Hamilton: Iowa won but college wrestling pinned the day

Andy Hamilton

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Nearly five minutes passed Saturday afternoon as Tom Brands answered questions about the record-setting crowd, the heart-thumping individual performances and the possible game-changing scene that unfolded for college wrestling Saturday inside Kinnick Stadium.

Finally, the 10th query tapped into the topic the Iowa coach really wanted to discuss.

So how important was that win over the top-ranked team in the country?

“There’s the question,” Brands said. “That (win) is important – and we didn’t wrestle well.”

The record book won’t show that the No. 4 Hawkeyes left points off the board in individual matches. It won’t show that they gave some away, too.

It’ll show Iowa beat top-ranked Oklahoma State 18-16 in front of 42,287, the largest crowd in NCAA history – and perhaps the largest crowd in world-wide wrestling history.

“I know it’s great for wrestling,” Brands said. “There’s people in Russia and Turkey and Iran that are going to see this as well – or maybe saw it – and they will know about it.”

Iowa tops No. 1 Oklahoma State before record outdoor crowd

Rare is the moment Thomas Gilman finds himself at a loss for words, but the Grapple on the Gridiron became so big, so extraordinary, so far outside his sport’s galaxy that even Iowa’s most talkative wrestler found himself knotted in a verbal stalemate trying to summarize Saturday’s sights and sounds.

Forget the 15,996 that Penn State pulled in two years ago for a record-setting dual against Pitt. The turnout in Kinnick Stadium rivaled that of a Baylor football crowd. That’s sixth-ranked Baylor in football-crazed Texas.

In a wrestling context, Iowa and Penn State were the sport’s only programs to top the 30,000-mark in total attendance last season.

Gilman was awestruck Saturday when emerged from Kinnick Stadium’s southwest tunnel and into a sea of black-clad fans. He kept using the same word about the environment. The ride to the stadium felt electric, he said. The stadium felt electric. The feeling when he stepped on the mat? That, too, was electric, the 125-pound All-American said.

“I keep saying ‘electric,’ ‘electric,’ ‘electric,’” said Gilman, a 9-1 winner against No. 7 Eddie Klimara. “Maybe I’m getting a little bit redundant. I need a new word, but it was electric out there.”

The singular most important thing for wrestling, though, was the voltage on the mat.

The Hawkeyes and Cowboys pulled in roughly 28,000 fans who otherwise wouldn’t be there if this dual fell into its typical January slot on the calendar. It was an opportunity for wrestling to capture a new audience. And it would’ve gone down as an enormous opportunity lost if the product on the mat didn’t match up to the environment.

But there was riveting action Saturday. There was down-to-the-wire drama. There was near non-stop entertainment.

“Maybe we got (some new fans) excited,” Gilman said. “Maybe we motivated them to take on a new hobby and come watch us at Carver-Hawkeye.”

The last time the sport’s two most storied programs met in the building down the block, the Hawkeyes and Cowboys combined for 76 match points and 13 takedowns in a humdrum dual. Saturday’s tally: 137 match points and 31 takedowns.

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Iowa junior Sam Brooks racked up 17 of those points in a little more than four minutes of a dual-tipping technical fall at 184 pounds.

“I felt my heart coming out of my chest,” he said. “I felt blood pumping through my veins. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head.”

The scoreless first periods that became a growing epidemic for college wrestling in recent years?  There was one of those Saturday. It came at heavyweight.

“Definitely more action,” Brands said.

It wasn’t crisp, clean, World Championship-level wrestling. It wasn’t even the type of stuff Brands and Oklahoma State coach John Smith want to see near March. In fact, both coaches might get queasy watching the video replay of the 157-pound bout.

But that’s not the main point here.

This was bigger and better than anyone could’ve imagined, even the two head coaches who put a deal together during a minute-long phone conversation.

“My quick decision on it was in hopes that it would happen,” Smith said. “I didn’t want to give (Iowa) any reason to not do it.

“Normally the No. 1 team doesn’t go into a rivalry like this, you don’t go into a situation like this and in the end I think we have a chance. I think we can take a lot from the dual meet and it’s an opportunity to really understand what it is going to take to be a great team in the end.”

Iowa won the dual meet. College wrestling pinned the day.

“There’s no way anybody, including us, could’ve expected it to be that wild and crazy in there,” Brooks said. “That had to be awesome for the fans too.”