Leistikow: How Tom Brands handles pressure while trying to push his Hawkeyes back to the top

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MOUNT VERNON, Iowa — Tom Brands kicked off his 14th media day as Iowa’s head wrestling coach wearing a heavy coat and a Hawkeye stocking cap, addressing questions about program expectations with corn stalks and hay bales surrounding him, on a 35-degree day just off Highway 1.

His program wasn’t trying to send a profound message by having the festivities at Kroul Farms, named for the family of a former Hawkeye football player, on the eve of Halloween.

Just “trying to do something different,” Brands says.

But there was some symbolism to be found.

Iowa 14th-year wrestling coach Tom Brands has carefully assembled a roster with high character and firepower.

As Brands spoke, whether in front of TV cameras or off to the side with a couple of reporters, his message was consistent. It will continue a farm-strong work ethic to try to chop down Penn State to get back on top in college wrestling.

But he doesn’t feel outside pressure that his program hasn’t won an NCAA team title since his second through fourth Iowa won it three times from 2008 to 2010.

That feeling may seem surprising, if you don't understand how Brands is wired.

But his only pressure comes from within.

The ultra-competitive fire that has always burned inside the 51-year-old will never go away.

“Our administration, our wrestlers and our staff are on the same page. We all expect to win every year,” Brands says. “Was my fire hotter in 2010 than it is now? No. Is my fire hotter now than it was in 2010? No. I’m a winner. I wake up every morning, and I battle.

“I wake up, and I’m out the door and I’m working.”

Every year around this time, we all wonder about Iowa: Is this the year?

Maybe. Preseason projections say Iowa has the second-best team in college wrestling. Penn State, of course, is No. 1. The Nittany Lions have won eight of the past nine championships.

But Brands can and should take comfort in knowing that he and his staff — behind a multiyear effort spear-headed by top assistants Terry Brands and Ryan Morningstar — have taken nearly half a decade to painstakingly assemble an impressive roster high in firepower and character.

The latter part is especially important to Brands, who boasts that the key wrestlers on this team — like Spencer Lee, Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer, who fittingly adorn the cover of Iowa’s media guide — don’t race downtown to grab a cocktail on Saturday nights.

That may not have been the case five years ago, before the nucleus of this roster began filing into Iowa City, started by Kemerer and Kaleb Young from the Young Guns wrestling club in Pennsylvania four years ago. Lee and others would soon follow.

“The roster is more intentional, maybe,” Brands says. “Our intent is to get these guys where their lifestyle is consistent with each other.

“That’s a big deal for me.”

With leaders like Lee, Marinelli and Kemerer, who all have two years of eligibility remaining (provided Kemerer gets a medical-hardship waiver, which should be a formality), others have followed. The Hawkeyes have been super-active in the transfer market in the past couple years.

Brands holds the bar high. Extremely high. He articulates the goal is 10 individual NCAA championships, which of course has never been done. Sometimes, the results (Iowa has finished third, third, fourth, fourth, second, fifth, fourth, third and fourth since 2010) read like a failure to meet expectations.

“I think sometimes I talk a certain way, and then I get questions asked about, 'Why aren’t you backing up what you said?' That’s a cheap shot,” Brands says. “Our standards are high. Are we not supposed to have high standards?”

Another thing Brands is fond of repeating is that he always does right by his wrestlers — which would even go against what he would selfishly want at times. I’m sure it’s been tempting in past years to want to thrust the new freshman or promising youngster into the lineup, but that’s rarely done at Iowa.

The Brands program has always taken a calculated, committed approach to each wrestler’s well-being, and then let the chips fall where they may in the NCAA Championships.

And that, according to the coach, is true again this year.

But this is a year to go for it. Every point must be maximized. If Brands can get more NCAA production from Gavin Teasdale at 133 pounds and Austin DeSanto at 141 than with DeSanto at 133 and Max Murin at 141, then that's what he should do.

This Hawkeye roster seems to have a very “team” vibe. You’re not seeing two-time NCAA champion Lee take an Olympic-year redshirt — like so many other stars across the sport are this year. Among those who are: Oklahoma State’s Daton Fix, Rutgers’ Nick Suriano, Michigan’s Stevan Micic, Cornell’s Yianni Diakomihalis and Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis.

The Nittany Lions, though, are all-in for 2020. So are the Hawkeyes.

Brands deserves a lot of credit for getting Iowa to this point. In preparation for media day, I talked with some avid Hawkeye wrestling fans this week. Most of them correctly understand that making the climb toward where Cael Sanderson has taken Penn State wasn’t going to be an overnight fix.

The Hawkeyes have incrementally assembled a well-balanced roster that has the potential to contend. Staying healthy is critical; injuries to Kemerer and Sam Stoll a year ago were daggers. Penn State had eight all-Americans in 2018, seven in 2019. Iowa needs to at least match that total, and the roster finally looks like it can.

“I know what I think of our guys, and I wouldn’t trade our team for any other team,” Brands says. “I love our guys. We have the personnel.”

The expectation is that this will be a two-team race at the NCAA Championships at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis come March.

The head coach doesn’t find satisfaction easily, but he does find comfort in knowing he’s put in the work to get this roster back to contending status. More work must be done in the next five months for the ultimate, winning satisfaction.

“If you paid me 5 million more dollars, I couldn’t work any harder,” Brands says. “I wouldn’t put more hours in.

“That’s not how I was raised. That’s what this farm is about. You’ve got to do the chores. And we do the chores at a high level. Who cares about the pressure?”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.