By Larry Cotlar
When people talk about wrestling and its storied coaches in Iowa, they often mention Dan Gable, Cael Sanderson and Tom Brands … and rightfully so, because they have brought national attention to our state with their exploits both as wrestlers and as coaches.
However, one name that you don’t hear enough in those conversations is that of Dr. Harold Nichols. It’s an unfortunate oversight because his more famous students and peers agree that Nichols, who was a groomer not only of wrestlers but of men, was in a class of his own.
Nichols was the head wrestling coach at Iowa State University from 1954 to 1985 and the numbers behind his accomplishments are staggering. In his 32 years in Ames, Nichols led the Cyclones to six NCAA championships, finished second 11 times and third nine times while compiling a dual meet record of 456-75-11, turning the Cyclones into a national powerhouse. From 1957 to 1983, the Cyclones only once finished lower than fourth place in the national meet. By the end of his coaching career, he compiled an overall record of 492-93-14.
Nichols’ wrestlers also won 38 individual NCAA titles, 91 Big Eight titles and seven Olympic medals. In fact, there was one very memorable Olympics (1972) in which two Cyclones, Gable and Ben Peterson, won gold medals and another, Chris Taylor a bronze.
Nichols grew up on a farm in Cresco, the hometown of another wrestler and legendary Iowan, Dr. Norman Borlaug. He wrestled for Cresco High School, although he didn’t exactly have a storied career there. He quit the sport as a freshman because he had to walk home five-and-a-half miles from practice every day. However, he came back the following year when his younger brother, Don, joined the team and they were able to secure rides home from practice.
Nichols wrestled at Cresco as a heavyweight even though he weighed only 135 pounds. He then went on to wrestle collegiately at the University of Michigan, where he won an NCAA Championship at 145 pounds in 1939.
He interrupted his time at Michigan to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Following the war, he earned his masters degree at the University of Illinois and returned to Michigan to complete his work towards a doctorate.
Nichols began his coaching career at Arkansas State University in 1948, but not in wrestling because the school did not have a wrestling program. Instead, he served as the head coach in both swimming and track and as an assistant in football and basketball. He would then implement a wrestling program and amass a 37-18-3 record in five seasons.
In 1953, Iowa State wrestling coach Hugo Otopalik died and the school was in search of a replacement. It interviewed one man — Nichols — who had shown interest in the vacancy while finishing up his doctorate at Michigan. He officially took over ISU’s wrestling program the following year.
Iowa State won its first NCAA Wrestling Championship in 1965 in dramatic fashion. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State had dominated the sport, winning 11 straight titles between them. After the semifinals in 1965, the Cyclones trailed Oklahoma State 66-44 and things appeared bleak. However, the next day, the Cyclones won big in the consolation round and after Veryl Long and Tom Peckham each went on to capture NCAA titles, Iowa State had emerged as national champions by one point (87-86) over the Cowboys.
Iowa State would then go on to win five additional national titles in 1969-70, 1972-73 and 1977.
So what made Nichols, who was known as “Nick” to the wrestling world, such an outstanding coach? The legendary Gable, who won two NCAA Championships (at 130 and 137 pounds) and compiled an astonishing 181-1 record while wrestling at Iowa State from 1967 to 1970, refers to Nichols as a “really unique coach.”
“I have never been associated with a coach quite like him,” said Gable, who went on to coach wrestling at the University of Iowa for 21 years and became arguably the sport’s greatest coach. “He had a style and mannerisms which were incomparable. I couldn’t have had a better coach. His style worked really well for someone like me.”