Leistikow: Tom Brands still seeking closure for an Iowa wrestling season cut short
Tom Brands, like most of us these days in our new isolated world, is trying to focus on the things he can control.
“I’ve mopped the floor three or four times at home,” the Iowa wrestling coach says. “I haven’t mopped the floor in 10 years.”
Beyond spending more time with wife Jeni in their east-side Iowa City home, Brands has spent the past two weeks coping with and “moving forward” — his commonly used coaching mantra — from the NCAA’s cancellation of all winter and spring sports championships over the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps no Division I program in any sport had as much stripped from its grasp than Iowa wrestling. When word of the cancellation hit, the top-ranked Hawkeyes were seven days away from starting what was expected to be a long-awaited title coronation. With three wrestlers seeded No. 1, two more in the top three and another four in the top eight, they were poised to unseat Penn State and win the storied program's first NCAA wrestling title since 2010.
And while Brands points out the obvious that he had no control over those decisions, he also interjects: “That doesn’t mean you just accept it, either.”
During a wide-ranging conversation with the Register on Thursday morning, Brands kept returning to a one-word theme.
That's something Brands and his Hawkeye wrestlers, particularly the NCAA qualifiers at all 10 weight classes with reasonable all-American aspirations, have struggled to find.
And it's not just at Iowa, of course. There were 10 wrestlers across the country who for four months fought to earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Division I Championships in Minneapolis. There were 80 who earned a top-eight seed. The top eight finishers at every weight achieve all-American status.
Brands is pushing for a sense of closure, at least for those 80 athletes.
He wants the NCAA to officially recognize the top eight seeds at each weight class as all-Americans, and he participated in a phone call with the NCAA on Thursday to push for that. While Brands thinks this could be a slow process, he feels it’s important. And he has other coaches (such as Ohio State’s Tom Ryan) in the same corner.
“If you can’t wrestle the tournament, which you can’t … and if you’re not going to get eligibility back, which it doesn’t sound good … they have to honor the all-Americans,” Brands says. “They have to name them.”
He also would like the NCAA to make special recognition for the No. 1 seeds. Iowa had three of them in Big Ten Conference champions Spencer Lee (125 pounds), Pat Lugo (149) and Alex Marinelli (165).
Lugo was the only senior in Iowa’s lineup; his last shot at a first NCAA title denied, barring a long-shot eligibility vote Monday from the Division I Council.
Lee was on track to be Iowa's first four-time national champion and the fifth in NCAA history. The junior phenom already had two and earlier this week was named the NCAA’s most dominant wrestler of 2020.
“Spencer Lee was robbed of history,” Brands says. “He’s got to win three before he can win four. But he’s got to have a chance to win three.”
History will recognize that Iowa was college wrestling's No. 1 team in 2020. The Hawkeyes will never be called 2020 national champions, though, and Brands doesn’t believe in hanging such a banner.
But he is confident that no matter what, the University of Iowa — led by his boss, deputy director of athletics Barbara Burke — will make sure the athletes receive appropriate recognition.
“I know they will. Wrestling’s important here,” Brands says. “Our guys will feel the love.”
More about moving forward …
Here's what Brands recalls telling his wrestlers in the aftermath of cancellations.
“It sucks. You were robbed of history. You were robbed of an opportunity. There is going to be a lot of uncertainty (ahead). The next, healthiest step is to get away. Go do that. In the meantime, we’re going to keep working on the next steps. And we will let you know those steps as they come up."
But what about his frustration about being cut off from a 2020 championship that was years in the making?
He's not going there, instead directing the conversation toward what his wrestlers need to do next.
So, let’s play along and go through the Iowa lineup.
Spencer Lee, 125. “Shifting right into international,” Brands says. Even though the Olympics have been postponed until 2021, there are still conversations about having the Trials this year, as early as Memorial Day weekend.
Austin DeSanto, 133. “Went home for a little bit. Now he’s back and getting ready for his classes,” which resume in online form Monday at Iowa.
Max Murin, 141. “Same.”
Pat Lugo, 149. “He will stick around and wrestle in the (Hawkeye Wrestling Club). But we have to honor him.”
Kaleb Young, 157. “Had a good year” but not great; needs to move past the disappointment of losing his first two matches at the Big Ten Championships.
Alex Marinelli, 165. “Handles it as well as you would expect. Mature. … He’s kind of a laissez-faire guy where it's, ‘This sucks. But I’m going to do a puzzle.’”
Michael Kemerer, 174. “We’re going to petition for a sixth year” of eligibility (and should be a lock to get it).
Abe Assad, 184. The true freshman “is in a tough finance major. Got to stay on him.”
Jacob Warner, 197. “Same as DeSanto, Murin and Young.”
Tony Cassioppi, heavyweight. The NCAA No. 3 seed was a good start, but the freshman’s future “is going to go through (Gable Steveson of) Minnesota, both internationally and collegiately. How are you going to address those mental obstacles?”
Before the season, Brands publicly challenged his wrestlers to elevate their levels to that of team tone-setters Lee, Marinelli and Kemerer. Looking back for a moment, he evaluates that only Lugo got to that level.
Moving forward again, it’s a reminder that as good as Iowa’s team performed in 2020 — it was never beaten and set a 14-year, Brands-era high for points at the Big Ten Championships, with 157½ — a lot was left on the table for 2021.
“We have some guys that are pretty good wrestlers that are still infants in their wrestling knowledge, their psychological warfare department,” Brands says. “Without getting into details, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
St. Louis 2021 is next.
Perhaps it'll be fitting that the next NCAA Wrestling Championships are in St. Louis. That's where Iowa was supposed to have a crowning year in 2015 but fell short in what became the final straw for a program reboot. Given how 2020 ended, Iowa's unsettled business is piling up.
"We’re going to go after it the same," Brands says, "with the same mindset. ... 2021 is the most important championship, because it’s the next championship.”
Nine starters are back, and Jaydin Eierman — the three-time all-American from Missouri who has been practicing in Iowa’s regional training center — should seamlessly replace the one departing senior in Lugo. Eierman can be a national-title contender at either 141 or 149 pounds.
Off the mat, there is urgency in moving forward on the recently approved standalone wrestling facility. Given the COVID-19 fallout has crushed financial markets, fund-raising efforts are on hold for the estimated $20 million venture. But the planning continues.
As we wrap up our conversation, Brands repeats another theme of the interview: being socially responsible about the spread of COVID-19.
Johnson County has been the most affected and dangerous area in Iowa. He understands the seriousness of the issue, but also contends that talking about sports during this time shouldn't be taboo.
"People are afraid to talk about their programs and how they’re moving forward because it seems insensitive. But I think people want a glimpse of normalcy,” Brands says. “So, the best way I can say it is, yeah, we’re still working on our program. Hell, yeah.
“It’s tougher. But it’s going to be a great lesson. And we’re going to look back on this and say, hey, we persevered. But we persevered because we kept things in perspective. And our priority is to get this doggone thing (COVID-19) eradicated as soon as possible.”
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.