Leistikow: A power move for Iowa wrestling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

CEDAR RAPIDS, Ia. — Outside, it was a cold and rainy Friday night. Inside the Kirkwood Community College Conference Center, though, it was easy to feel the heat.

Iowa wrestling fans, a notoriously passionate lot, were cranking out more fire than usual this week after hearing that Mark Perry would be returning to Iowa City.

There was no university announcement, because Perry’s return isn’t a university position. He’ll fill a newly created position that will head up the Hawkeye Wrestling Club — a position funded by donations from program supporters.

But the feeling and expectation is that Perry’s arrival could be a game-changer in how Iowa’s college program performs.

For starters, the two-time NCAA champion (2007, 2008) and four-time All-American at Iowa is a Tom Brands kind of guy.

Iowa head coach Tom Brands watches during the outdoor dual at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 14, 2015. Brands is trying to set the stage for a program comeback, and adding Mark Perry with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club is a good move.

“This guy thinks about wrestling 24 hours a day,” Brands, entering his 12th year as Iowa's head coach, said Friday prior to one of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club’s biggest annual fundraisers. “He’s got family, and he’s got wrestling. His hobbies are going to tournaments. His hobbies are coaching. That’s pretty important to us.”

More than 350 Hawkeye wrestling donors packed into a banquet hall Friday to fork over cash for a dinner buffet, bid on auction items and hear about a bold vision for Iowa wrestling's future.

Elbow room was at a premium. A record number of attendees, I was told.

That level of passion is something Perry didn't observe in his previous role as Illinois’ associate head coach.

“The state of Iowa … it’s just different here,” he said Friday. “The level that they appreciate wrestling is like no place I’ve ever been.”

That's saying something, coming from someone who is practically wrestling royalty.

Perry's uncle (on his mom's side) is the legendary John Smith. His father, Mark Sr., was a two-time All-American at Oklahoma State. His brother, Chris, won two NCAA titles for the Cowboys in their native Stillwater.

Perry, 32, is well-connected beyond his roots. He prepped at national power Blair (N.J.) Academy and has coached at Penn State, Cal-Poly and Illinois. 

“I don’t know how you can miss on that one,” said Terry Brands, Iowa’s associate head coach and Tom’s twin brother.

Illinois associate coach and former Hawkeye wrestler Mark Perry is shown in this 2013 photo at the NCAA Championships in Des Moines. Perry is returning to Iowa City as the head figure in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.

Those who don’t follow wrestling might wonder why a club position is such a big deal. In his role, Perry can't sit in the corners at college matches or recruit on the road.

But those who know the game — and where it’s going — understand that bolstering the club side can help bring in the elite wrestlers with world and Olympic dreams. And if those wrestlers are in the room, they're rolling around on the mats and helping the college guys up their games.

A thriving club is arguably a college wrestling program's most powerful recruiting tool.

At Penn State, guys like Jake Varner and David Taylor are training with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.

Closer to home, Iowa State is on the attack. The Cyclones made a big offseason splash on the college side by hiring a former Hawkeye in Virginia Tech’s Kevin Dresser, who brought in three more ex-Hawkeye All-Americans — Mike Zadick, Derek St. John and Brent Metcalf.

“(Adding Perry) is something that had to be done from a moving-forward point of view,” Terry Brands said. “As much as we like it internally, I think the fan base — the people that are keeping their eyes on us or their thumbs on us, you could say — really likes it. They like Mark. He’s got a dynamic personality.”

Perry has a sharp wardrobe to match. And a bold vision for his role in Iowa City.

Atop the list?

“We want to make this the best place on the planet to train,” he said. “It should be. It has been. I know we can take it to the next level. Tom and Terry giving me that opportunity — I’m a guy that loves pressure — I’m excited to deliver.”

He's known to meticulously study international techniques in places like Iran and Russia, with the ambitious goal of helping lead the United States to world wrestling dominance.

He's also a proven fundraiser. Even before Perry’s arrival, Iowa had raised more than $2 million with the goal of building a standalone wrestling facility. The current facility is no slouch — outsiders say it’s in the top-five nationally — in the bowels of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

But at Iowa, which owns 23 NCAA Championships but none since 2010, being the best is always the goal.

Perry's addition, Terry Brands said, "definitely bumps (fundraising) up another 10 notches."

“I’ve always been a free spirit about doing big and crazy things,” Perry said. “This is right up my alley. We’re doing something that’s never happened at the University of Iowa.”

If Perry’s successful in recharging the Hawkeye Wrestling Club — which is adding recent alums Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, Alex Meyer and Sammy Brooks to the payroll that already included the likes of Olympian Daniel Dennis — then the college program will reap the benefits.

The No. 1 wish for Hawkeye wrestling fans — and the hyper-competitive Brands brothers — is to be the best again. That means catching Penn State.

This probably isn't the year for that. The Nittany Lions have won six of the last seven NCAA titles, and there’s already talk that they’re going after Iowa’s all-time NCAA scoring record of 170 points, set in the raucous UNI-Dome under Dan Gable in 1997.

Meanwhile, Iowa is facing a 2018 rebuild but does welcome a star-studded recruiting class that includes three-time world champion Spencer Lee.

There’s no quick fix, although perceptive Hawkeye fans wonder short-term if two-time NCAA champion Isaiah Martinez would follow Perry from Illinois to Iowa as a graduate transfer.

Perry, of course, wasn’t going there. But he does hope Martinez, a 165-pounder in college, would someday call Iowa City home.

“Obviously, it was emotional this week. He was upset,” Perry said. “Not the path and the plan we had for each other. But the door will always be open in any way I can help him.

“I would definitely like to have him part of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club in the future. I think that guy has potential to be a multiple world champion. If he surrounds himself in an environment full of alphas like himself, the potential for him is limitless.”

The Perry move signals an aggressive play for Hawkeye wrestling.

Iowa fans, starving for NCAA supremacy, unquestionably sense its importance.

“We’re missing something. We’re missing a fanatic,” Tom Brands said. “Even though Mark Perry wasn’t the type of fanatic that maybe I was or Terry was or is, he’s … going to run wrestling through his head. That’s what we need.

“We need guys that are thinking about wrestling. And when they leave that room, they’re still thinking about wrestling. They’re still thinking about how to get better and move this thing forward.”

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.

Gilman advances to World Team Trials

Former Hawkeye Thomas Gilman remains alive for a spot on the U.S. freestyle team for this summer’s world wrestling championships in Paris.

Gilman rallied for a 7-6 victory over Daniel Deshazer in the 57-kilogram final at a last-chance qualifying event Saturday in Rochester, Minn. Gilman, who finished third at 125 pounds in the NCAA Championships in March, had trailed Deshazer 6-3 in the second period.

Gilman will join fellow Hawkeye Wrestling Club members Chris Dardanes, Nick Dardanes, Nathan Burak and Bobby Telford at the World Team Trials on June 10 in Lincoln, Neb. 

It’s possible that Gilman could meet up with former Hawkeye teammate Tony Ramos, who now trains in North Carolina, in the 57-kilkogram bracket.