IOWA CITY, Ia. – Tom Brands barely sat back in his chair Thursday afternoon at the start of Iowa wrestling media day when the first cut-to-the-chase question flew his way.
It's been a while since you've been at the top of the heap. What will you do different this year to get back on top in March?
"Well," Brands said, "thanks for reminding us."
The Hawkeyes certainly need no reminders of their place on college wrestling's pecking order. When Penn State hoisted the national title trophy for the fourth consecutive time in March and Iowa went home fourth for the second straight year, Brands launched an in-house assessment.
"Number one, you look at yourself first," the Iowa coach said after a 27-minute question and answer session. "If there is a gap between individuals and their understanding of a philosophy and an unwillingness to buy in because they're not exhibiting, then we have to be brave enough to (put someone else in the lineup).
"If there's a departure from the mentality (we need to) go with the guy who does it right, and I'm not talking about who's living right or who communicates with the coaches. I'm talking about who competes."
The Iowa wrestling coach weighs in on the 165-pounder's preparation for 2014-15.
Brands wasn't the only one in the Iowa camp who took inventory during the offseason. Nick Moore stewed for months over the conclusion to a once-promising junior season at 165 pounds. Mike Evans simmered after his year ended with three consecutive losses and a sixth-place finish when he was inches from reaching the NCAA finals.
"Are we leaving points unscored?" Evans asked rhetorically. "Are we wrestling every match like it's the final match you're going to wrestle?"
In what could be a free-for-all for the 2015 national title, the Hawkeyes can't afford to leave points on the table again next March. Iowa opens the season ranked No. 1 in the NWCA Coaches' Poll, but at least two other publications have Minnesota at the top. Ohio State, Cornell and a few others figure to factor into the championship chase, as well.
For the first time since his first season as Iowa's head coach, Brands doesn't have an NCAA champion on his roster. Seniors Tony Ramos and Derek St. John departed with titles and left behind a team with four returning All-Americans, a mountain of potential and a bunch of wrestlers still trying to climb the NCAA medal podium.
Sophomores Thomas Gilman (125) and Cory Clark (133) were two of the nation's top rookie lightweights last year when they split time at 125 before Clark earned the postseason nod and finished fifth at the national tournament.
Evans and heavyweight Bobby Telford are back after collecting All-America honors for the second time each.
NCAA qualifier Brody Grothus, skilled freshman Brandon Sorensen and transfer Edwin Cooper, who reached the Division II national finals last year at Upper Iowa, are the core of a 149-pound battle that could spill into other lineup spots.
After a year at Upper Iowa, Edwin Cooper wound up at Iowa after all.
Then there's Moore, who spent months reflecting on how a sparkling junior season turned sour in less than 48 hours. He lost just twice during the regular season before going 2-2 at the NCAA Championships.
In the dead of summer, Brands nodded when he drove past Carver-Hawkeye Arena and found Moore wrapped in sweats and wearing a stocking cap while running in 95-degree heat. It was an illustration of a training phase that Brands has characterized as "angry and alone."
"It is hard to remember (last year's regular-season results), but I don't think that's a bad thing," Moore said. "As many good results that I had, I wouldn't want to justify my season on those results because at the end of the year it's based on how you do at that tournament. As many results that are admirable throughout the year, it really doesn't matter unless you put it together at the end of the year."
Iowa senior Nick Moore describes why he trained "angry and alone" during the summer.
MEET THE WRESTLERS
125 pounds — Thomas Gilman, so.: Council Bluffs native posted a 16-3 record last year that included a Midlands title and a win over NCAA champ Jesse Delgado of Illinois.
133 — Cory Clark, so.: Four-time state champ from Southeast Polk compiled a 22-4 record last year at 125 and placed fifth at the NCAA Championships at 125.
141 — Josh Dziewa, sr.: NCAA qualifier compiled a 27-10 record last year in his first season as a full-time starter.
or Topher Carton, so.: Davenport Assumption graduate has been the most improved wrestler on the team since the end of last season, according to coach Tom Brands.
149 — Brody Grothus, jr.: Posted a 24-12 record last year that included a win over NCAA champion Jason Tsirtsis of Northwestern.
or Brandon Sorensen, fr.: Four-time state champ from Denver-Tripoli placed third at Midlands last year as a redshirt when he went 24-4.
or Edwin Cooper, jr.: Reached the Division II national finals last year at Upper Iowa before joining the Hawkeyes in the offseason.
157 — Michael Kelly, sr.: Started for the Hawkeyes at points in each of the last three seasons at 149 pounds, where he compiled a 35-28 record.
165 — Nick Moore, sr.: Four-time state champ from Iowa City West was ranked as high as No. 4 last year when he went 23-5.
174 — Mike Evans, sr.: Two-time All-American placed sixth at the NCAA Championships for the second straight season during his 28-7 junior campaign.
184 — Sam Brooks, so.: Filled in for injured starter Ethen Lofthouse at 184 throughout the second half of the season and posted an 18-7 record.
197 — Nathan Burak, jr.: Earned All-America status by placing eighth at the NCAA Championships to cap a 19-8 sophomore season.
Hwt. — Bobby Telford, sr.: Enters the season ranked third at heavyweight after placing fourth at the NCAA Championships as a junior.
BREAKING DOWN THE HAWKEYES
Last season: The Hawkeyes compiled a 15-2 record, dropping home duals against Penn State and Minnesota while thumping Oklahoma State in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa made a push for the Big Ten title, taking Penn State to the wire at the conference meet, but the Hawkeyes fell out of contention for the national title midway through the NCAA Championships and finished fourth. Six Hawkeyes earned All-America honors, led by 133-pound national champion Tony Ramos. Iowa must replace Ramos and 2013 NCAA champ Derek St. John.
Strengths: The Hawkeyes have national title potential in a lineup that features four returning All-Americans and a couple skilled sophomores — Gilman and Brooks — who wrestled well in part-time roles last season. Throw in Moore and Grothus, whose performance in March didn't match up with their showing throughout the rest of the season, along with Sorensen and Cooper and this is a team with strength from top to bottom.
Concerns: For the first time since Tom Brands' first season as Iowa's head coach, the Hawkeyes don't have a national champion on their roster. Ramos became the face of the program through performance, aggressiveness, attitude and leadership. Who will fill that role?
November — 15: at Luther Open; 21: Iowa City Duals; 29: vs. Iowa State.
December — 6: vs. Michigan State; 29-30: at Midlands Championships.
January — 2: at Rutgers; 4: at Ohio State; 11: at Oklahoma State; 16: vs. Illinois; 23: vs. Northwestern; 30: at Minnesota.
February — 6: at Maryland; 8: at Penn State; 13: vs. Michigan; 15: Cliff Keen National Duals; 22: Cliff Keen National Duals.
March — 7-8: Big Ten Championships in Columbus, Ohio; 19-21: NCAA Championships in St. Louis.