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Nichols, Harold

Published onOct 11, 2021
Nichols, Harold

(March 22, 1917 – February 22, 1997)

Quick Facts

Harold Nichols was a beloved Iowa State wrestling coach that brought national attention to the Iowa State wrestling program.


Authored by Nichols mentee, Dan Gable

To each their own, really, for some maybe, but for me only a few times. Mentors are helpful, in fact, if we all had good ones, the world would be much better off. Not that we aren’t good, just how good?

Dr. Harold Nichols (Nick) was one of those mentors that still carry’s forward and for a long time.

My college decision was one of the many choices that were a foregone conclusion all along. Choices may not be a good word for those that have common sense guidance. The better word here could be obvious and has a lot to do with the past to date. To keep it real was why I visited the University of Iowa (Iowa City) and I lived locally with Iowa State Teachers College, now University of Norther Iowa (UNI), so a formality took place there. A confirmation is usually the result, but not every time. Coach Nichols already had on the Cyclone’s team Bob Buzzard, who basically mentored me on the mat already and his younger brother Don Jr. Bob and Don Jr.’s dad Don Sr. was one of my Mom (Kate) and Dad’s (Mack) best friend. My wrestling idol for style was Tom Peckham (Cresco High School) who just finished his eligibility at Iowa State University. Of course I kept this idol business to myself for Cresco was a high school wrestling rival of West Waterloo (Coach Bob Siddens), my school. Both Bob Buzzard and Tom Peckham were graduating but Don Jr. was still an undergrad. Coach Nichols had the smarts to keep graduates involved with the college program to help them train for World and Olympic competitions. They need partners and now the college wrestler had work out partners of the highest quality. (Smart guy Nichols!)

Wrestling coaches weren’t making a lot of money in these days, so Nichols added to his wrestling salary by having wrestling camps and he started his own side business of wrestling products. Besides helping his wrestling coaching income, the graduate wrestlers had a chance to work within this facility for their income. And they could get off early to train with the college team. Back in the day professionalism was a problem to be able to stay in your sport very long. Wrestling had no way like other sports to go into your sport at a higher level except for the Olympic level. Pro Wrestling for a living was limited to a specific group that future Olympic Wrestlers weren’t involved in at this time. So when something appears broken, you fix it and make it work real well. That’s what Coach Nichols was doing, making more money and helping wrestlers training opportunities, (Smart guy!)

Another Wahawk (West Waterloo) 1966 graduate Marty Dickey (state wrestling champion) took the ISU recruiting visit with me and the foregone conclusion turned out just that-ISU!

The visit was less than dramatic and why waste a lot of time and money on something that was going to happen anyway!

Harold Nichols wrestling life started in Cresco, Iowa (Home of the Iowa wrestling Hall of Fame) where he finished 3rd in the state in 1934. He went on to the University of Michigan and joined later by brother Don. Nichols became a Big 10 Champion and an NCAA Champion in 1939. Brother Don would win the NCAAs the next year.

In Nichols coaching at ISU, he won six team NCAA’s, eleven 2nd places, six third’s, and two fourths. This success has inducted Nick into several Hall of Fames locally and nationally. The consistency was phenomenal! Coach Nichols and his wife Ruth had two sons Harold and Billy.

Wrestling in the state of Iowa has its good history for well over a hundred years going all the way back to Frank Gotch of Humboldt, Iowa.

But as far as wrestling at the highest level in Iowa colleges, Coach Nichols is the first wrestling coach that brought multiple championships to an institution- Iowa State University. Oklahoma State University (the Cowboys) was the main institution that Coach Harold Nichols replaced with his six NCAA titles of 1965, ’69, ’70, ’72, ’73, and ’77.

Cornell College of Mt. Vernon, Iowa and Cedar Falls, Iowa State Teacher’s College had one title each at this level before ISU’s start in 1965 in Laramie, Wyoming with a phenomenal comeback to win over OSU.

The effect of Coach Nichols on his many student-athletes and their championships and team building sent many on their own way for success! Measuring success on the mat is an easy measurement. One just has to pull up the stats. But the measurement for life’s success comes in different ways. It could be one’s profession, one’s family or just about what one enjoys from a positive point of view.

Once specific group that Coach Nicholas and ISU achieved notable success in were the excellence that were attached with African-American wrestlers.

Coach Nichols coaching and lifestyle off the mat gave the team and its individuals the opportunity to move in an independent direction. The type of independence that brings out leadership qualities that takes one to the head of the class if desired. His practices provided and showed the qualities needed for moving forward. The examples and followers survived well or at least they could see what these qualities were that were needed to be very successful. Not everyone liked an atmosphere of survival of the fittest but all were learning who they were and helped them with their direction for their paths in life. Perfect for me, but not for all, but learning for all which was mostly good!

What was left undone was picked up and solved by his assistants and for many of us that man was Les Anderson. (Another smart move by Nick)

Coach Nichols could solve almost all issues that he was confronted with. His know how to do so was unique and his built respect helped when dealing with others. He had a sense of taking away opponents good areas of wrestling. He would come up with a way of winning the exact areas of dominance of our opponents. He also let the individual on our team use his personal talents and skills to his advantage no matter if they were going against the basic rules of wrestling. What worked-worked! Smart Guy! With his keeping grads around for training helped the undergrads develop the mental side of wrestling. This edge is crucial in sports especially in one on one combative sports. You’re physical talents are one thing but in wrestling the mental side is what usually makes the difference.

Enough said, Harold Nichols –Man of few words, but smart ones!

Editor’s Notes:

Nichols' pupil, Dan Gable, went on to coach wrestling at the University of Iowa for 21 years.

In addition to wrestling, Nichols had a passion for collecting pottery. In 1983, he appeared on Late Night with David Letterman with a seven-foot-tall vase from his collection, considered one of the world's largest.

Nichols died in February 1997 at age 79 in Ames, Iowa. He was survived by his wife, Ruth, and sons William and Harold.

Selected Sources

Iowa Wrestling Hall of Fame, profile.

Obituary, New York Times.

“Harold Nichols: Legendary coach made ISU wrestling a national powerhouse” By Larry Cotlar. Iowa History Journal.

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