InterMat Wrestling – 80 years ago, Oklahoma State opens iconic arena

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OSU has competed in the same building — now known as Gallagher-Iba Arena — since 1939 (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)

Eight decades ago — February 3, 1939 — one of the most iconic college wrestling programs in history, the Oklahoma State Cowboys, dedicated their new home with an entire day of festivities, culminating with … you guessed it, a dual meet.

That iconic building on the north edge of the Oklahoma State campus has been known by a number of names: the Fieldhouse … the 4-H Club and Student Activity Building … Iba’s Folly … the Madison Square Garden of the Midwest … Gallagher Hall … and, most recently, by its official name, Gallagher-Iba Arena, named in honor of the school’s legendary wrestling coach Ed Gallagher, and long-time basketball coach from 1934-1970, Henry Iba, respectively.

It’s difficult to imagine that participants at the all-day dedication ceremony known as “Gallagher Day” on that Friday in early February could imagine that the brand-new fieldhouse would still host college wrestling events 80 years later, albeit with substantial upgrades over the years.

InterMat thought it the time is right to take a look back at the birth of this iconic sports facility — believed to be the only major college arena to bear the name of a wrestling coach — and the events of “Gallagher Day” culminating in a dual meet between Oklahoma State and Indiana University.

Gallagher, the legendary mat coach who never wrestled

Ed Gallagher coaching Stanley Henson

Born in Kansas in 1887, Edward Clark Gallagher began his long relationship with Oklahoma State as a student in the first decade of the 20th century. As a student-athlete at the school then called Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, 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. Despite these impressive athletic accomplishments as a football player and track star, Gallagher never wrestled for the Cowboys … because OAMC did not have a wrestling program when he was a student at the Stillwater school. That would come nearly a decade later …

After graduating from college, Gallagher took a job at Baker College in Kansas to coach two sports … then returned to Oklahoma State in 1915 as athletic director. He then took on the challenge of coaching the fledgling wrestling program which had been launched the year before, sporting a 0-1 record. After a losing initial season for the 1916 season, Gallagher turned things around. In 24 seasons as head coach, Gallagher’s Cowboys racked up a 138-5-4 overall record for an incredible .952 winning percentage. Gallagher could claim nineteen undefeated seasons, eleven NCAA team titles, and 37 individual national championships … building the foundation for arguably the greatest dynasty in college wrestling. Long after his passing, Gallagher was named one of three “Best Wrestling Coaches” in an online poll of wrestling fans for the NCAA 75th Anniversary Team honors in 2005. (The other two coaches: Iowa State’s Harold Nichols, and University of Iowa’s Dan Gable.)

The Armory, Cowboy wrestling’s first home

Throughout the 1920s and most of the 1930s, the on-campus home for the Oklahoma State wrestling program was the Armory/Gymnasium. Built at a cost of $100,000, the structure was completed in 1919.

Oklahoma State Armory

As wrestling historian Doris Dellinger wrote in her 1987 book “A History of Oklahoma State Intercollegiate Athletics”, the Armory provided “seating for more than half the total student enrollment of 1,500.” However, as the Cowboy wrestlers built on a record of success, home dual meets became even more popular … and crowded. There’s an iconic photo of the interior of the Armory for a wrestling event, with fans literally hanging from the rafters. It was time for a new, larger home. (In the late 1970s, the Armory was transformed into Oklahoma State’s Architecture School.)

A new home for 4-H, short courses, and wrestling

Throughout the 1930s there was discussion of building a new structure that would better accommodate indoor varsity sports such as wrestling and their growing fanbase. However, this was the era of the Great Depression which hit the state of Oklahoma especially hard … and there didn’t seem to be funds available for something seemingly as frivolous as a new indoor sports venue.

Supporters of a new facility came up with ingenious ways to make it happen. For starters, the project was always referred to as “The 4-H Club and Student Activity Building” right up to its dedication. To confirm the stated mission inherent in that name, project backers emphasized that the purpose of the new building was to house activities of Oklahoma’s 4-H Clubs (a network of clubs throughout the nation “engaging youth to reach their fullest potential while advancing the field of youth development”), selected short courses of the college’s extension service, as well as classroom space for military service activities, along with room for physical education courses and intramural athletics. The building would also be available to any other programs needing space for exhibitions and performances … along with seating to accommodate spectators. Total estimated cost: approximately $475,000.

About half of the construction cost came from the Oklahoma legislature, with approximately $200,000 additional coming from the sale of bonds which were expected to be paid off in 20 years. An increase in student activity fees also went to cover building expenses.

The new multi-purpose building that later came to be called Gallagher-Iba Arena was located on the north edge of the Oklahoma State campus, next to what was then called Lewis Field, home to the Cowboys football team. (The National Wrestling Hall of Fame was built just to the east of the now-iconic arena in 1976.) The new structure was built of red brick trimmed in stone, and, although massive, it was in keeping with the Georgian “red brick Colonial” architectural style of other structures on campus.

The commemorative program for the Feb. 3, 1939 “Gallagher Day” made a point of describing the facilities within the “4-H Club and Student Activity Building” that had nothing to do with wrestling or basketball … including offices and classrooms. Beyond those noble academic aspects, the new building did have state-of-the-art facilities for sports, including a wrestling practice room, locker and shower rooms, four handball courts, and coaches’ offices … as well as the “O” Room, a space with trophy cases and comfy furniture designed for use by top Oklahoma State varsity student-athletes who had earned a place in the prestigious “O Club.”

Then there was the arena portion of the building (also informally referred to as the Fieldhouse) that the public would see when attending a wrestling or boxing event or basketball game. The main floor of the arena had space for three full-size basketball courts for phys. ed. classes and intramurals … or one court running lengthwise for varsity games. The floor was crafted of white maple, an inch-and-a-half thick. (That original wood floor is still in place.)

For wrestling and boxing, a raised ring was put in the center of the 13,000 square foot playing surface … with ringside seats and bleachers added to the floor area to give spectators an up-close-and-personal look at their favorite combat sports.

Rising nine feet above the floor were fifteen rows of balcony seats, featuring approximately 5,700 “theater-style armchairs” for sports fans. With bleachers and folding chairs added to the floor, the total seating capacity in 1939 was advertised as 6,381.

The “Gallagher Day” souvenir program boasted, “All in all, there is no college or university fieldhouse in America to compare with the one at A&M. None has as large or as fine a basketball floor. None has as complete or as beautifully decorated building. None has as comfortable and spacious accommodations for spectators.

“Truly, the A&M Fieldhouse is the Madison Square Garden of the Midwest.”

Gallagher Day: When Cowboy wrestling had a new home

Less than a year after the official groundbreaking for the 4-H Club and Student Activity Building at Oklahoma State on Feb. 25, 1938, the new structure was first opened to the public in December 1938 for a Cowboys basketball game vs. the University of Kansas Jayhawks. (The Cowboys won 21-18.) It would be nearly two months later before the wrestlers would have their first dual meet in the brand-new building … although coach Gallagher and his wrestlers were already working out in it. (In fact, the popular photo-magazine Life came to do a photoshoot of the Cowboy wrestlers and their legendary coach inside their new home in January 1939; the three-page feature story titled “‘Gibraltar of Grappling’ Produces Another Great Oklahoma A&M Team” — Gibraltar referring to coach Gallagher.)

On Friday, Feb. 3, 1939, thousands showed up for “Gallagher Day” at the new building. Among those in attendance: over a hundred former Oklahoma State wrestlers, including two from the first-year team from 1916. The Oklahoma Legislature passed a resolution honoring coach Gallagher “not only as outstanding in his profession but also as a leader for the youth of our land and the improvement of conditions in the state of Oklahoma.”

Cowboys vs. Hoosiers

The dual meet held that evening in the brand-new fieldhouse saw Oklahoma State take on Indiana University. Led by coach Billy Thom — a friend of Gallagher’s, and coach of the U.S. freestyle wrestling team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — the Hoosiers were one of the most successful collegiate mat programs of the 1930s. Indiana won the unofficial team title at the 1932 NCAA championships; the Hoosiers were runners-up in the team title battle at the 1938 Big Ten conference championships, and placed third at the 1938 NCAAs (behind Oklahoma State and Illinois).

The 1939 Arbutus, Indiana University’s yearbook, pointed out that the Hoosier wrestlers made the nearly 700-mile journey to Stillwater by train. This was in the early days of commercial airline service, and long before the construction of today’s Interstate highway system.

Gallagher Hall in 1941

Before any wrestling took place, Oklahoma State team captain (and senior) Stanley Henson presented coach Gallagher’s wife Austella with a bouquet of yellow roses.

Note: today’s college wrestling fan would be surprised by what they would’ve seen at that evening’s Cowboys vs. Hoosiers dual meet.

For starters, there was the raised, roped-off wrestling ring in the center of the gymnasium floor, just like those at a professional wrestling event. The actual wrestling area inside the ropes was 20 feet square. The ring was raised a couple feet off the floor. (Both Oklahoma State and Indiana used rings like this one for their home meets until the NCAA banned them in the early 1940s.)

Then there’s the uniforms the wrestlers wore. No synthetic-fabric singlets for these grapplers; both teams’ wrestlers wore close-fitting wool trunks, without shirts … a common uniform for colleges in the Midwest.

As for the matches … each was ten minutes long, and wrestled in order from lightest to heaviest. No random draw back then.

There were eight matches, one per weight class. Here are the individual match results:

118 lbs.: Joe McDaniel (OSU) dec. Bill Dannacher (IU), 13-2

126: Calvin Mehlhorn (OSU) dec. Bob Antonacci (IU), 5-4

135: Eldon Jackson (OSU) dec. Joe Roman (IU), 2-1

145: Vernon Logan (OSU) dec. Homer Faucett (IU), 13-11

155: Stanley Henson (OSU) dec. Angelo Lazarra (IU), 11-2

165: Chauncey McDaniel (IU) dec. Clay Albright (OSU), 3-1

175: Chris Traicoff (IU) dec. Rob Williams (OSU), 3-1

UNL: Johnny Harrell dec. Garrett Inman (IU), 14-3

Final score: 18-6 Oklahoma State

After Gallagher Day …

Gallagher Hall in 1945

Oklahoma State built on this first home-meet win of the 1939 season at Gallagher Day to gain a perfect 10-0 record. At the 1939 NCAA championships at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., the Cowboys had five finalists out of eight weight classes. Three won individual championships: Joe McDaniel at 121 pounds (his third NCAA title)… Stanley Henson at 155 (his third title)… and Johnny Harrell at unlimited/heavyweight. (Note: Indiana’s Chris Traicoff won the 175-pound crown.) Gallagher’s wrestlers claimed the team title.

Not long after Gallagher Day, Oklahoma State made it official, renaming the 4-H Club and Student Activity Building in honor of the school’s beloved wrestling coach. It would now be known as Gallagher Hall for decades to come.

Sadly, 18 months after the fun and festivities of Gallagher Day, Gallagher Hall was the site of the funeral for Edward Clark Gallagher.

He died of pneumonia in an Oklahoma City hospital in August 1940 at age 53, leaving behind his wife and six children. He had been battling Parkinson’s disease for a number of years. For the funeral, the building was packed with athletes who had wrestled for coach Gallagher throughout his career, as well as Oklahoma State students and staff, Oklahoma politicians, and Stillwater townsfolk. Gallagher was eulogized in some newspapers as the “Knute Rockne of College Wrestling” referring to the legendary University of Notre Dame football coach who died in a plane crash only a few years before Gallagher’s passing.

The building dedicated on Gallagher Day eighty years ago gives on … with a slightly revised name (Gallagher Hall became Gallagher-Iba Arena in 1987), and in substantially revised form. In 2000, the storied sports facility underwent an extreme makeover and expansion which doubled the seating capacity to 13,611, added fourteen luxury suites, and upgraded the facilities for athletes … all at a cost of $55 million.

Although wrestling coach Ed Gallagher has been gone for nearly eight decades, his spirit lives on in a structure that some sports media has referred to as the most historic sports arena on any college campus … and in a wrestling program that can claim the most NCAA team titles, individual NCAA champs, and NCAA All-Americans.

Travel back in time …

To learn more about Gallagher Day, check out an online video of a 1939 newsreel celebrating Gallagher Day, courtesy of the Oklahoma State Alumni Association.

Get to know coach Ed Gallagher and Stanley Henson, one of his greatest wrestlers who passed away in 2018 at age 101.

Want to know more about college wrestling as it was in the past? Check out these InterMat Rewind features on major changes in college wrestling over the years … how old-school wrestling gear affected strategy … and college wrestling in rings.





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