Leistikow: 5 thoughts on Iowa athletics adding women's wrestling

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — The stories of a young Tom and Terry Brands wrestling each other in their basement in Sheldon are legendary, just like the twin brothers’ eventual resumes would become at the college and international level.

But annually as kids, Tom and Terry faced one of their fiercest opponents — a cousin, Misti. She was a year older and lived in Wyoming but would stay with the Brands family in northwest Iowa for about two months each summer.

"She used to beat the holy hell out of Terry and I. She was a fierce competitor," Tom Brands, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist and now in his 16th season as the University of Iowa’s wrestling coach, told The Register. "We were best friends, but she would take us both apart. Many little brothers that have big sisters have that story."

In other words, Brands’ appreciation for girls wrestling dates back nearly five decades. That passion will no doubt be felt when women’s wrestling becomes an officially sponsored sport at Iowa in the 2023-24 academic year.

Here are four more thoughts about the university’s Thursday-morning announcement to add women’s wrestling as the 22nd varsity sport (and first addition since women’s soccer in 1996).

Without the Title IX lawsuit, women’s wrestling would not have been added this quickly.

Iowa athletics director Gary Barta confirmed that a settlement agreement regarding the Title IX lawsuit (initially brought forward a year ago by four women’s swimming and diving athletes after Iowa announced it would eliminate four sports as a response to financial issues caused by COVID-19) was finished, with paperwork being the final hurdle. The center of the agreement, per Barta, was that Iowa would add another women’s sport (in addition to reinstating women’s swimming). Barta said it was a no-brainer to choose wrestling "for obvious reasons."

Barta noted the timetable for adding a women's sport was sped up by the lawsuit.

"Were it not for COVID, we wouldn't have cut sports," Barta said. "Were it not for the Title IX lawsuit, I wasn't ready to add women's wrestling yet. But I can tell you while the timing may be challenging, the decision is awesome. We’re excited about it, and we’re ready to go forward."

Attorney James Larew released a statement from the Iowa women’s swimming athletes, who applauded the decision and believe it will create more opportunities for female athletes nationwide — as other universities are expected to follow Iowa’s lead. Brands said he knew of others that were close to making a similar announcement.

The NCAA defines Title IX compliance as requiring dollar-for-dollar spending on scholarships among men and women, and it must be proportional to student population. According to Iowa's fiscal-year 2020 report supplied to the NCAA, $6,524,387 was spent on athletic aid for men and $5,860,477 for women. (That, of course, was before the three men's sports were cut.)

Barta pointed to a growing trend of more women attending college nationwide as a reason that his department was looking at adding wrestling pre-COVID and as many as five years ago.

Megastar wrestler Spencer Lee, right, and men's associate wrestling coach Terry Brands attend Thursday's news conference announcing the launch of women's wrestling at Iowa.

Iowa’s first women’s wrestling coach will walk into a new facility … and a high standard.

Privately-raised financing and logistics have the proposed $20 million standalone wrestling facility — to be built adjacent to Carver-Hawkeye Arena — on track to get Board of Regents approval. Ground is expected to be broken in the spring or early summer of 2022. And yes, women’s locker rooms have been part of the architectural designs with anticipation of adding women's wrestling.

But beyond that, the first Iowa women's wrestling head coach will be walking into high standards that were entrenched by Dan Gable and now Tom and (associate head coach) Terry Brands. Those standards are, safe to say, national-championship level. The Hawkeye Wrestling Club recently added three women, a sign of the groundwork that's being laid for Iowa to be advantageously positioned when — not if — the sport gains sanctioned NCAA championship status.

"When you do come in as the next coach for women’s wrestling, there’s a lot at stake," Tom Brands said. "There’s a lot at stake coming out of the gate."

And think about this: A current teenage girl with wrestling passion knows that if she competes for Iowa, she'll be rubbing elbows and probably getting pointers from the great Spencer Lee. I exchanged a few direct Twitter messages with the three-time NCAA champion and Hawkeye megastar Thursday, who has no plans to leave Iowa wrestling after his eligibility expires following the 2021-22 season.

"Yes, that's right!" Lee wrote. "This is a big deal."

Gary Barta says that he wouldn't have added women's wrestling this quickly if not for the recent Title IX lawsuit.

Adding a sport after the pain involved in cutting three can’t be lost.

After Barta made the announcement 13 months ago to cut four university-sponsored athletics programs, he said the decisions were final. "The dollars just are so large that there really is no path forward to change this decision," he said in August of 2020.

While women’s swimming eventually was saved after their Title IX lawsuit was filed, three men’s sports had their last seasons in the 2020-21 academic year — gymnastics, tennis and swimming.

Those three men’s sports, on average, were creating for Iowa athletics a deficit of about $2.67 million annually. That cost savings was the rationale for the cuts, and athletics wound up borrowing $50 million from the university to cover losses created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is a near certainty that women’s wrestling will operate at a loss, too, with Barta expecting expenses to be in the range of $500,000 — including salaries of coaches and up to 10 permitted women's scholarships. Only two sports at Iowa (and most Power Five universities) turn a profit — football and men’s basketball. So, the financial argument about cutting sports then rings hollow now ... especially for the men's athletes who saw their sports slashed.

"That's what we believed we needed to do (then). I'm expected to be self-sustaining (as a department)," Barta said Tuesday. "And it was our decision collectively and certainly mine from a responsibility standpoint to set the course for how we were going to manage that crisis and that deficit. And the decision we came to was to eliminate those sports."

Tom Brands’ press conference remarks started and ended by advocating women.

First, he gave a shout-out to Iowa’s deputy athletics director. Barbara Burke wasn’t part of Thursday’s press conference, but she should have been. She oversees wrestling directly and has been a strong partner in helping Brands bring Iowa wrestling back to the top of the NCAA, with a national title in 2021.

"I’ve had some great bosses in my career, and she tops them all. And I’ve told all the other (bosses) that as well," Brands said. "Not just because the relationship is strong, but because of the forward-thinking, the problem-solving ability.

Iowa deputy athletics director Barbara Burke has been a strong ally of the Hawkeyes' wrestling program.

"She shares a vision for things that are impactful. And you talk about impact, you have an unbelievably historic, exciting announcement that … the University of Iowa is adding women’s wrestling."

Brands was fired up Thursday. After taking questions but before he left the dais, he put the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union on blast. Thirty-two U.S. states sanction state championships in girls wrestling, but not Iowa.

Currently, Iowa’s girls wrestling championships are staged by the Iowa Wrestling Coaches and Officials Association.

"You know what, partner up. And let’s get some common sense here and let’s get a doggone sanctioned high school tournament for these girls," Brands said. "They’ve earned it. Enough. And doggone it, they need it. And we need it, I need it. … Go put that thing in that new (Coralville) arena.

"Just do it. Come on. Let’s get together and do it."

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

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.