How Iowa's 'Grapple on the Gridiron' came together
IOWA CITY, Ia. – All big projects start with an idea. The one that will come to fruition Saturday was born in 2008 from Tom Brands’ foresight and competitive fire.
But executing the plan to create the first outdoor wrestling match at a Division I football stadium wouldn’t have happened without years of planning, a 60-second phone call and a refrigerator.
More than 35,000 already-ticketed fans — and who knows, it could end up being way more than that — will witness Iowa and Oklahoma State, the two most storied wrestling programs in NCAA history with 57 combined national championships, compete in a wrestling dual at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said “a lot had to happen to make it a reality” — and that includes cooperation from the weather. Saturday’s forecast is for sunny skies, temperatures in the 50s and no rain.
So, this is happening. And this will be record-smashing.
The highest attendance for an NCAA dual is 15,996, set at Penn State in 2013 — breaking by 41 fans the mark held for five years by the Brands-coached Hawkeyes. Back then, Brands knew one of his rivals would try to break Iowa’s record, and fire marshals wouldn’t allow Carver-Hawkeye Arena to pack in any more people.
So the 1996 Olympic gold medalist who lives and breathes intensity told his staff in 2008 to think big, that Iowa would need to take the show to Kinnick Stadium someday.
Someday is Saturday. And the “Grapple on the Gridiron” is on.
“There’s nothing like a competitor that’s ready to go, anywhere, any time,” Brands said. “It’s like a Navy SEAL, it’s like a special-forces person, an Army Ranger; the best of the best. It doesn’t matter temperature, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. You just get ready to wrestle.”
The biggest challenges
Brands admits that wrestlers are not the world’s most patient people.
So it’s a good thing Luke Eustice, Iowa wrestling’s director of operations, got the ball rolling on this possibility 2½ years ago.
In an athletic department of 200-plus people, Eustice had to have a plan in place once it was go time so it wouldn’t get bogged down in meetings and red tape. That meant thinking forward on key logistics like ticketing, parking, event management and security.
He had to know what was possible and what wasn’t before the 2015 Iowa football schedule was finalized in late April. To maximize a wrestling crowd size, Eustice and Brands knew it had to be paired with football.
And when the first November night game in the history of Kinnick Stadium was set for Nov. 14 against Minnesota, the light bulb went on. The date paired perfectly with the start of wrestling season.
The next challenge would be the biggest: Finding an opponent.“In my mind, you couldn’t wrestle a cupcake,” Eustice said. “That was something that I always thought was going to be a hurdle.”
Brands’ first move was to dial up John Smith, his counterpart at rival Oklahoma State. He expected to be on the phone for 15 minutes delivering his very best sales pitch.
“One minute, I’m telling you,” Brands said. “He said, ‘Yeah, we’re in.’ I said, ‘We’ll get you details.’”
Eustice couldn’t believe it. He leafed through the plans he laid out two years earlier and began implementing them. His life has been turned upside-down since. He’s had so much to do, the athletic department gave him a key to Kinnick Stadium — where he’s in charge of making sure every detail is accounted for, even ice.
“Football’s been dealing with me for four months,” Eustice said.
Football coach Kirk Ferentz had no issue, giving the event his blessing.
“It's just a win-win situation,” Ferentz said. “And for them to do it in Kinnick Stadium, make history there, why not? I think that’s just a fantastic thing for the university.”
What impressed Brands the most is how receptive Iowa’s administration was in making this happen. Barta’s team reciprocated the energy that Brands brought into his office years earlier.
“The only thing we had to do was try to figure out was what could stop us from doing it,” Barta said. “We had to make sure the campus community was on board, making sure we could figure out how to park everybody and just figuring out the logistics.”
Learning on the fly
About a month ago, there was a problem.
UI plant services supervisor Quintin Garner took a small square of Iowa’s Resilite competition mat and placed it a 38-degree refrigerator to replicate possible cold November temperatures.
“Their meet-mat style, like they normally use down here, gets hard as a rock,” Garner said.
The original contingency plan of running heating coils underneath the mat didn’t work, either. It was too insulated to warm up even a degree.
A Texas-based company called EZ Flex came through, supplying a light-weight mat unaffected by temperature. Because of the novelty of the event, EZ Flex sold a $12,000 mat to Iowa at cost — $6,300 plus $500 for shipping.
The mat arrived Monday in nine sections and will be laid directly on Kinnick Stadium’s FieldTurf, which will be “brushed” afterward to prepare for the football game.
Eustice didn’t want to give too much away about Saturday’s wrestling atmosphere, which he’s been envisioning for a long time, but “football feel” would be accurate. Wrestlers will wear a special singlet, emblazoned with “Grapple on the Gridiron,” and wear headgear donning “ANF” — for "America Needs Farmers" — like the football team wears on its helmets.
The mat will be positioned near the South end zone. Bleachers seating 550 people, mostly students, will be pulled to between the 20- and 25-yard line. The first 25,400 fans to buy a ticket got an assigned seat — that was important to Brands.
With platforms and tables needed for the Big Ten Network, Eustice has meticulously looked at every angle to make sure sight lines for fans weren’t disturbed. He used a range finder to discover that even from the top row of Sections 109 and 123 at Kinnick, it’s only 93 yards to the center of the mat – not much further than from the top row at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Months of outside fretting about possible bad weather have been mostly alleviated. Now, it’s about 20 young men – 10 per side – competing in a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
Did we mention Oklahoma State has the No. 1-ranked team in the country? Iowa is ranked fourth. And the crowd will smash Brands’ original prediction of 26,000.
“Just because it happens to be outdoors, it doesn’t put more significance on the event for our guys except maybe when they look back on it,” Brands said. “But I’ll tell you what, it’s a heck of an event for our fans.”
TIMELINE OF WRESTLING ATTENDANCE HISTORY
Dec. 6, 2008 – An NCAA dual-meet record 15,955 fans watch No. 1 Iowa defeat No. 2 Iowa State, 20-15, at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Not long after, head coach Tom Brands told his staff, “If this gets broken again, we’re going to Kinnick.”
Dec. 8, 2013 – Penn State sets the current attendance record as 15,996 watch a 28-9 dual win over Pittsburgh at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Aug. 6, 2015 – Iowa officially announces it will host the first outdoor dual in a football stadium, scheduled for 11 a.m. on Nov. 14 against Oklahoma State at Kinnick Stadium, with a weather contingency plan of moving inside to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Brands that day predicts a crowd in the mid-20,000s, saying Iowa fans are “nutty enough” to turn out in terrible weather.
Oct. 1, 2015 – More than 4,000 tickets are sold in the first two hours of general-public sales for what is billed as the “Grapple on the Gridiron.” By day’s end, more than 20,000 tickets (priced at $10) had been sold for the event, guaranteeing an NCAA record if the weather cooperates.
Nov. 11, 2015 – Iowa says that nearly 35,000 tickets had been sold. With a promising forecast to entice more walk-ups, the NCAA record is three days away from being demolished.
IMPORTANT PARKING INFORMATION
One of the biggest logistical challenges of hosting 35,000-plus wrestling fans and 70,000-plus for football on the same day is where everyone will park their vehicles. Here is that information from the UI:
If you have a football parking pass: Nothing changes from your usual football routine. Important note: Your pass is good for one entry. If your car leaves the lot after wrestling, you can’t get back in.
If you don’t have a football parking pass and plan to attend both events (FREE): The UI is offering free parking and shuttle service (from 8 a.m. to one hour after the football game) at Hancher Auditorium, as well as the Hawkeye Commuter and Hall of Fame lots on the West Campus off Melrose Avenue and Mormon Trek Boulevard.
If you don’t have a football parking pass and plan to attend wrestling only (FREE): The UI encourages these fans to park for free at Iowa City West High School, 1.5 miles west of Kinnick Stadium. A shuttle will run to and from West High from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Additional pay options: For $20 per vehicle and while space is available, fans can choose to park at the Finkbine Golf Course driving range, the UI softball lot, Lower Finkbine lot, University Lot 3 (Main Library) or 11 (Madison and Court Street).
The Hawkeye Express: The train service will not be available for the Grapple; it begins at 3 p.m. and continues until 90 minutes after the football game.
Plans for ticketing, parking and security have been in place; what the final steps entail to making the Grapple on the Gridiron happen:
Thursday and Friday
New mat, which arrived Monday in nine pieces and was stored under the East stands, laid down on the Kinnick Stadium turf in/near the South end zone.
11 sets of bleachers pulled from the North end zone to roughly the opposite 25-yard line.
Field signage, Grapple on the Gridiron flags and banners in the stands are installed.
Head table, Big Ten Network coaches’ chairs and team benches are set up.
Final setup of temporary locker-room and shower areas (Minnesota football will already be set up in the famous pink visitors’ locker room), including warmup mats in the tunnel
Wrestlers roll around on the mats to get a feel for the environment
Deliver scales and all food for wrestlers’ post-weigh-in nutrition
Vans transport team from Carver-Hawkeye Arena to Melrose Ave. for access to Kinnick Stadium
Weigh-in at 10 a.m.; dual starts at 11:03 a.m.