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Leistikow: An exciting, important two months ahead for Tom Brands and Iowa wrestling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Upon his arrival for each new day of work, Tom Brands hops out of his truck and walks past the statue of Dan Gable before entering the doors of Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

To most, the Gable statue represents an era of unquestioned Iowa wrestling dominance — a time when NCAA championships seemed automatic to the black and gold.

To Brands, walking past a bronzed legend who delivered 15 NCAA Championships in 21 years as Iowa’s coach, means the opposite.

“That statue represents anything but automatic and everything except automatic,” Brands, 51, says in a wide-ranging interview with the Register, ahead of perhaps the two of the most anticipated months in his 14 seasons as Iowa’s head coach. “That statue represents constant thought and evaluation. That statue represents gut aches in Gable’s gut, because he obsessed over decisions.”

Tom Brands' next two months will be vital to how his 14th season is viewed. He's got the Hawkeyes well-positioned for a run toward their first NCAA title since 2010, but there's plenty of work ahead.

Gable set the standard, pouring tireless work and effort into his wrestlers and the Hawkeye program.

Brands has always been driven to maintain the standard, and he’s never budged on the standard, even as the Hawkeyes have ceded their spot as college wrestling’s No. 1 powerhouse for nearly a decade to Penn State.

That’s why this feels like an exciting time for Brands and everyone involved with Iowa wrestling.

The Hawkeyes are back on top, at least as of the middle of January 2020. Before the season, his Hawkeyes were still viewed as being a step behind four-time defending national champion Penn State. Now, they’re viewed as the unquestioned front-runners to win their first NCAA title since 2010.

And with five home duals against national top-11 teams plus the Big Ten Conference and NCAA Championships over the next two months, it’s go time.

Brands discusses the exciting stretch ahead, what's behind the recent dominance and how the always-thinking head Hawkeye is managing it all.

It’s go time for you, too.

Saturday’s 8 p.m. home dual against No. 10 Nebraska kicks off a jam-packed, entertaining stretch for these likable Hawkeyes who seem to be improving by the day.

Then it’s a Jan. 24 dual against No. 3 Ohio State.

Then it’s Jan. 31 against No. 2 Penn State. That one’s sold out, with an audience of 15,000-plus already salivating for that Friday night at Carver.

The others, fueled by record-breaking season-ticket sales, have surpassed the 10,000 mark.

"There are some people boo-hooing (that) they can’t get a ticket. And they really can’t get a ticket to Penn State. That’s a lesson,” Brands says. “Get your ticket to Ohio State. Get your ticket to Nebraska. This is not a propaganda stunt. You know us by now. … We’re not propaganda people. So, don’t call me when the doggone thing is sold out. Get your ticket now.”

Many avid Iowa wrestling fans have been all-in with this team for, well, forever.

If you’re a casual or curious Hawkeye wrestling fan, a glimpse into last weekend’s 41-0 road routs of Indiana and now-eighth-ranked Purdue are a quick illustration to get you up to speed.

Brands used a one-time Big Ten travel exemption to take 20 wrestlers on the road, double the total that actually competed.

Why travel so many?

A look at the row of folding chairs next to the mat at both duals can explain. Because those chairs were often empty. A line of hooting-and-hollering Hawkeye wrestlers stood, cheering on whatever teammate was winning his match and counting back points as if they were a collection of 19 referees.

For the weekend, Iowa wrestlers won 20 matches, lost zero. They racked up five pins (including two each by 165-pounder Alex Marinelli and heavyweight Tony Cassioppi) and three technical falls. They went 4-0 in top-10 matchups. Brands pulled the redshirt from true freshman 184-pounder Abe Assad, and he went 2-for-2 in his Iowa debut.

Sheer domination … then celebration.

A six-hour bus ride home doesn’t feel so long with tight teammates who are invested in each other’s success. Brands is quick to point out the necessity of backups to the starters being sharp; because those pairs train against each other in practice.

“I’ve gotten a lot of compliments on this team with the togetherness,” Brands says. “The energy on the bench, cheering for each other, rooting for each other, that type of energy. I don’t think you can coach that into your team, and it’s there.

"But if things aren’t going your way, you’ve still got to be cheering and fighting. Maybe that’ll be the true test, when things are unraveling a little bit and see if we can right the wrong quickly.”

Top-ranked junior 125-pounder Spencer Lee has dominated all eight of his matches this season.

The Spencer Lee effect continues.

TrackWrestling’s latest rankings give Iowa a 58½-point lead on the second-place Nittany Lions in the projected team race at the March 19-21 NCAA Championships at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Those rankings don’t count bonus points, which means one extra point for a major decision, 1½ for a technical fall and two for a pin. And there’s no doubt Iowa’s program has been elevated since Lee’s arrival by a thirst for bonus points.

It’s a mindset that dates to Lee’s freshman year, when he took the 125-pound bracket by storm to win the 2018 national title. Even though Iowa finished third in the team race in Cleveland, the Hawkeyes amassed 30½ bonus points — just four shy of the 34½ by Gable’s record-setting 1997 Iowa team.

I remember heavyweight Sam Stoll saying that week that Lee’s attacking mindset was changing the way the Hawkeye wrestling room operated. Also that week, Marinelli said this: “The whole team believes that there’s a great future. We love to work hard. We love to get pins. We love to break guys.”

If that isn’t an Iowa wrestling quote.

At media day at Kroul Farms in Mount Vernon, Brands remembers standing amid stalks of corn and talking about the bonus-point prowess of Lee, Marinelli and 174-pounder Michael Kemerer.

But 133-pounder Austin DeSanto remembers that day because he wasn’t mentioned.

Brands calls that mentality “a healthy jealousy.”

“DeSanto said, ‘I want to have my name in the conversation with Lee, Kemerer and Marinelli,’” Brands says. “That’s a competitor.

"So, where are the bonus points coming from? They’re coming from that type of ownership.”

Going back to the introduction to this piece, the “automatic” conversation came up during our discussion on Lee. Just because Lee was a three-time age-level world champion, Brands says, doesn’t mean he was able to show up at college and dominate.

Handling Lee, who arrived in June 2017 after knee surgery to repair a torn ACL, would inevitably become a huge part of Brands’ legacy. If the best pound-for-pound recruit of his Iowa career flamed out, it would be a poor reflection on Brands and his staff.

To date, there's no debate that Brands and Co. have managed Lee wonderfully. Lee is 2-for-2 in winning national championships, both times as a No. 3 seed, and is now completely dominating his weight class. In December, he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials with a dominating freestyle performance at the Senior Nationals in Fort Worth, Texas.

For Iowa, Lee is 8-0 this season with only his first match (a 16-5 major decision) going the seven-minute distance. Since, he’s had two pins in under a minute each and five technical falls by a combined 71-3 score.

But this doesn't come automatic.

“We’ve had to have hard conversations with him. … And we were hard on him,” Brands recalls. “And then he would respond.”

For example, Lee would get frustrated with himself for not dominating an opponent in practice.

“He doesn’t fall over for you, so all of a sudden you’re talking to yourself like, ‘I suck.’ That’s not true,” Brands says. “This guy’s going to fight you. He’s not going to fall over when you blow on him. Guys … come back and they fight at this level. So, (find) your fight. And he’ll fall into his proper place. It’s a battle of wills. He’s really done a good job of putting that into his wrestling.”

So, the stage is set.

Interview requests are pouring into Brands' office on this Tuesday. The wrestling nation sees what’s materializing in Iowa City and wants to know how the Hawkeyes are doing this.

And if they can follow through in March.

It’s on the head coach’s shoulders to manage these next two months. With so much depth on the roster, he could certainly rest a starter for a dual or two without much worry. But, the competitor inside Brands might not allow for it.

He started his best 10 guys against Indiana and Purdue. He’ll do the same against Nebraska.

“You’re always talking about March,” Brands says. “But these matches are important for (seeding in) March.”

Iowa currently has nine wrestlers ranked in the top four nationally at their weight. Lee and Pat Lugo (149) are No. 1; DeSanto, Marinelli and Kemerer are No. 2; Max Murin (141) and Cassioppi are No. 3; and Kaleb Young (157) and Jacob Warner (184) are No. 4. With Assad at No. 9, Iowa has 10 bona fide all-American candidates.

No Iowa team has had 10 all-Americans at the NCAAs. Not even one of Gable's.

It's exciting. And it's time to pay attention, if you aren't already.

By the way, with the NCAAs at the home of the Minnesota Vikings, the estimated capacity for each of six sessions is 66,000. So, while tickets to this three-day frenzy are normally precious and hard to get, they’re still available through the NCAA’s website.

If the Hawkeyes keep rolling over the next two months … imagine the possibilities for a football-stadium-sized celebration.

But for now, that's just talk, as Brands would say.

It's time for his Hawkeyes have to go out and prove they're No. 1.

“When it’s your turn to step on the mat, go out and do it at the highest level,” Brands says. “Leave no stone unturned.”

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.