Perseverance and Character Helped Banachs Propel Iowa Wrestling to New Heights

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Tom Brands stands with honorary captains (from left) Steve, Lou and Ed Banach Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The Banachs combined for five NCAA titles while competing for Iowa from 1980-83. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

CHICAGO, Ill. – Believe it or not Dan Gable was once a wet-behind-the-ears head coach. 

On a recruiting trip just two years after taking over the wrestling program at the University of Iowa, he followed the marching orders of his predecessor and hung around the tiny community of Port Jervis, N.Y. He was awaiting the decision of a pair of standout high school wrestlers as to where they would continue their wrestling careers.

Gable may have seemed calm on the outside passing time as he milled around the picturesque landscape where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania meet. Port Jervis, with its abundance of colorful landscapes, was incorporated in 1853 and was made famous by numerous canals along the beautiful countryside allowing for the transportation of coal to major markets along the eastern seaboard. That was before an influx of rail transportation made shipments more time efficient.

Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, lived in Port Jervis while a youngster and was later a frequent visitor and wrote there from 1890 to early 1897.

The tranquil setting of his surroundings was in stark contrast to the thoughts and agonizing anticipation racing inside Gable’s mind.

He soon got word that Ed and Lou Banach had selected Iowa City to be the next stop on their wrestling journey. A journey that would eventually take them around the world before settling in America’s Heartland upon the completion of their careers in the sport. Careers capped on a memorable day atop a podium in Los Angeles for all the world to see.

Ed, the older of the twin brothers, by five minutes, first caught the eye of Gable while competing in the high school national tournament in Iowa City just weeks earlier. The Iowa coach was sent on the recruiting trip by former coach Gary Kurdelmeier, who guided the Hawkeyes to their first two NCAA national championships (1975-76) before giving way to Gable prior to the start of the 1976-77 season and assuming a role as an assistant athletics director at the school and serving as Gable’s boss.

Gable remembers the visit to the Banach’s well.

“Ed really got our attention as coaches,” said Gable of the impression made at the tournament in Iowa City. “He had a style that really stood out. He wasn’t necessarily the most technical, but he was brutal in the way he fought from start to finish.”

So strong was Ed that he was nicknamed “The Horse” while in high school.

“I thought we had a very good visit,” said Gable of the meeting with the brothers and their parents, “and they both told me they would be making their decision in the coming days. When I phoned (Kurdelmeier) to give him an update he told me to stick around until the decision was made.”

Good things come to those who wait.

The question, as old as time itself: what came first the chicken or the egg?” has its own wrestling version. Did Dan Gable make great wrestlers or did great wrestlers make Dan Gable a great coach?

No one may ever arrive at a definitive answer.

The Banachs, who combined for five individual national championships while competing for the Hawkeyes, just might have been the major catalysts of the astronomical rise of the Iowa program.

“Iowa has always had great fans,” said Gable, perhaps the most well-known figure in wrestling history, “but the Banachs seemed to kick that enthusiasm and interest to another level … I think they spoiled our fans.”

While the success and achievements of the Banachs on the mat have been well documented and are forever etched in the lore of the sport, their true and inspirational story is one of perseverance. In overcoming tragedy and heartbreak. Of an unparalleled love. It was the lessons learned at a young age that allowed the twins, and an older brother, Steve, to catapult themselves into greatness, on and off the mat.

Their story is shared in a book, Uncommon Bonds: A Journey in Optimism, co-authored by the three brothers. The book talks little of wrestling. Their story is far more important than the sport itself.

Their biological parents, Izek and Nada Banach, immigrants from Poland and Germany, respectively, was an unlikely union. They met when Nada’s father, a farmer, had a number of prisoners of war, including Izek, who worked the fields as the world was gripped in the turmoil caused by the world’s tensions. Their mother had the task of helping feed the workers.

It did not take long for the two to form an attraction, an attraction frowned upon because of the times and circumstances of the world around them. Nada’s father, a village leader, became increasingly alarmed as the attraction between the young adults increasingly grew and ordered an end to their friendship.

When that stern warning went unheeded he turned the prisoner and his daughter over to local German authorities and both were shipped to separate prisoner of war and Nazi work camps. Fate intervened and the two were reunited following the war. They married a short time later and moved to an emigration camp near Nada’s hometown and waited for a chance to move to the United States.

That chance came in 1952 when their parents, and eight children, were sponsored by an American family and made the journey across the wide Atlantic Ocean to embark on their pursuit of a shared dream in a new country and settling in New York.

Just over a decade later tragedy struck when fire destroyed their rented farmhouse and dealt the Banachs an unfathomable blow. A local church provided aid for a time, but the family would eventually become separated when Izek left and Nada, still reeling from the fire and the recent absence of her husband, suffered a nervous breakdown. 

The young twins, born in February of 1960, and Steve, born 13 months earlier, were all put into foster care until a permanent solution was found. That solution would take some time.

Steve, at the age of five, was placed in the care of Al and Stephanie Tooley. The state, meanwhile, had difficulty in finding a suitable home for Ed and Lou.

That trouble was short lived and soon the twins were reunited with Steve in the Tooley’s home. Months later the Tooleys adopted the three young brothers.

It was there the Banachs, who were no strangers to trouble as rambunctious youngsters, learned many of the lessons they have continued to carry with them to this day.

Despite the tragedies and troubles of their younger days it was athletics, especially wrestling, that set them on their journeys to success.

The trio of brothers would all qualify for the state tournament in 1977 and helped lead Port Jervis to the team title, with Lou winning an individual championship. Ed, meanwhile, placed second and Steve, following a last-second loss in the semifinal round, wound up fifth.

A few short weeks later all three were back in the wrestling room with an eye to the future. Steve had signed to continue his career at Clemson, where he was voted team captain in each of his two seasons in South Carolina, while the twins began preparing for their final high school season. A year that saw Ed become the second state champion in the history of Port Jervis after Lou had won the previous season. But first was the national high school tournament that laid the foundation for collegiate success for the twins.

After graduating from high school they made their way to Iowa City in the fall of 1978 and redshirted their first season. They took advantage of the knowledge imparted on them in the wrestling room by Gable and his stable of top-flight assistants at the time.

J Robinson, Mark Johnson and Chuck Yagla are all credited with much of the success the Banachs achieved while at the school. 

“They each had a different set of skills than Gable,” said Lou of the assistant coaches. “But, they all worked to get the most out of us and make us better wrestlers and better people. They lifted the bar in terms of preparation.”

“They all wanted us to be better than they were,” Ed said of the trio of assistant coaches.

Robinson later became the head coach at Minnesota and led the Gophers to three national championships (2001-02, ’07), while Johnson turned an Illinois program into a national power during his time with the Illini. Yagla, meanwhile, went on to enjoy a long career as one of the top wrestling referees in the nation.

“Ed was driven,” said Yagla, a former national champion for Iowa and the outstanding wrestler at the 1976 NCAA tournament as the Hawkeyes won for the second time under Kurdelmeier. “He had in his mind what he was going to do on the mat … and he succeeded more often than not. That is a sure sign of a true champion.”

Lou stood out in Yagla’s mind as well.

“He had a hard work ethic and was incredibly motivated,” Yagla said of the other twin.

Once in the starting lineup Ed wasted little time in sending a message to the rest of the collegiate wrestling world. A four-time NCAA finalist, he captured three national championships (1980, ’81 and ’83). He finished second in 1982 to end his hopes of becoming the first four-time national champion in NCAA history. He compiled an overall record of 141-9-1 during his time in Iowa City. 

He became just the sixth wrestler in Big Ten history to win four conference championships further adding to his impeccable list of credentials. He still owns the Iowa record for pins with 73 in his career, including 22 in his final year when he finished with a 34-3-1 record. He was awarded the Jesse Owens Award, named in honor of the legendary Ohio State track sensation who stunned the world at the 1936 Olympic Games, as the Big Ten’s athlete of the year that season.

Lou’s journey to greatness on the mat in college took a bit longer, but it’s nearly as impressive.

He failed to qualify for the national tournament in his freshman season and contemplated his future in the sport after admitting to not fully letting go of his insistence on doing things his way that he chiseled as a youngster.

Gable can be quite the persuader. He changed Lou’s mind after a series of talks.

“He was confident he could succeed and sometimes by doing things against the prerogative of his coaches,” Gable said of Lou. “… those are the kind of wrestlers you sometimes look for when recruiting. He also showed a willingness to put that aside and learn that sometimes coaches do know what they’re talking about. 

“He adopted an attitude and desire to do what was best for the team,” Gable added. “It turned out that whenever Lou turned on the jets he was every bit as impressive as Ed on the mat.”

“I learned a lot about leadership and personal accountability from (Gable),” Lou said. “You have to be able to take orders if you are to achieve success. You must be willing to adapt and be open to innovation and cannot be afraid to have people on your team and around you who are going to push you if you want to be a part of something that makes you better.”

Lou went on to win a pair of NCAA titles. His first came in 1981 before finishing third the following year. He ended his collegiate career with a second national title and was awarded the Gorriaran Award at the tournament for the most pins in the shortest amount of time. The top seed at the start of the tournament, he pinned three of his opponents in a combined 10:35, including a pin of No. 2 seed Wayne Cole (Iowa State) in 2:57 in the championship match.

Lou finished his career with the Hawkeyes with a record of 92-14-3. Together they combined for a mark of 233-23-4 during their careers at Iowa, which compiled a 71-3-1 dual record during the four seasons with the Banachs in the lineup. 

Steve, meanwhile, had transferred to Iowa for his final two seasons after compiling a record of 51-20-1 at Clemson before joining his brothers in Iowa City. Steve never competed in a varsity match during his time with the Hawkeyes.

The limelight Ed and Lou shared atop the awards stand in the respective weight classes at the 1983 national tournament was a harbinger of things to come. They would share the stage the following year in an even larger setting and with the eyes of the world watching.

Ed defeated Japan’s Akira Ota 15-3 to win the gold medal in freestyle at 198 pounds. Lou, meanwhile, easily won a freestyle gold medal of his own at light heavyweight. And he did so in short fashion. He pinned Syria’s Joseph Atiyeh in just 1:01 to finish atop the podium at the Anaheim Convention Center.

The gold medals allowed the Banachs, who are both members of several halls of fame, including the Iowa Athletics Hall of Fame and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, to become the first set of American twins to capture gold at the same Olympics.

All three brothers credit the atmosphere surrounding Iowa wrestling for their rise to the top of their athletic careers.

“Wrestling at Iowa and being coached by someone like Dan Gable provided us with difficulties and challenges,” Steve said. “It also taught us to position ourselves to have success. When facing adversity we realized that we had been there before and that we could overcome anything. If you work hard good things will happen.”

The legendary Iowa coach spent 21 seasons as head coach after taking over for Kurdelmeier. His teams compiled an astonishing 355-21-5 (.938) dual record during that span and captured the Big Ten championship in each of those seasons. The Hawkeyes also won 15 NCAA titles before he retired following the national tournament in 1997.

The Banachs have also seen the changes to wrestling over the years.

“Compared to where we were 40 years ago, there is a lot more parity out there,” Lou said. “Title IX was not the best way to achieve that parity, but the RTCs (regional training centers) that have developed in recent years has helped foster that parity.”

Another reason is abundantly clear, according to Ed.

“The Gable (coaching) tree has also heightened that parity,” he said. “The number of his former wrestlers who have taken the lessons learned from him and taken them into their own coaching careers is truly staggering.”

Ed remained heavily involved in wrestling following his graduation from Iowa. He went on to become an assistant coach at rival Iowa State on was on the staff of Jim Gibbons when the Cyclones won the national title in 1987 before ending his coaching career and becoming a compliance officer at the school.  Today he works in the engineering department at ISU advising students.

Lou left Iowa with a degree in management and communications and was also active in the ROTC program at the school. He later entered active duty and advanced to the rank of second lieutenant and helped coach the wrestling team at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.

After earning a master’s degree in business from Penn State University in 1988 he has enjoyed a long career as a banker and is currently working at a bank in Green Bay, Wis.

Steve, who came up short in his own bid to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, went on to a long career in the military that spanned more than 30 years and became a decorated combat veteran. 

“Wrestling is a vehicle to learning life skills,” Steve said.

A Distinguished Member of the 75th Ranger Regiment, where he served for nine years, Steve led a contingent of 785  U.S. Army Rangers on Oct. 19, 2001 as part of a group that launched a parachute assault into Afghanistan during the night as America began its global war on terror. He led a second historical mission two years later when American troops executed a parachute assault into Al Anbar Province in western Iraq.

Steve, a retired colonel and living in the Kansas City area, also served as a Stryker Brigade Commander (2005-07) and created the Company Intelligence Support Team concept for the U.S. Army. He has written more than a dozen professional publications and is a renowned speaker to organizations around the world and helps design strategies to professionals on executive leadership.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To order your copy of the Banach’s book or learn more about the Banach story, visit their website, Banach Power of 3, or buy it through Amazon.

 

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