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Veterans Auditorium home of memorable wrestling tourneys

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There are few states in the nation in which high school wrestling is a bigger draw than the state of Iowa.

Similar to basketball in Indiana and football in Texas, wrestling is indeed “king” in the Hawkeye State. Kids grow up wanting to be wrestlers and the fans are fervent and numerous.

And for many years, there was no bigger spectacle than the Iowa High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) state wrestling tournament in Veterans Auditorium in Des Moines.

Until 2005, the IHSAA held its tournament in “Vets.” Among the many things that made the tournament truly unique and memorable was the fact that the IHSAA had eight matches going on simultaneously on the Vets floor until the finals, when they were pared to three mats.

Another unique aspect of it was, up to the finals, fans were right on top of the action ‑ contained only by ropes and offensive and defensive line football players from local colleges. In addition, the fans were always on the move to where their wrestlers were competing.

From 1921 to 1932, the IHSAA state wrestling tournaments were held in Ames and Iowa City. In 1932, the IHSAA Board of Control decided that starting in 1933, the state meet would go to venues in northern Iowa, namely in Cedar Falls and Waterloo. Arguably the nation’s crown jewel of high school wrestling, the state tournament went from high school venues to McElroy Auditorium in Waterloo.

In October 1963, Bernie Saggau joined the IHSAA as an assistant to then-executive secretary Lyle T. Quinn. Following Quinn’s death in September 1967, Saggau assumed the top position.

With a two-class structure, wrestling was starting to grow and stretching the capacity of the McElroy Auditorium. It was clear that with more schools participating, it would be necessary to both expand the classes and to look for a venue with a larger seating capacity.

That decision fell to Saggau, who recommended that the tournament move to Veterans Auditorium, a structure built in the mid-1950s and the home of the Iowa boys and girls state basketball tournaments.

Saggau’s prevailing philosophy was that the move had to be good for kids if the tournament and the sport were to grow. While that turned out to be true, early on he took some “heat” from the northern section of the state.

With the move to Veterans Auditorium in 1970, the seating capacity for wrestling doubled and the venue created an electric atmosphere in which fans could get close to the mats where their hometown favorites wrestled in the early rounds. Moreover, the arena offered superior dressing and shower facilities for the athletes, more parking and convenient access to more hotel rooms.

In addition to making the move to Veterans Auditorium, Saggau hired longtime Iowa school administrator, coach and official David Harty as an IHSAA assistant executive secretary to administer the sport of wrestling. As a result of Harty’s efforts, tournament attendance grew in the 1970s from 30,000 fans to 50,000, and the numbers then exploded in the 1980s and 1990s to more than 82,000.

Veterans Auditorium was shaped into a wrestling Mecca with eight mats on the arena floor surrounded by wooden bleachers on the sides and ends. It also had a balcony that virtually went straight up for 25 rows on three sides.

With the exception of the championship round which had all reserved seats, the general admission of the early rounds gave fans an up-close glimpse at their hometown favorite. Restrained by ropes, the exuberant fans could move to the mat where their wrestler was competing and offer encouragement. To the unknowing eye, it looked like mayhem. To high school fans, it was part of the excitement of the meet. Starting with the general sessions, when the doors opened, there was literally a race for seats with individuals trying to stake out rows for their respective communities.

Since 2006, the tournament has been held in Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. This year’s meet will mark the 25th consecutive Championship Saturday sell-out. The larger venue has allowed the IHSAA to not only increase fan attendance by making the southern part of the state more accessible, but it has also allowed for the expansion of the number of state meet qualifiers from eight to 16, thus increasing student opportunities and allowing for the district meet runners-up to advance to the state tournament.

While the move to Wells Fargo Arena removed the ability for fans to be on the floor, the video screens which alternate shots of the various mats are something new and certainly add to the fans’ viewing enjoyment of the tournament. All said, the new home of the IHSAA state wrestling tournament carries on the great tradition of Veterans Auditorium in a more modern setting.

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