Leistikow: Patience required, but Brands has Iowa wrestling set for a comeback
ST. LOUIS — For those who want a new chapter to begin in Iowa wrestling, there’s bad news and good news.
The bad: Penn State Mountain is imposing, and it isn’t going anywhere. Cael Sanderson's Nittany Lions ran away with their sixth NCAA championship in seven years this weekend at the Scottrade Center.
The good: The new chapter for the Hawkeyes has already begun. And they have the right guy at the top in Tom Brands.
A lot of Iowa fans are upset and disappointed this week, and it’s understandable. They see that for the second time in three years, a lineup with five senior starters fell well short of an NCAA team championship.
They see another program doing what Iowa used to do when Dan Gable was in charge — reeling off title after title, often in dominant fashion.
They know that Iowa’s NCAA finishes are third, third, fourth, fourth, second, fifth and (this year) fourth since the program’s run of three championships from 2008-2010.
Fourth place is not the standard for Brands or Iowa. It never will be the standard.
To understand where Iowa went wrong and where it’s going, let’s revisit this week two years ago.
That 2015 Hawkeye team was supposed to win an NCAA title here in St. Louis, with five guys from 2010's No. 1-ranked recruiting class in their fifth and final years.
That senior group not only under-performed — with two getting totally shut out, another winning just two consolation bouts and only Bobby Telford (fifth) and Mike Evans (sixth) earning all-American status — but there was trouble back home, too.
That week, freshman wrestlers Seth Gross, Ross Lembeck and Logan Ryan were arrested on alcohol-related charges. They were ultimately dismissed from the team. A partially wasted recruiting class.
It underscored that the Hawkeye culture, on the mat and off it, was in disarray.
And it’s when the new chapter of Iowa wrestling had to begin.
Once 2015 ended, the baton of leadership was handed to nose-to-the-grindstone seniors such as Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, Topher Carton, Alex Meyer and Sammy Brooks.
All five made the national tournament. Clark reached his third straight national final and earned his elusive championship. Gilman finished third and Brooks fourth.
The results could have been better.
But their most important legacy, which is already showing up, was to help restore a do-it-right culture inside the wrestling room.
They've hosted recruits. They've been a daily example of work ethic that was needed after 2015.
“It’s gotten better since I’ve gotten here,” Gilman said. “No discredit to anybody that’s come and gone, but we’re a tighter-knit group of guys.”
Brands certainly has culpability when Iowa falls short in any area.
The buck stops with him, and he knows that.
But give him credit for taken the lessons that led up to and included 2015 and reshaping his approach.
"This is something that works itself out after you go through a period, where ... maybe there's a part of the program that isn't running as smooth as you want it to," Brands said in a comment that is as close as he'll get to dig up the past.
He got more aggressive in recruiting high-octane wrestlers with high character.
That season, he landed his first two commitments from the Pennsylvania-based Young Guns Club, a productive wrestling pipeline which emphasizes character, in Kaleb Young (who redshirted this year) and Michael Kemerer.
All Kemerer did this week was become the highest-finishing Iowa freshman (third) since Matt McDonough won it all in 2010.
Two more Young Guns have signed in Spencer Lee (the nation’s top pound-for-pound prospect) and Max Murin, and another has committed in Class of 2018 prospect Gavin Teasdale.
Brands also signed the nation’s No. 1 195-pounder from Illinois in Jacob Warner and had top Ohio recruit Alex Marinelli redshirting in his room this winter.
“It’s just getting the right guys in, and getting the good culture and stuff like that going,” Kemerer said Saturday. “Our coaches know how to produce champions. It’s just going to take getting us young guys on board.”
What about the wrestling side of things?
Change is needed, but guys such as Kemerer are setting a good tone. He scored 19 team points for the Hawkeyes this week — second-most on the team, only one behind national champion Clark's 20 — with four major decisions and a technical fall on his way to the third-place finish.
Penn State has revealed the title-winning blueprint, showing that nowadays it’s more important to have a handful of high-scoring stars than seven guys finishing between fourth and seventh (as Oklahoma State did this week in finishing third).
The Nittany Lions' quintet of champions, Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, Vincenzo Joseph, Mark Hall and Bo Nickal, easily scored enough team points to win an NCAA title by themselves.
And get ready for a blue-and-white 2018: They're all back next year.
It's a near-certainty that 2018 will be another year without an Iowa team title, with Kemerer and Brandon Sorensen the only returning all-Americans.
Brands' message to the hungry, impatient Hawkeye fans?
“We’ve got some freshmen that are in the stands right now watching (including Lee). We have a recruiting class coming in," Brands said. "And we’ll keep making progress.”
Something else worth noting for fans yearning for the Gable days: The national landscape is far more diverse than the 1980s, 1990s and even 2000s. Programs across the country, from Arizona State and North Carolina State, are making heavy financial investments into wrestling coaching-staff expansion and infrastructure.
Heck, Iowa State just promised Kevin Dresser a $300,000 annual paycheck to try to turn its program around.
It’s only going to get tougher, as the non-Penn States fight each other to become the leading challenger.
But Brands has done a good job over the last two years, behind the scenes, redirecting the program to a better path.
Leadership is in place; Gilman and Clark will likely stay in the room as part of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.
Young, big-time wrestlers are either in house or on the way.
By 2019 or 2020, maybe Brands and Co. can make a legitimate climb at conquering Penn State Mountain.
“(The seniors) made mistakes, but they stayed on board. And when you stay on board with accountability in situations like that, you can do a lot of things the next year below them," Brands said, "(and) the year after that, the year after that.
"We analyze and go forward, just like we did last year. We'll get there. We'll get there."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.