Leistikow: No great reason for Iowa to hold back Spencer Lee any longer
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Two major eligibility decisions revealed Wednesday delivered seismic impacts to two of the University of Iowa’s most storied athletic programs.
Josh Jackson skipping his last year in football? Easy call.
The consensus all-American cornerback had nothing left to prove at the college level, can still get his degree in May and almost assuredly will sign a contract for guaranteed NFL millions at some point in 2018.
Spencer Lee taking off the redshirt in wrestling? That’s a less clear-cut verdict.
“When you have an option to redshirt or not,” head coach Tom Brands says, “you don’t rush into it.”
But the decision is in: Lee will become the first non-grayshirted true freshman in Brands’ 12 years to wrestle in Iowa’s varsity lineup when he takes the Carver-Hawkeye Arena mat at 7 p.m. Friday against Michigan State.
A bold call. Is it the right call?
Here’s how I see it: We may never know if Brands is making the perfect decision. But it’s not the wrong decision.
Lee is mentally and physically ready. He’s by far the best 125-pounder in the Iowa wrestling room. His family is on board. And so is his coach.
“I’ve always been ready to go,” Lee says. “There’s never been one moment.”
There are plenty of valid reasons Brands could’ve saved Lee until the 2018-19 season.
Yet for every argument that it makes sense to keep Lee in redshirt, I can find you a counter-argument that it would be silly to keep perhaps the most decorated recruit in program history on the bench.
Lee’s coming off a torn ACL: Why not wait?
The phenom had March surgery on his right knee. A typical ACL recovery takes six to nine months.
You could argue that with an additional nine months of training and teaching by the Brands brothers, Lee would be stronger and more prepared to compete at the high Division I level.
“That probably makes his more unique, where you hold him off,” Brands acknowledges. “He wasn’t even wrestling live until October. You’re just seeing how he’s going to look, how he feels and how he’s going forward.”
Lee’s recovery has been aggressive. His knee looks impressive. “100 percent confident” in it, he says.
Lee whipped returning all-American Sean Russell of Edinboro by technical fall, in just over 4 minutes, while wrestling unattached at the recent Midlands Championships.
Another consideration that makes pulling the redshirt smart: Although he's been dominant throughout his young career, Lee has a history of wrestling through injury. He won the first of his three world titles with two cracked ribs. He won another with a torn labrum.
Remember, 133-pounder Cory Clark experienced tremendous injury adversity from the get-go in his fifth year at Iowa. Yeah, he fought through torn wrist ligaments and a shoulder that kept popping out of socket to win a national title. But in an ideal world, Clark could’ve redshirted and come back stronger.
Lee now has that option down the road, should he need it.
The mental side of wrestling is too important to risk.
Lee is coming off his first collegiate loss, a controversial 3-1 defeat to then-No. 14 Ronnie Bresser of Oregon State. Shouldn’t that alone be a red flag that Lee isn’t ready to contend for a national title?
Brands has been ultra-careful about the mindset it takes to wrestle as a first-year freshman. That was a common perceived mistake in the Jim Zalesky era — that the Hawkeyes broke too many potential stars by throwing them to the wolves too early.
Brands' track record on redshirting guys has worked well. Think Derek St. John, think Brandon Sorensen.
Lee, though, is a cut from a different cloth.
“A unique competitor, a unique talent, good student, good kid," says Brands, an Olympic gold medalist and three-time NCAA champion who knows a thing or two about getting to the top. "Represents our program the way we want our young guys to represent our program. He reminds me of me socially, not in wrestling. He would’ve whipped my tail when I was his age."
MORE ON TOM BRANDS:Inside the Iowa coach's relentlessly intricate world
Lee says he's "100 percent" mentally ready: "This is a mental sport. This is what I live for."
Iowa isn’t winning the NCAA title, with or without Lee.
That’s perhaps the most common argument from the Hawkeye fans who would prefer to hold Lee back a year. But who’s to say now that Iowa will have a better shot in 2022, Lee’s would-be fifth season?
We know the landscape now will be difficult. But after being ranked around 10th in the preseason, Iowa wrestling has built some early-season momentum, especially at the upper weights. There's growing buzz. And Lee adds to it.
Redshirt freshman Alex Marinelli looks like an all-American at 165 pounds. Sophomore Cash Wilcke (at 197) and junior Sam Stoll (at heavyweight) made impressive runs to Midlands titles and suddenly find themselves in the conversation for a top-four national finish.
And that’s not to mention the Pat Downey possibility. The plan is for the mercurial but ultra-talented 184-pounder to join the Hawkeyes as a graduate transfer, if he gets accepted. Downey could be in the Hawkeye lineup as soon as Jan. 14 against Oklahoma State. If he is in the fold … Iowa has a fourth bona fide national title contender, along with Lee, senior Sorensen (149) and sophomore Michael Kemerer (157).
TrackWrestling.com’s rankings through Midlands put Iowa fourth in the NCAA team race. That was without Lee, without Downey. Adding Lee still probably isn't enough to catch Ohio State or Penn State. But it certainly make things interesting.
Iowa could be in the running for third place, when a lot of people thought the Hawkeyes would be lucky to finish sixth or seventh.
And don't forget that Lee can offer bonus points that are crucial to NCAA scoring.
“It’s huge," says Kemerer, who wrestled with Lee at Franklin Catholic Regional High School in western Pennsylvania. "You see the bonus-point potential he has … he can score lots of points, score them fast, turn guys over, pin them. It’s awesome. I’m excited.”
This hurts his chances at being a four-timer.
Iowa has six three-time NCAA champions in its storied history: Ed Banach, Barry Davis, Lincoln McIlravy, Joe Williams, Brands and Zalesky.
The Hawkeyes have never had a four-timer.
There was immediate hope Lee could be the first. There still is. But the 125-pound weight class is stacked this year, with 2015 NCAA champion Nathan Tomasello (Ohio State) and 2017 champion Darian Cruz (Lehigh) among the leaders.
Ballpark guess, Lee will be ranked around 10th when he finally takes the varsity mat for the first time. He'll quickly rise the ranks, though, if he does what he can do.
Wouldn’t the path be easier to wait a year? Maybe. But as soon as some stars graduate, others always arrive.
You can probably predict Lee's response to this question.
“I don’t see why that matters," he says. "You have to believe you can beat anyone on any given day, anywhere, anytime — or else you’re in the wrong sport.”
He sure sounds ready.
We're about to find out.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.