1-on-1 with Iowa wrestling's Tom Brands on overcoming extreme NCAA adversity, bold future plans

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It should be a surprise to exactly no one that Tom Brands isn’t slowing down, nearly a month after his Iowa wrestling program reached a long-awaited, crowning achievement with its first NCAA championship since 2010.

Instead, as Brands puts it, the 15-year Hawkeyes head coach is laser-focused on “the next 40 or 50 years” of Iowa wrestling.

The time frame adds up. He and identical-twin brother (and associate head coach) Terry celebrated their 53rd birthday on April 9. For them, this is their life and their legacy. As long as they breathe, the goal is to do everything they can to ensure Iowa is on top of college wrestling.

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During part of the conversation over 2½ hours on a chilly morning in Iowa City, Tom Brands looks into a patch of trees near Carver-Hawkeye Arena — the site of an approved $20 million wrestling facility that is approaching the final financial hurdles — as part of his vision for the next four decades. But we also talk extensively about what this 2021 title means, getting two of his high-profile wrestlers healthy again and the adversity that was confronted in bringing the NCAA championship trophy back to Iowa City.

“It’s something we’ve been after for a long time. It feels good. There’s joy. There’s satisfaction. And it was done right,” Brands says. “It wasn’t lucky. It was a concerted effort and a planned path, where we took steps. And those steps came to fruition. It’s a huge tribute to our guys. All of them.”

Tom Brands used the words "joy" and "satisfaction" to describe winning the Hawkeyes' first NCAA wrestling team title since 2010.

Brands wants to make sure everyone who contributes to Iowa wrestling’s success knows they’re appreciated. In this interview, Brands certainly makes the rounds.

He is grateful for his coaching staff (Terry Brands, Ryan Morningstar, Bobby Telford), medical team and support staff.

He is thankful for those involved in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club. As he sips on black tea after an Eggs Benedict breakfast, Brands motions toward Pat Lugo at a nearby table.

"He never felt sorry about himself. Not once,” Brands says, a reference to Lugo's Iowa eligibility expiring one year ago when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 NCAA Championships. Lugo was the top seed at 149 pounds but had his title dream cut short. This title was his, too, and why Brands made sure he would join the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday as part of a planned celebration with fans.

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Brands thanks Iowa’s administration. After hoisting the title trophy on a Saturday night in St. Louis, Terry Brands promised it would be in athletics director Gary Barta's office by 7 a.m. Monday. And it was.

Brands thanks the passionate Iowa fans who annually set attendance records but had to watch this pandemic-shortened season from a distance.

“Everybody wanted it. They craved it,” Brands said. “Congratulations, fans. This is a big fricking deal, man.”

Amid the joy of a team championship, there was unspeakable pain.

The wrestling world heard the “excuses-are-for-wusses” bombshell on ESPN, as Spencer Lee revealed on national TV that his third 125-pound title was won without any functional ACLs. One of the reasons Lee was reluctant to dwell on his previously concealed injuries was because he had teammates going through their own adversity.

It can’t be forgotten that Iowa was forced into an eight-day COVID-19 pause over positive tests in the program and that the Hawkeyes hadn’t competed in a month before the postseason.

Brands and his staff had preached to the team for more than a year that “the one thing about COVID that you’re going to be able to lean on is that it’s unpredictable.”

“So,” Brands continues, “you throw these things at them, and they were fine. There was no panic.”

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Those things include 149-pounder Max Murin coming down with mononucleosis after the Big Ten Championships, 11 days before the NCAAs. That hasn’t been previously disclosed. Brands instructed Murin not to weigh in for nine days after the Big Tens, so that he could focus on rest. Brands knew that if Murin worried about his physical shape, he would be inclined to further tax his body by training on his own.

The first time Murin stepped on a mat after the Big Tens was on Wednesday in St. Louis. His sparring partner? Tom Brands. Murin would grind out two hard-fought wins to reach the 149-pound quarters before exiting with two narrow losses (one in sudden victory, one on a tiebreaker).

And then ... oh, mercy, the pain Alex Marinelli must've felt. The top-seeded Hawkeye at 165 pounds exited the tournament with what Brands now says was a separated rib. It happened in the final moments of his sudden-victory, quarterfinal loss to Stanford’s Shane Griffith. Not familiar with the injury?

“You literally feel like somebody shoved a spear in your lung,” Brands says, “and you can’t breathe.”

Iowa’s medical team did all it could to get Marinelli back for Friday’s consolation round, but the pain was too much. Marinelli, who was projected to score just 20-plus team points for Iowa, was out of the tournament after scoring just four. He’s still recovering.

“We’ve got the good Lord and smart doctors. He’s on the mend. It’s slow. You’ve got to be patient,” Brands said. “This is a legit (major) injury.”

One of the reasons Brands is OK sharing a few of these details is because they underscore how his team in St. Louis stood strong for one another amid their own pain — emotional and physical. Marinelli returned to support guys like Austin DeSanto (third place at 133 pounds), Jacob Warner (fourth at 197) and Tony Cassioppi (third at heavyweight), who cranked out key wins to clinch the Hawkeyes’ title over Penn State by Saturday morning. After winning his seventh-place bout at 157 pounds, Kaleb Young (who accounted for 8.5 key team points) made sure to find Marinelli.

“They all won big, big matches on the backside,” Brands says. “You’ve still got to go to work when you don’t get what you wanted. They put the fricking nail in the coffin.”

That night, more adversity struck, this time emotional. Top-seeded Iowa stars Jaydin Eierman (at 141) and Michael Kemerer (at 174) were hurting after title-bout losses, both to rival Penn State. But without a coach saying a word, they emerged from their own misery to support Lee in his quest for a no-ACL title in the tournament’s final bout.

“It kills them. Kills them. And they switched quickly, because Spencer Lee had a match,” Brands says. “… And you know what? They healed because of it.”

So … how on earth did Lee do what he did?

Brands goes back to the moments after the Big Ten title bout in State College, Pennsylvania. Lee pulled him close and informed him he was pretty sure he tore his left ACL in the first period of a technical-fall win against Purdue’s Devin Schroder. “The good one?” Brands asked him, knowing what we didn’t — that Lee was already operating without an ACL in his right knee, an injury that occurred two years earlier in the 2019 NCAA title bout.

In Brands’ mind, what Lee said next set the tone for the 13 days ahead.

“He goes, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to win the national tournament.’ That’s exactly what he said,” Brands says. “He was defiant.”

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An MRI confirmed that Lee's left ACL was completely ruptured. Lee was certainly crushed that in an Olympic year, when he was poised to have a great shot at making the U.S. team at 57 kilograms, that his gold-medal dream would be on hold again. But he was going to fulfill a promise he made: to bring Iowa an NCAA team title.

Among the things Lee did to get ready for the NCAAs, with guidance from Terry Brands and athletic trainer Jesse Donnenworth …

  • Stationary bike work to regain as much range of motion as possible.
  • Lots of pull-ups. After all, his upper body was functional.
  • Workouts on an upper-body ergometer (UBE) machine that “would make a billy goat puke,” Brands says.
  • One-legged squats … on the newly injured knee.

“That’s how tough he is,” Brands says. “He does not get enough credit for being tough.”

The only wrestling Lee did between the Big Tens and NCAAs was mild work from the top position, where he could take advantage of his high-powered turns and compensate for the lack of leg explosion.

In five NCAA bouts, Lee outscored opponents, 59-8. That included a 7-0 win in the final against Arizona State’s Brandon Courtney, who repeatedly retreated toward the boundary with the apparent strategy of trying to steal one from the champ. Lee, who typically finishes his opponents in the first period, didn’t record his first takedown vs. Courtney until the final 30 seconds of the second. After taking a 6-0 lead in the third, he rode out Courtney for the final 85 seconds to complete his mission.

“Spencer Lee would have cut that guy and majored him and tech-falled him if we needed the points,” Brands says. “But you know what? A goose egg on that guy’s score is worth more than a major decision in that scenario, because of how they wrestled. They didn’t wrestle him. Seven. Zero.”

Then, the Lee bombshell ... and a team celebration that was a long time coming.

Lee came to Iowa in June 2017 with many goals. Being Olympic champion is on hold now until at least 2024. But becoming Iowa’s first four-time NCAA wrestling champion is now on the table, which is why surgeries on both knees seem unlikely. Recovery from a second ACL repair (he tore his right in the spring of 2017) can take more than a year. Whether he has any surgery will be “Spencer Lee’s decision,” Brands says.

Oh, and there was other Lee goal: To bring Iowa not just one but two team titles. He accounted for 24½ team points in St. Louis. Iowa’s margin over runner-up Penn State was 15½ (129 to 113½). If Lee doesn't take the mat, Iowa doesn’t win. The first is in.

“True leadership,” Brands says. “He’s a man of his word.”

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With all 10 Hawkeyes coming back next season — including Kemerer for a seventh year and Eierman and Marinelli for a sixth — the immediate priority is making sure this star-studded lineup gets healthy for another run at the top.

But Brands’ other prime priority is fund-raising. The time is ticking to get a shovel into the ground before next winter. He says $14.5 million has been raised, with the end goal of $22.3 million. The great news is that the lead donor, Colorado businessman Bob Nicolls, is offering to match any donation of at least $500,000.

Recently, Brands was on the phone with someone willing to contribute $100,000. When the person heard about the match, he upped the commitment to $500,000.

“We just (raised) a million dollars last Thursday in a 90-second conversation,” Brands says. “That’s Iowa wrestling.”

The floor plans are perfect, Brands says, after constant thought and adjustments. One of the approved concepts is a tunnel that’ll run from the facility (over a drainage system) to Carver-Hawkeye Arena's floor level, where the band typically plays for basketball games.

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To those who say the world-class Brands brothers could wrestle on horsehair mats back in their day, Tom Brands answers that today’s generation — “the future Spencer Lees” — is influenced by where they’ll train and can see that (for example) facilities at Michigan and Penn State are superior to Iowa’s.

“We don’t want to keep getting old. We want to be No. 1 in the facilities,” Brands says. “And it will be. It’ll be right up there with the best on the planet.”

In Brands’ mind, the last $7.8 million needs to be raised over the next 4½ months. Then it would become feasible to have the facility completed for the 2022-23 or (more realistically) 2023-24 school year.

“Spencer Lee will be training for Paris 2024 in that building,” Brands says. “That’s maybe ambitious. But it’s going to happen, thanks to Bob Nicolls and people like that.”

That would mean a lot of the young wrestlers in Iowa’s room — and incoming top recruits like Drake Ayala of Fort Dodge, the heir apparent to Lee at 125 — can train in a state-of-the-art facility. But patience is required on a lot of levels, including among the likes of those seen as future program stars (including lightweights Jesse Ybarra and Cullan Shriever and 174-pounder Patrick Kennedy, who Brands says “is the real deal”). Some will either have to beat the No. 1-ranked wrestler in the nation for an Iowa lineup spot, wait their turn or transfer.

“If you look at this the right way and you are forward-thinking, this will make you even better,” Brands says. “Because the best guy in the country is in your wrestling room. And you get to wrestle him any time you want. And you see his methods and routines.”

As we discuss whether Iowa can win back-to-back titles next March in Detroit, Brands is quick to point out that Iowa hasn’t lost a dual or tournament of any kind since the 2019 NCAA Championships.

To him, this last title reflects two years of dominance ... and shows that the 2021 title was no flash in the pan.

“That’s two years in a row of running the table. People want to forget that. And you can’t forget that," Brands says. "And so, where’s the future? We’re working on the third year now."

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.