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Leistikow: Thanks to grassroots support, Iowa nears approval for $20M wrestling facility

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Big things are on the way for the Iowa wrestling program.

Yes, bigger even than this Friday’s sold-out, No. 1-vs.-No. 2 dual between Iowa and Penn State.

If approved by the Board of Regents during their Feb. 5 meeting in Urbandale, planning will begin to construct a standalone, wrestling-only operations center on the South side of Carver-Hawkeye Arena. And, given the groundswell of financial support that has quietly developed in the past two years, passage of the agenda item — released publicly Tuesday morning — should be a formality.

“A small group of really committed fans have really stepped up,” said University of Iowa associate vice president for athletics development Kevin Collins, an Iowa City native and the fundraising lead for the facility project.

Tom Brands oversees preseason matches in November from the team's current Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. A new facility, if approved by the board of regents, would mean a much larger wrestling room in the future.

The current Dan Gable Wrestling Complex, located on the second floor of Carver-Hawkeye Arena, is “very adequate right now,” Collins added, “but it doesn’t match our championship ambitions or culture.”

The new facility, according to the regents' agenda, will be fully funded by private donations and cost between $17 million and $20 million — or more than 12 times the program's 2019-20 budget of $1.65 million that includes travel, recruiting, equipment, coaching salaries, scholarships and anything else.

It would offer 37,000 square feet of operating space on two levels and would include men’s and women’s locker rooms, a wrestling space about twice the size of the current room, a strength-and-conditioning center, therapy rooms for recovery, offices for the coaching staff and a “Hall of Champions” space that honors a rich Hawkeye wrestling history that includes 23 NCAA championships and 84 individual national titles.

If you've seen the cluster of trees adjacent to Carver-Hawkeye Arena that are across the street from the baseball stadium, that's where the proposed facility would be built. And, in maybe the most interesting detail of all, the concept is for the new facility to connect by tunnel to the floor level of Carver.

This is a vision that 14th-year head coach Tom Brands has held for years, a plan to ensure that Iowa City is the most attractive wrestling destination in the country.

But to get a vision like this off the ground takes money.

Big money.

And that’s where a man who grew up in Illinois and now lives in tiny Franktown, Colorado (population 400; about 35 miles south of Denver) enters the story.

Bob Nicolls, a native of La Grange, Illinois, was a University of Iowa freshman in 1976 — the same year that an Olympic champion named Dan Gable became the wrestling program’s first-year head coach. While Nicolls didn’t have a wrestling background, he quickly fell in love with the sport and the success Gable's Hawkeyes enjoyed.

“I came to Iowa and it’s like, ‘Wow, we win at wrestling.’ We were third (at NCAAs) that year,” Nicolls said. “But then we won the next nine years.”

Fast forward four-plus decades.

Nicolls, now 61, is a real-estate magnate. He operates Monarch Investments, which owns and operates 57,000 apartment units across 22 states. A passionate Hawkeye wrestling fan who observed Gable’s historic decades of dominance (15 NCAA titles in 21 years) wants to see Iowa firmly back on top again.

So, a few years back as Penn State continued to rack up NCAA titles, Nicolls reached out to Brands and asked how he could help. The next day, Brands hopped in a truck and headed to Colorado. They discussed the idea of a new world-class wrestling facility. Over breakfast, Nicolls told Brands he would commit $1 million to the project.

The ball was officially rolling.

As fundraising momentum has grown, Nicolls has since upped his personal commitment to $3 million.

The arrival of Spencer Lee, a three-time age-level world champion, and the positive momentum created since signaled to Nicolls that Brands had the program on the right track. He didn’t want to see Iowa fall behind in facilities. Other Big Ten programs like Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State have invested heavily in recent years in state-of-the-art wrestling facilities. Oklahoma State is trying to raise funds for a $40 million wrestling facility.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie with the team and a lot of excitement when you’re winning," Nicolls said. “(Brands) made those changes. But the one thing he can’t do is build a facility brick by brick. He needs helps with that.”

Nicolls challenged a group of Iowa investors to help fund the project. About 20 to 25, Nicolls estimated, have combined to generate another $2 million in commitments. Adding Nicolls' $3 million, that’s $5 million alone from his group.

Collins said others have caught wind of Nicolls' efforts, and now the total funds raised for the facility is just under $10 million. So, UI is basically halfway home before even getting the regents' approval.

"Great job by our administration, our wrestling program, fans and very important donors to get that thing going and the way it’s humming," Brands said Tuesday. "We’re working hard on it every day."

Assuming the OK comes next week, the university's hope is that more Hawkeye wrestling supporters emerge to write some big checks. 

Nicolls won't stop his efforts, either. As he put it, he will “be banging on doors" to get more fans on board, whether it's $100 or $100,000 at a time.

“A lot of people don’t know how good of guys Tom and Terry (Brands) and the whole staff are. Once you get to know them a little bit, you just want to work that much harder,” Nicolls said. “Because they really work their asses off for their guys and for the school. And you just want to join that kind of energy.”

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.