Inside the relentlessly intricate world of Iowa's Tom Brands
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Before you read this story, think about Tom Brands for a few seconds.
What's the first adjective that comes to mind?
Eccentric? Intense? Relentless?
None of those would be wrong.
“As a wrestling fan,” Olympian Daniel Dennis observes, “you only see the crazy son of a gun bouncing around in the chair in the corner. Right?”
Yet, there’s so much more to know about the real Tom Brands.
He’s the trusted friend and co-worker who busts your gut without even trying to be funny.
He’s the loving husband who opens the door for you.
He’s the consistent father of three who mixes the discipline you’d expect with the leniency and the fun you wouldn’t.
He’s the imperfect but devoted Christian who literally wears out his Bible with daily, scrupulous notes.
He's the outspoken brother who is as quick to butt heads with his twin as he is to bury the hatchet afterward.
He’s the observant and caring son who helped save his father’s life by steering him to a path of sobriety.
And, of course, he’s this: the high-profile, 12th-year head coach of one of the country’s most storied college sports programs.
The pressure Thomas Nelson Brands II faces by being in charge of Iowa wrestling is incredible. His Hawkeyes have stretched together 10 straight top-five national finishes.
But that’s not good enough.
Not good enough for the fans.
Not good enough for him.
“Winning is everything,” Brands says. “And you know what? That’s OK. That’s how the world is.
“I’m not one of these guys (that tries to tell fans), ‘Hey, you guys expect too much.’ No way. No way. I’m on the same page as you. And I know we need to do a better job.”
And as summer arrives, he and the Hawkeye wrestling program enter a period of transition.
There’s massive roster turnover. There’s a rival in-state program making noise by hiring four former Hawkeyes. There’s a major staff addition in Mark Perry returning to Iowa City to run the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. And then there’s the most prized recruit of the Brands era: Spencer Lee arrives in about a week.
To get a better feel for the man in charge of it all, I asked if I could spend a day with Brands to see what makes him tick. Let’s do it, he said.
I knew a lot about him already: legendary stories of competitive drive; three-time NCAA champion at Iowa; 1996 Olympic gold medalist; successful and quotable coach.
But in hours and hours of conversation with Brands and those closest to him, I learned a lot more about him than I ever expected.
This is the real Tom Brands.
Beginning with modesty
Most mornings, Brands rises before the sun does.
(Brands 1, Day 0.)
As early as 4 a.m., he’ll look out the window of his elevated back porch and think about the stuff that’s constantly racing through his 49-year-old head: the latest in politics, his faith, looming administrative tasks in the day ahead and, most of all, wrestling.
He doesn’t head to the office, though, without spending time with his wife of nearly 22 years. Jennifer Brands is a rock of support by her husband’s side. The Sioux City-raised daughter of a wrestling fanatic is the perfect match for Tom.
“I have deep, deep respect and like for my wife. I like her a lot. And I love her. But I like her a lot. I like hanging out with her,” Tom says. “She’s a great partner. … Hopefully, I’m a loving husband. I know I’m hard to live with. I know I have shortcomings.”
Jeni understands the commitment that comes with trying to compete at the world’s highest level. She, too, is a wrestling die-hard. The only NCAA Championships she hasn’t attended since 1986 — years before she met Tom — was when the couple was expecting their second daughter during the week of the 1999 national tournament in State College, Pa.
How they met and their eventual first date is a story.
Two classes younger, Jeni was a mat aide at Iowa and developed a crush on Tom. But, when he asked for her number one day after a wrestling camp, she nearly blew it.
“I just made a comment, ‘It’s in the phone book.’ I didn’t think he could remember it,” she recalls. “It wasn’t a brush-off. … But he took it as kind of a brush-off.”
Eventually, fate gave them another chance. An on-a-whim trip to Lake Okoboji in 1990 with fellow Iowa wrestler Mike Manganiello brought Tom and Jeni together again.
Her dad, Don Mittelstadt, was a friend of Dan Gable’s and had a place in the resort town.
When Tom and Mike showed up, Jeni was at the house.
“She was dressed to kill,” Tom recalls.
They went out and hit it off to the point where he rode in her car the five hours back to Iowa City.
On their first date that soon followed, Tom showed up with a borrowed car from teammate Tom Ryan — now one of Brands’ top rival coaches at Ohio State — and a yellow rose.
Why yellow? “Different than a red rose,” he says.
They went to a movie, "Navy SEALs." She remembers being impressed by his politeness, how he opened her doors and that he looked her in the eyes as they talked.
Tom Brands, the romantic.
It was hardly the hyper-intense, takedown maniac Jeni saw from the edge of the wrestling mat.
“When I first started dating Tom, my sorority sisters would ask, ‘Is he mean to you?’ And I just laughed at them,” she says. “I had never met such a polite guy in my entire life. He was so considerate. … Just a nice, nice guy.”
During home meets at Iowa, Jeni was often responsible for tracking riding time on the scoreboard.
Perhaps the biggest secret of their thriving marriage has been doing the opposite.
Scorekeepers — “You did this, so now I get to do that” — are one of Tom Brands’ top pet peeves. In coaching, and in life.
“We don’t keep score,” Jeni says. “We let each other live. It’s worked out well.”
On this Tuesday morning, Jeni is awake inside the modest, east Iowa City home they built in 2000. She fuels the start of her husband's day with an egg or two (usually hard-boiled or fried), toast and a vegetable smoothie.
Shortly after 5:30 a.m., Tom is ready to go. He sets a half-finished glass into the cup holder of his pickup truck and heads toward Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the day ahead.
Enduring with loyalty
The offices are quiet. Soon, the area will be bustling with bodies. A morning workout for the Hawkeye Wrestling Club starts in a few hours.
Around 6:30, a door opens.
“Who’s there?” Tom says without leaving the chair at his desk.
“Terry Brands,” the monotone voice replies, as if there’s another Terry expected at this hour in the Iowa wrestling hallway.
Tom and Terry Brands have operated in close quarters throughout their lives, including before they took their first breaths.
Tom was born 5 minutes before his identical twin brother (who now serves professionally as his right-hand man and Iowa’s associate head wrestling coach) on April 9, 1968.
“It’s long been debated,” Bonnie Brands says of her only children, “whether Terry pushed him out in a wrestling match or whether Tom won and came out first.”
The Brands brothers, as most who follow the Hawkeyes know, are legendary competitors from their days growing up in Sheldon.
“They didn’t want one or the other to be ahead of the other, on anything,” Tom Brands Sr. says. “Baseball, football, girlfriends.”
When there was a conflict, Tom Sr. would sit back in his chair and let them settle it themselves — often with their fists.
“Probably the last time we threw hammers was 10 years ago,” Terry says now. “And that’s stupid, because you’re 39 years old, you know?"
In 1996, a Sports Illustrated article on the Olympics-driven twins quoted Tom as saying, “When I get on top of an opponent, I want to rip out his arm, and hand back a bloody stump.”
Tom would claim Olympic gold in Atlanta in 1996; Terry would earn Olympic bronze in the 2000 Sydney Games. But perhaps their most important victory came as children, when they collectively steered their father into recovery.
“They were never shy about saying what needed to be said,” Tom Sr. says. “They said, ‘You need to stop drinking. You need to do something. Do something. We love you. We support you.’ … It finally registered.”
Now living in Iowa City, Tom Sr. is proud to say he hasn’t had a drink in more than 36 years.
“I grew up watching what that did,” Terry says. “A lot of people become victims through that and continue the behavior, as opposed to stopping the behavior. You break the habit. You stop the habit.”
Tom remembers being a passenger in his father’s car when he was about 11, the age when his parents divorced, and looking at the hand gripping the steering wheel.
Something as simple as that became lifestyle-altering imagery.
“That hand right there, it looks like my hand,” Tom remembers thinking. “… I didn’t know genetics, but I remember, ‘My blood is his blood. His blood is in me.’
“How do you figure that out? Well, because you wake up in the middle of the night and your mom and dad are shouting at each other — because of alcohol. And you know what? He got through it. Not many kids are proud of their parents. I’m proud of my dad.”
Tom’s bachelor party in 1995 was at a friend’s house along the Iowa River in Marengo. Terry was the best man.
They grilled out. They brought shotguns, shells and clay birds.
No alcohol, no strippers.
Just down-home fun among brothers.
“Who’s normal here?” Tom contends. “You know what I mean? It’s not boring. How many times do you have time to stay all day and shoot trap?
“I had my best friends there. We’re different. Not better than anybody. Just different.”
Charming with personality
The Bluebird Diner on Market Street is a regular late-morning haunt for the Iowa wrestling staff. And that’s the plan today. By 10 a.m., after the early training session and a shower, the coaches are famished.
Even before a waitress arrives, Tom Brands has his cellphone stopwatch engaged, ready to serve as referee for a recurring menu challenge: Who takes the longest to order? Terry is typically the most deliberate, but he hasn’t arrived yet. Today, a new “winner” will be crowned — director of operations Luke Eustice. It took him a Brands-timed 19 seconds to articulate his order.
When Terry finally walks in, he overhears his brother saying something that has the rest of the table cackling.
“Is Tom making fun of me again?” he says.
Later, Tom pretends to pour the table’s pot of coffee into Terry’s mug reserved for his standard order of tea.
When Tom turns around, Terry pretends to poke a fork in his brother’s lower back.
“(Tom's) got a lot more of a personality than most people see,” says Dennis, another late arrival to breakfast. “He makes jokes. Cracks them left and right. He’s got a crazy sense of humor.”
The morning is hardly consistent with the outside perception of the twin faces of the Hawkeye program, which goes something like this:
All they care about is wrestling. They’ll run you into the ground. They don’t know how to let loose.
In short: They’re fun-hating robots.
“People see me as straightforward and probably unapologetic to the point where, if you want to use it against me, I’m heartless,” Tom says. “But if you want to get on the same page, then we’re going to do great things together.”
Enter Spencer Lee.
One of the most decorated wrestling prospects in decades chose to wrestle at Iowa — rather than Penn State, situated 2 hours from his native Murrysville, Pa.
Lee's choice has Hawkeye fans buzzing. Getting the best of Penn State, which has won six of the seven NCAA Championships since Iowa won its last of three straight in 2010, hasn’t happened a lot lately.
“That came at a time when we were kind of down with the recruiting,” Terry says. “And we had a really, really smart kid actually dissect the program and come to the conclusion that, ‘This is the best place for me to continue to develop.’ That should tell you a lot about how we can unwind and rub shoulders with a guy like Spencer Lee.”
The weekend before Lee committed to Iowa, he was in town for the 2016 Olympic Trials. The Hawkeyes were clicking with Lee, and Brands called in a favor with hopes of closing the deal.
“It’s Iowa or Penn State. We need every edge we can get,” Tom remembers thinking during Lee’s visit. “Get on the phone.”
They reached out to see if a meeting could be arranged with Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz — who, like Lee, grew up in the Pittsburgh area.
Director of football operations Paul Federici answered.
“A couple weeks from now?”
“No, a few hours.”
“Bring ’em over.”
Ferentz would sit down with Lee and fellow Pennsylvania prospect Gavin Teasdale for about 30 minutes that April weekend.
That Ferentz obliged for Iowa wrestling, with spring football in full swing, demonstrates the level of respect Brands commands in Iowa City.
Strength coach Chris Doyle and then-offensive line coach Brian Ferentz were in the football weight room that day and engaged with Lee, too.
“Why would you go anywhere else?” they told the now-three-time junior world champion. “It’s the best lightweight factory in the country.”
Lee committed the following weekend. And he said this of the Brands brothers: “They’re funny guys. They have a great sense of humor, believe it or not.”
Lee is the headliner of a star-studded recruiting class that'll arrive in about a week as Iowa tries to restock its roster to eventually make a run at Penn State.
How Brands manages Lee’s journey at Iowa could define the next phase of his coaching career. Lee tore his ACL on Jan. 23 and is just two months removed from surgery.
“My first challenge with Spencer Lee is right now,” Brands says, “and that is he does his rehab right.
“He’s feeling good right now, and he’s really eager. He’s a guy that does not want to let the grass grow under his feet.”
He sounds like Tom Brands, then.
“He’s better," the coach says. "He’s way better. Seriously. ... He’s a freak, in a good way. I love these kinds of freaks.”
As breakfast at the Bluebird winds down, Brands covertly scoops up the check and pays the whole thing — something he is known to do.
Eight breakfasts, plus beverages and tip.
“Thanks, boss,” they say.
Moving with clarity
No matter the situation, Tom Brands has a hard time sitting still. On family vacation — even on his honeymoon — two days in one location is the max.
As he drives back to the arena, he picks the route based on green lights and where he can make right turns on red.
Keep moving forward.
The philosophy works, whether behind the wheel of his truck or in the wrestling room. The idea that Brands can’t handle defeat is a lie.
He is driven by defeat and lives in the truth. And he always moves forward.
“If he starts thinking in terms of negative, he has the ability to turn it to a positive and act on it,” Tom Brands Sr. says. “That’s probably the best trait Tom has.”
That’s illustrated in a recruiting story Tom hasn’t publicly told, until now.
In the fall of 2014, there was a wrestler before Lee from Murrysville, Pa., who Iowa was targeting.
Michael Kemerer had narrowed his college choices to Iowa and Lehigh, a respected in-state program. And he had just left Iowa City with an uncomfortable feeling after his official-visit weekend.
That Monday, once Brands learned of Kemerer's unease, action was swift — and bold.
“I looked at (assistant Ryan) Morningstar and Terry, and I said, ‘I’ve gotta go,’” Brands recalls. “… This was something I had to own.”
So, he did. He drove through the night, with only a brief stop for sleep — covering 10½ hours of highway between Carver-Hawkeye Arena and the Kemerers’ home in western Pennsylvania.
“It was kind of crazy to me,” Kemerer says. “But I understand now. That’s just how he’s wired.”
Brands remembers the thrust of his kitchen-table plea:
“Our guys make mistakes, Michael. But that’s why we’re recruiting you. We’re recruiting you because you're not that guy. We know what we got. That’s what we need. We’ve got another guy, (Alex) Marinelli, he’s a junior. He’s just like you; he doesn’t drink alcohol. He’s serious about the sport of wrestling.
“We know your lifestyle. That’s how my lifestyle is. I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t go to Vegas and party. I don’t (fool) around on my wife. This is who we are. We are who you are.”
Almost immediately after Brands’ visit, Kemerer announced he would be a Hawkeye. Kemerer is the first in what’s been billed as a Pennsylvania pipeline of prospects to compete on Iowa’s roster.
“We needed him,” Brands says.
If Brands doesn’t drive through the night, maybe Iowa doesn’t reel in Kemerer — who as a redshirt freshman last season placed third at the NCAAs at 157 pounds and achieved academic all-America status with a 3.7 GPA.
If Brands doesn’t drive through the night, maybe Spencer Lee is given a different impression about the Hawkeye program, too, and doesn’t follow his Franklin Regional High School teammate to Iowa City.
Rather than shy from adversity, Brands charges into it.
“Tom, he tells the truth. He won’t hide anything from you,” Kemerer says. “He’s saying what he’s thinking. He’s not going to hold back. That’s a good thing. I like it a lot.”
AN EARLY LOOK: What Iowa wrestling might face in 2017-18
Inspiring with accountability
It’s a question that only a select few can fully answer, yet it’s one of those things you can’t help but wonder.
What’s it like to wrestle for Tom Brands?
He’ll be the first to acknowledge it's not for everybody.
“You’ve got to hold up your end of the bargain,” Brands says. “But we will deliver.”
At 3 p.m., the day’s second Hawkeye Wrestling Club workout is about to begin. Dozens of wrestlers, several of whom are in final preparations for the June 9-10 World Team Trials in Lincoln, Neb., are voluntarily here and ready to grind.
But before the sweat flows, three wrestlers — including three-time all-American Brandon Sorensen — will stand in front of their peers and read hand-written reports about what they learned from the previous day’s organized training with actual Navy SEALs.
“Unbelievable to see our guys under stress,” Brands says. “You can see the characteristics that make them good.”
The letter-reading may seem goofy. But when you get to know Brands, you realize everything in his world hinges on personal accountability.
Jeni Brands says her husband reads the Bible he’s had since college every day. He uses it so often, she recently had it re-bound.
“He puts so much pressure on himself,” she says. “He looks to God to show him, to lead him.”
Brands doesn’t talk as candidly about his faith as does his brother, but it’s something that the twins gravitated to during childhood.
"They always wanted to get better,” Bonnie Brands says, “and knew there was a higher power to help them.”
And, as you might imagine with Tom Brands, it all ties into wrestling.
How he lives, how he approaches coaching is “definitely Jesus-inspired.”
“Who do you answer to when you wake up in the morning?” he says. “Are you selfishly answering to what you want to do all the time, or are you doing the right thing?
“The bottom line is, when you’ve got guys that are doing the right thing and they’re invested, that’s when you’re going to have a team that is pretty solid.
“It doesn’t matter if they have a strong faith or not. It matters on their accountability level, their commitment level, their independence level. The selfless element that goes into (that). It’s complicated.”
If you listen to Brands for even a few minutes, you know he doesn’t sugar-coat his words. If something seems off, he intercedes. The way he describes it, if he feels something different beneath his feet, he’ll rip up the carpet to learn the cause.
Yet, Brands also admits he’ll often withhold information — such as a lineup or redshirt decision — from an athlete.
“I want their edge sharp,” Brands says.
At this afternoon workout, he sees something he doesn't like. So he gets within inches from a prized Hawkeye freshman’s face and questions his ability to hold up over the duration of a 70-minute workout.
Morningstar, the sixth-year Iowa assistant, deems Brands’ style as effectively unpredictable.
“There is a line that you need to ride but not cross, where the athlete loses your respect and stops to care,” Morningstar says, “and knows you aren’t just busting his chops to bust his chops.
“He's very good at reading that line — and knowing when to throw his arm around them and build them up.”
Two of Brands’ most successful wrestlers at Iowa, lightweights Tony Ramos and Thomas Gilman, had their own personal issues as freshmen.
“I looked at (Ramos) right in the eyeball like this,” Brands says, scooting up in his chair. “And I said, ‘We’ve got some things we need to talk about with your lifestyle and what’s going on.’ That was a moment in his career that made a difference. Gilman’s career, it made a difference.”
In Lincoln, both guys will battle — perhaps against each other — for a spot on the U.S. world team.
Sometimes, a wrestler’s career takes the opposite trajectory: Up then down.
Matt McDonough, who made the 125-pound NCAA finals in each of his first three seasons at Iowa, struggled as a senior and missed the all-American stand entirely.
His story underscores a lesser-known truth about Tom Brands.
Winning on the mat isn’t always everything. Personal winning is.
Let McDonough explain.
“(The senior year) eats me alive. But … why I’m so close with Tom Brands, is that I was never just let go,” says McDonough, who remains a key piece of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. “He didn’t pamper me or baby me or hug me and tell me it’ll all be OK. But he didn’t throw me to the wolves (just) because I was at a low time in my career. … He helped me work through that.
“As a mentor to me, he’s done more than I could ever tell you in one interview.”
Ending with family
After taking one more shower and grabbing his keys, Brands is ready to head home just after 5 p.m. — pretty early by his standards. Tonight, there are no I-Club obligations, no competitions, no check-ups on injured wrestlers.
How does Tom Brands unwind?
He reads. A lot. If you catch his nose in a book, it'll probably be about history, the military or leadership.
If he watches TV, it’s usually a documentary.
“Something informational,” Jeni says.
How about Tom Brands as a father?
The couple has three children: daughters Madigan, 19, and Kinsee, 18; and son Tommy, 17.
Here’s an image for you: 1998 Tom, 1½ years removed from winning Olympic gold, carrying infant Madigan around the sidewalks of Iowa City’s west side while wearing sound-proof headphones to drown out her loud crying.
As the kids grew older, Tom leaned on one primary rule: Do your homework.
And here’s a little surprise.
“He’s not super strict,” Madigan says. “He trusts us a lot. We have a lot of freedom. But if we do something wrong, we get a little talk.”
Madigan, a sophomore pre-business major at Iowa and a wrestling team manager, tells of her dad’s silly behavior with her friends.
“He doesn’t have rhythm,” she says. “He’ll dance … and kind of embarrass us. He’ll tell jokes, like a dad.”
All part of the tactical plan, Tom says.
“I’m kind of goofy that way. Because I want to know who’s in my basement. So I go down,” he says. “Plus, they get to know me a little bit. It’s not the big, bad wolf. There’s a stereotype out there.”
Ask Brands about his family, though, and he’ll point to the annual one-week vacation they take out West each summer, usually by car. Last year, it was Glacier National Park in Montana. The location varies. But they always make time.
“That’s the best thing we did,” Tom says. “Those are the best memories we have.”
It doesn't surprise Jeni that her husband connects with and knows how to handle their teenagers. He gets plenty of practice every day in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.
“Whenever I’d have frustrations with friends or sports," Madigan attests, "he’d always talk me through it. And I’d always feel better after I talked to him.”
"A parent’s job is not to micromanage," her father says. "A parent’s job is to … equip them with accountability and independence.”
At 5:30, he pulls into his driveway. It’s been a good day.
And being home is a good reminder that Tom Brands the husband, Tom Brands the father and Tom Brands the coach are intertwined.
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.i