Brands unplugged: 'We're greedy. We want everything'
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Eggs and hash browns were served during a recent interview with Tom Brands amid the clanking of spoons and dishes at a bustling diner. That, plus some hard-boiled questions about Hawkeye wrestling.
As the former three-time NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist talked about the Iowa program he's leading for the 10th year, the 45-minute conversation took an unexpected turn.
"I feel like I'm in a fight right now," Brands said at one point.
The back-and-forth that followed was pointed yet respectful.
At issue: Should a wrestling coach who three months ago capped a one-loss dual season, a Big Ten Conference co-championship and second-place NCAA finish be facing what-needs-to-be-fixed questions about his program?
Both parties reflected and understood: At Iowa, the standard is different.
Brands places extremely high expectations on himself and the Hawkeye program, which had a high bar instilled by winning 20 of the 26 NCAA Championships held between 1975 and 2000 (15 of them under Dan Gable).
"You're going in a direction (with the interview) that there's a drought: '2010 is the last year we won (NCAAs), what's going on?' And I won't defend myself," said Brands, referencing the third national title Iowa won in his first four years after replacing Jim Zalesky. The Hawkeyes' NCAA finishes have been third, third, fourth, fourth and second since. "But if you look deep, there's nobody that's done it better the last 10 years. Nobody.
"But that's not what it's about. It's about winning every single match, every single time. And I put that on me. I've kind of made this bed, too, because of the way we talk and our philosophy."
And therein lies the uniqueness of not only Iowa wrestling, but Brands himself. (Imagine if Kirk Ferentz or Lisa Bluder were grilled about their football or women's basketball shortcomings after an eighth consecutive top-four national finish.)
Brands, easily the Iowa athletic department's most dominant program and coach (and it isn't close), is never satisfied.
With that perspective in mind, here are excerpts on the state of Hawkeye wrestling:
TOPIC 1: SCORING MORE POINTS
After a runner-up team finish (to Ohio State) was locked up March 21 at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Brands was asked what his program needed to do to take the next step. "We need to score more points," he said then.
Iowa returns four all-Americans in 2016 — including its three highest-finishing wrestlers in Cory Clark (second at 133 pounds), Thomas Gilman (fourth, 125) and Brandon Sorensen (fourth, 149), who can be among the program's most-active wrestlers. The fourth is senior-to-be Nathan Burak (seventh, 197), who outscored opponents 64-1 with six technical falls in winning the freestyle University Nationals a few weeks ago.
But the 2015 Hawkeyes lacked scoring punch across the board, particularly among the five senior starters (two of which didn't score a team point at NCAAs).
Brands: "The thing is, our guys are talked to the right way. I will defend that. Because of the rules, they get by with things. They get out there and they do different things. Take Mike Evans (at 174) for example. That guy, can he score points? Absolutely. But he knew the easiest way to win a match — the least painful way to win a match — is to go out there and keep it close and win it in the end. Because the rules allowed him to do that.
"You can sit in the corner and you can scream and yell, or you can continue to preach and train in the room and then hope that somebody gets it. … When I say 'hope' somebody gets it, this philosophy, they need to buy in and ingrain it into themselves and their own wrestling. A guy like Sorensen, tremendous scoring ability. But he didn't display it, either. Winning tough, close matches is part of being an exciting wrestler as well.
"… We have to do better. And what it's going to come down to is being confident and having fun and letting it fly. We have some guys that have it in them. But part of that is also winning the close matches, the tough close matches. And that's probably where we're lacking more than anything. I'll pick on Evans again — sixth three years in a row? Those are tough matches that you've got to win. I'm not sure public opinion would be against him as much if he was third, fourth, third instead of 6-6-6."
TOPIC 2: OFF-MAT ISSUES DEPLETE 141
Brands booted redshirt freshmen Seth Gross, Ross Lembeck and Logan Ryan off the team in early May after alcohol- and theft-related charges. Brands said that two of the three wrestlers had requested and been granted releases, but wouldn't specify which ones.
He was asked about the situation and the lineup hole created at 141 pounds, where highly regarded Gross and Ryan were expected to be candidates. Now, Topher Carton is likely the front-runner to replace Josh Dziewa.
Brands: "When you get to know people, you get to know where they're going, kind of. And you try to address those things. You talk about things like leadership, character and sometimes bad choices blow up bad. And this is one of those cases. And it's a reflection of our program we're not proud of, for sure.
"We're moving forward with unbelievable positive energy, just like we do every day. That's what we do. And when we're dealt a blow, a loss of personnel — it could be a tragic loss of personnel. It could be a loss of personnel because of trouble, or it could be a loss of personnel in a match. That's a devastating loss. You move forward. That's what wrestling teaches you. So that's what you do. We do that every day. There's minor battles, and there's bigger battles — you really don't separate the two. You move forward every day as you get better. You move forward."
TOPIC 3: THE 2016 LINEUP
There are six pretty well locked-up positions in the Hawkeye lineup — Gilman (125), Clark (133), Sorensen (probably 149), Alex Meyer (174), Sammy Brooks (184) and Burak (197). All six will likely start the season ranked in the nation's top 10. Brands wasn't sure whether Brody Grothus would stay at 149 or move up to 157, and he likes freshman heavyweight Sam Stoll.
Brands: "We've got this guy named Alex Meyer, who we like. We've got this guy named Sam Brooks, who we like. Those guys have not been on the stand yet. They're not all-Americans. They want more than just being an all-American. It's going to be guys like that. Nathan Burak, going from eighth (in 2014) to seventh (in 2015). I joked on the I-Club circuit that if you go from eighth to seventh, at that rate it'll take you 10 years to win a national title. And so what we've got to do is kind of accelerate that. He's a senior. Those are the things I feel good about. They have to prove it when they step on the mat, every time."
TOPIC 4: ANY SCHEDULING NEWS
The Hawkeyes are most notably hosting the Big Ten Championships this year, at a date to be determined.
Brands: "We have Oklahoma State coming to town, we have Minnesota coming to town, and the Big Tens. And that's big. … The Big Ten date isn't confirmed, the Minnesota date isn't confirmed. It's on a three-day window, and the Big Ten Network will pick that up live, along with I believe Wisconsin (in Madison)."
TOPIC 5: THE COACHING STAFF, RECRUITING
Strength coach Luke Lofthouse has moved on to a volunteer role at Utah Valley, but Brands said he did not think about shaking up his coaching staff beyond that.
As far as Brands goes, his contract runs through the 2017 season. He said he and athletic director Gary Barta had not discussed an extension."No, no," Brands said. "Those things don't matter to me."
Mark Hall, the nation's top recruit in the Class of 2016, recently said he wants to wrestle at a Midwest Big Ten school and praised how Iowa does things. If Brands can land Hall, it would be program-changing.
Brands: "Luke Lofthouse did a really good thing for his career. Everything else is good. Ryan Morningstar is doing a great job. You'll see his work with the recruiting with this next class. We've already got some commitments with these gonna-be seniors. Last year we didn't have a lot of money, but we signed a lot of good Iowa kids. That's important. This coming year is a big year recruiting, and you're going to see some good things."
TOPIC 6: THE DEFINITION OF SUCCESS
As the interview neared its conclusion, Brands was asked: "Do you view your 2015 season as a success?"
Brands had a lot to say on that topic, which circles back to how success is defined differently in the Hawkeye wrestling room than anywhere else on campus, and maybe anywhere else in the country.
Brands: "Our team had a better season in the national champion's home arena than they did. We beat (Ohio State) in the dual meet (Jan. 4 in Columbus), and we won the Big Ten championship on their mat, in their city, in front of their fans.
"The goal and expectation of the program is to win (NCAA) individual and team championships. We've done that in the past, but we didn't do that last year. We won a team title at the Big Tens, and that's important to our program. So there's some successes, but we're greedy. We want everything. That's where we're different. We didn't lose five dual meets. And still, we want more. What'd we lose, one dual meet? See, I don't even remember. We lost one dual meet, won the Big Tens and were second in the nationals. I'm not going to tell you that's good, because that's not our standard.
"But what we have to replace, what we've lost, we feel good. I think we're coming in at third or fourth (nationally) this year, behind Oklahoma State, Penn State and Ohio State. I think that's where we're at, roughly. We feel like we can get to the top. We always feel that way. And we talk that way. How's that?
"The standard is different here. But that's because of my standards. It's not because of tradition or anything else.
"When I was at Virginia Tech, I thought the same way. That's the difference. We were going to win the nationals at Virginia Tech. That's the difference. We didn't talk top-three, top-five, top-10. That's how I was raised, that's how I've approached everything I've done in my life."
TOM BRANDS' TRACK RECORD
Comparing Brands to his coaching peers since he took the Iowa job prior to the 2006-07 season:
Tom Brands, Iowa — 163-16-1 in duals, three NCAA titles (2008-10), 50 all-Americans
Cael Sanderson, Iowa State/Penn State — 126-24-2 in duals, four NCAA titles (2011-14), 46 all-Americans
John Smith, Oklahoma State — 151-31-2 in duals, zero NCAA titles, 40 all-Americans
J Robinson, Minnesota — 132-34-1 in duals, one NCAA title (2007), 48 all-Americans
Tom Ryan, Ohio State — 113-42 in duals, one NCAA title (2015), 23 all-Americans
Source: University of Iowa sports information
A POSSIBLE 2016 IOWA WRESTLING LINEUP
HawkCentral.com takes a look at the leading pieces Tom Brands has to work with (with 2015-16 year of eligibility):
125: Thomas Gilman (jr.) — Fourth-place NCAA finisher epitomizes Brands' work ethic and demeanor.
133: Cory Clark (jr.) — Talented NCAA runner-up needs to wrestle smart, but he can beat anybody.
141: Topher Carton (jr.) — Brands said he was the program's most-improved wrestler last offseason.
149: Brandon Sorensen (soph.) — Fourth-place NCAA finisher's 40 wins were one shy of Iowa freshman record.
157: Brody Grothus (sr.) — Sorensen has a better national-title shot at 149, so Grothus probably moves up.
165: Burke Paddock (fr.) — The two-time New York state champion went 19-5 unattached as true freshman.
174: Alex Meyer (jr.) — High-motor athlete ready for the spotlight after two years behind Mike Evans.
184: Sammy Brooks (jr.) — The No. 1 seed at the Big Ten Tournament just missed all-American status.
197: Nathan Burak (sr.) — Showed dominance at University Nationals, needs to increase attack.
Hwt.: Sam Stoll (fr.) — The Minnesota high-school phenom went 18-5 unattached as true freshman.