles about Gallagher and his coaching style, a common thread among the comments of his wrestlers and competitor coaches was that the Oklahoma State coach was a quiet man who never berated or belittled his wrestlers publicly; on the rare occasion when his team would lose (his Cowboys were 138-5-4 during his tenure), he would take the fall.

About the photo: Coach Gallagher goes over his game plan with an unidentified Cowboy wrestler during a match. During the Gallagher era, Oklahoma State wrestlers competed in raised, roped-off rings that were raised up off the floor, just like those in boxing or pro wrestling. The NCAA outlawed wrestling rings in the early 1940s.

Oklahoma State builds a place for 4-H meetings.... and indoor sports
Oklahoma State builds a place for 4-H meetings.... and indoor sports 1939 "Gallagher Days" arena dedication (author's collection)

Oklahoma State builds a place for 4-H meetings.... and indoor sports

In the 1930s, Oklahoma State wrestling events were so popular, fans literally hung from the rafters of the school’s old gym. Seeking a larger venue to accommodate the huge crowds, Oklahoma State was able to secure funding from the state to construct a new multi-purpose structure for the campus with the stated purpose of serving as a site for 4-H Club meetings and agricultural extension services to educate farmers and their families... downplaying the idea that it was a sports arena to host basketball games and wrestling duals.

In 1939, the new 4-H Club and Student Activity Building opened. Built at a cost of $500,000, the building was state-of-the-art for its time, complete with theater-style seats and an air-cooling system. The new arena quickly became known as “the Madison Square Garden of the Midwest.” It was officially dedicated on what was called “Gallagher Day” which featured a dual meet between Oklahoma State and Big Ten champs Indiana University. (The Cowboys beat the Hoosiers, 18-9.)

About the photo: An image of the new 4-H Club and Student Activity Building as shown on the "Gallagher Day" program for the building's Feb. 3, 1939 dedication. With substantial renovations, the building is now Gallagher-Iba Arena.

Coach Gallagher’s biggest battle
Coach Gallagher’s biggest battle 1940 Redskin/1939 "Gallagher Day" program

Coach Gallagher’s biggest battle

Throughout much of the 1930s, Ed Gallagher had a tougher opponent than the Oklahoma Sooners or any other college mat program of the era. He was battling Parkinson’s Disease, the same affliction that now affects legendary boxing champ Muhammad Ali and actor Michael J. Fox today. Dealing with severe tremors, Gallagher would sit on his hands during matches. Unable to drive or cut up his food, wrestler Stanley Henson quietly performed those functions for his coach.

In the 1939 Gallagher Day program, the coach’s affliction was openly addressed… with optimistic messages that his condition was improving. However, within 18 months, Edward Clark Gallagher was dead, having passed away after returning from a Colorado hunting trip, just a week shy of what would have been his 54th birthday. His funeral was held in what had been originally called the 4-H Club and Student Activity Building but had been renamed Gallagher Hall in his honor before his death.

About the photo: On the left, Ed Gallagher shows the strain of Parkinson’s in this photo taken of the 1940 Oklahoma State wrestling team, the last he coached. On the right, Stanley Henson, three-time NCAA champ for the Cowboys (1937-39), assisted his coach with basics of living. In the late 1930s, Oklahoma State wrestlers wore wool trunks, without shirts. (The NCAA eliminated shirtless wrestling in the mid-1960s.)

Changes to name, building don’t change Cowboy mat legacy
Changes to name, building don’t change Cowboy mat legacy Oklahoma State wrestling

Changes to name, building don’t change Cowboy mat legacy

In the 75 years since the 4-H Club and Student Activity Building was dedicated, much has changed. The structure was initially renamed Gallagher Hall before the passing of legendary Cowboy wrestling coach Edward Clark Gallagher. In the 1980s, the building was renovated, and the name changed, this time to Gallagher-Iba Arena, to shine a spotlight on another superstar coach at the Stillwater school, Henry Iba, who coached the basketball team and served as athletic director.

In 1999-2000, Gallagher-Iba was expanded and upgraded to substantially increase the seating capacity, add luxury suites, and incorporate a Heritage Hall to honor Cowboy athletes.

Despite these changes, Gallagher-Iba Arena continues to serve as the home of the Oklahoma State wrestling team events, including the popular Bedlam Series dual meets with cross-state rival Oklahoma Sooners that have been a fixture on both schools’ schedules since 1920. The two teams will meet again Sunday, Feb. 9 for the 75th anniversary of the dedication of the House that Gallagher Built.

About the photo: For nearly a century, the Bedlam Series duals between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have filled the stands – and even the floor -- with dedicated wrestling fans… as shown in this photo of a Bedlam event at Gallagher Hall in the 1960s.