Story by Roger Moore, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director
Long before the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Russell Westbrook was grabbing headlines on sports pages in Oklahoma, two giants from Oklahoma A&M brought national acclaim, championships, and a legendary ability to build men.
Edward Clark Gallagher was exceptional in track and captain of the football team. He graduated in 1909 with a degree in electrical engineering and served as physical training head at Baker College in Kansas for four years. Gallagher returned to his alma mater and became an instructor in football, track, baseball, gymnastics, fencing, swimming, boxing, and, in 1916, added wrestling to his coaching duties. Wrestling would become an obsession, as he used stress and leverage studies that he mastered as an engineering student.
Gallagher became the dean of collegiate wrestling, leading the A&M Aggies to 138 dual victories in 147 starts. When the NCAA Championships were inaugurated in 1928, Gallagher’s Aggies routed the field; there would be nine more championships before Gallagher’s retirement in 1940. His champion wrestlers were homegrown and modeled after the last defenders of rugged frontier individualism; wrestling, the sport of the individual, flourished during the pioneer era of the early part of the 20th Century in Oklahoma and Kansas.
On February 3, 1939, a $475,000 fieldhouse sometimes known as The 4-H Building but officially called Gallagher Hall opened with a wrestling match against Indiana. Earlier that day, the Oklahoma State Legislature passed a resolution honoring Gallagher as a “leader for the youth of our land and the improvement of conditions in the State of Oklahoma.”
After his death in August of 1940 at the age of 53, the New York Times eulogized Gallagher with the headline “the Knute Rockne of the Mats.” His legacy continued with Art Griffith, Myron Roderick, Tommy Chesbro, Joe Seay, and now John Smith. Cowboy wrestlers have won 35 NCAA Championships, more than any other American sports team in history, including the New York Yankees.
Late in Gallagher’s tenure, Coach Henry P. Iba built a men’s basketball program second to none. Mr. Iba’s the credentials speak for themselves: 655 wins in 36 years at Oklahoma State; back-to-back NCAA Championships in 1945 and 1946; coach of the 1964, 1968, and 1972 U.S. Olympic teams.
During the 1930s, Coach Iba began to build a program founded on work ethic and discipline. Another legend in Oklahoma sports, the Tulsa World’s Bill Connors, wrote of Iba, “To his players he is a taskmaster, a disciplinarian; quick to criticize, quick to applaud; who demands a lot from an undergraduate, and will go to any length to help a former player.
“To the public, Iba is an amusing terror on the bench, raging at officials, scolding an erring player, impatiently tearing the warmup off a reserve he has chosen to relieve a player who has taken a bad shot or made a bad pass.”
But, like Gallagher, Iba’s impact reached far beyond the gymnasium. Eddie Sutton, who played for Iba from 1954-58 at A&M, said “I don’t know of anyone who loved (OSU) any more and loved the state of Oklahoma more.”
Gallagher-Iba Arena is now a modern, 21st Century facility. It seats in excess of 14,000 and hosts the university’s annual commencement exercises along with men’s and women’s basketball and wrestling. It is a large part of Stillwater and Oklahoma’s sports history dating back to before World War II.
During the months of May and June, the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History welcomes The Oklahoma History Center’s traveling exhibit “Oklahoma Sports,” which highlights many of the impactful figures in the state’s rich sports history.
The Oklahoma History Center launched the traveling exhibits program in 1999 with “All Black Towns of Oklahoma,” which will be at the Sheerar Museum in February and March of 2018.
The number of traveling exhibits has grown over the last decade, including “Oklahoma Sports,” which was developed with assistance from the Oklahoma Humanities. It was designed to highlight sports history in Oklahoma, and to accompany the Smithsonian traveling exhibit that the Pioneer Woman museum in Ponca City hosted called “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America.”
Once the Smithsonian exhibit moved on, the Oklahoma History Center decided to offer the sports exhibit as part of the traveling exhibits program to extend its life and continue with a mission of offering a diverse group of exhibits to communities outside Oklahoma City.
The Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History is administered by the Stillwater Museum Association, a 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization. To learn more about how you can support the Museum, visit us at 702 S. Duncan in Stillwater, call the office at 405-377-0359, or visit our website at www.sheerarmuseum.org. The Museum is free to the public, open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1-4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.