Iowa and Iowa State divided two dual meets this winter, so both consider the NCAA Wrestling Championships, beginning this morning at 10 o'clock at Cole Field House, the ultimate determinant of just who owns the best team in America.
Oklahoma State, the Big Eight champion and a 24-time NCAA winner, and Pacific Eight king Oregon State are the principal bidders to keep the championship trophy from a fourth straight stay in the Hawkeye State.
Defending champion Iowa State has an eight-man entry, including four wrestlers who placed in the 1977 nationals. Among them is 158-pounder Kelly Ward, a junior out of Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, the runner-up last year and National Mat News' pick to win this time.
Iowa, the NCAA winner in 1975-76, has qualified a complete 10-man team, also with four place winners from a year ago. The Hawkeyes' most prominent representative here, however is Coach Dan Gable, the 1972 Olympic freestyle champion at 149.5 pounds and the man who posted a 181-1 record as a high school and college wrestler. His alma mater? Iowa State.
In addition to the team title, major interest focuses on the attempts of two wrestlers, Wisconsin's Lee Kemp at 158 and Oklahoma State heavyweight Jimmy Jackson to become three-time NCAA champions.
Only 23 men have accomplished that feat since the meet began in 1928, three of them named Peery. That trio includes Ed, present coach at Navy; his brother, Hugh, and their father, Rex. The only three-time winner in the last 10 years was Michigan State's Greg Johnson at 118 pounds in 1970-72.
The Kemp-Ward rivalry is one-sided, with Kemp winning four of their five matches, including last year's NCAA final. Ward, however, earned a 5-5 tie with Kemp in their last duel, at the East-West meet in Lancaster, Pa.
Jackson, with a 24-0 record, is an overwhelming choice to repeat, but there are four other unbeaten wrestlers in the unlimited divisions, including 240-pound Bob Golic, a linebacker for Notre Dame's national football champions.
When competition begins today on eight mats, there will be 354 wrestlers dreaming of titles. They represent 121 colleges, with only Iowa and Wisconsin fielding full 10-man squads. Thirty-three wrestlers are survivors of Division II and III competition and their schools are not eligible for the team title.
The 118-pound division features five men who have placed in previous years, with Syracuse's Gene Mills, 211-1, the 1977 third-placer, sharing the favorite's role with John Azavedo, 33-0, the Division II champion from Bakersfield (Calif.) State.
Mike Land of Iowa State, 41-0, is the class of the 126 pounders.
There is no clear-cut choice at 134, although Frank Gonzales, 28-2, of Nebraska-Omaha raised eyebrows with his Division II upset of Bakersfield's Franc Affentranger, third in this meet a year ago.
Dan Hicks of Oregon State, 40-0-2, is top man at 142.
The 150 final looms as a rematch of 1977, when Mark Churella of Michigan, 18-2, defeated Iowa State's Joe Zuspann, 27-3-1.
Kemp, 26-0-1, and Ward, 30-1-1, do not appear to have any serious challengers at 158.
Iowa's Joe DeAnna, 27-2-2, was third at 167 last year. His chief opposition is fellow Ohioan Ron Varga of Cleveland State, 28-3.
Unbeaten Mark Lieberman of Lehigh, runner-up at 167 a year ago, is the favorite this time at 177.
Defending 190 champion Frank Santana, 24-2, of Iowa State, will be challenged by Oklahoma State's Daryl Monasmith, 15-2, whose victory over Santana gave the Cowboys the Big Eight title.
Besides Jackson and Golic, 13-0, the unbeaten heavyweights are John Sefter of Princeton, 26-0; Division II champion Jeff Blatnick of Springfield, 23-0, and Division III king Barry Bennett of Concordia (Minn.), 31-0.