Leistikow: Spencer Lee gets the birthday gift he wanted — extra NCAA eligibility

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When his redshirt was lifted three winters ago as a promising true freshman, Iowa wrestling fans celebrated the news that “Spencer Lee is free.”

Now, Spencer Lee has been freed again.

The NCAA’s Division I Council on Wednesday formally voted to approve an extra year of eligibility for all winter-sports athletes.

Lee's chase for four NCAA titles, once thought to be mostly dead, is back on.

“That’s my only goal," Lee told the Register in a phone interview Wednesday evening. "I don’t want to be a one-timer or a two-timer or even a three-timer. I want to be a four-timer."

Good job, NCAA. This is a great piece of news for a lot of young men and women who are training for a coming season of unknowns amid the global COVID-19 pandemic. They now know that whatever disruptions are ahead, their eligibility clock won’t be running.

And there’s perhaps no sport that will benefit more than wrestling, which had its 2020 championships canceled six days before they were set to commence.

Spencer Lee's fourth year at Iowa won't count against his eligibility clock, meaning he can return for the Hawkeyes in 2021-22 as a fifth-year senior.

And perhaps no athlete has as much justifiable relief as Lee, who was powering toward what would have been his third championship in three years at 125 pounds. Only four men have ever won four NCAA titles. Being a “four-timer” carries lifelong stature. Until Wednesday, Lee was probably going to be a three-timer at best, maybe with an asterisk.

The news was quite a birthday present on the day he turned 22.

“I’ve got to win the third one before I can think about the fourth one," Lee said. "But at least now the opportunity is on the horizon.”

And Lee isn’t the only Hawkeye who could benefit. Teammates and national-title hopefuls such as Alex Marinelli, Austin DeSanto and perhaps Michael Kemerer (if he wants to pursue a seventh year of college) can have two more NCAA title shots instead of one.

“The first thing I thought of wasn’t even myself," Lee said. "It’s that I get to be with all these goofballs next year.”

In men’s basketball, I don’t envision seniors Luka Garza and Jordan Bohannon returning after this year either way. But they theoretically could. The eligibility relief now will allow Fran McCaffery to freely play all five of his true freshmen, knowing they can all stay for five years.

In women’s basketball, I see the rule being a huge lift for someone such as Monika Czinano. She emerged as a star post as a sophomore, earning first-team all-Big Ten Conference honors. Now, she could play another three seasons for the Hawkeyes if she chooses. The door is also open for highly acclaimed recruit Caitlyn Clark to play five seasons under Lisa Bluder. Imagine the records she might shatter.

But back to wrestling, where the Hawkeyes could have two more seasons of the same core it had last year, when it was on track for the program’s first NCAA title since 2010.

Lee, of course, is the centerpiece. The 2020 Hodge Trophy winner is capable of scoring 25-plus points at the NCAA Championships, roughly one-fifth of what it often takes to win a team title. 

Lee's focus now is on having a safe, healthy wrestling season. He has been luckier than some of his teammates, in that he has not tested positive for the coronavirus. However, he knows that if he does test positive, by Big Ten Conference rules, he cannot compete for 21 days. An ill-timed positive test could derail a person's NCAA title chances.

Lee is a little bit annoyed at that rule, and that other wrestlers such as Cornell's Yianni Diakomihalis now have a shot at five NCAA titles. But he's glad to be around another year to perhaps see ground get broken on Iowa's new wrestling facility and that he might get to enjoy one year of the NCAA's name, image and likeness legislation.

There is curiosity among Lee and his Hawkeye teammates how the eligibility relief will work. The NCAA's release did not clarify how scholarships will be handled, but if it's consistent with spring and fall sports, 2020-21 seniors who choose to return to school won't count against 2021-22 scholarship maximums. It's up to each university to foot the extra bill, but Iowa athletics director Gary Barta would be driven out of town by the nation's most passionate wrestling fan base if he didn't pony up for a fifth year for Lee and his teammates.

“I’m glad that they did something," Lee said. "We still have a team that can win NCAAs the next two years.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.