Leistikow: A banner day for Hawkeye wrestling
Best or greatest recruiting day ever for Tom Brands?
Both, of course, as National Letters of Intent from Spencer Lee and Jacob Warner cycled through the University of Iowa’s compliance office Thursday morning.
With two signatures, the Hawkeyes had delivered a seismic statement to the landscape of college wrestling.
No wonder Brands, Iowa’s determined 11th-year head coach, was fired up (imagine that) Thursday in an interview with the Des Moines Register.
“I’ve never talked like this about a class,” he admits.
What does Brands like the most?
Rather than focusing on their elite wrestling skills, Brands starts with their clean, dedicated lifestyles.
That’s epitomized in Lee. The three-time world junior champion from Franklin Regional (Pa.) High School was telling Brands that when he drives, he is careful to not exceed the speed limit.
Brands asked: Oh, so you don’t want to get a ticket?
According to Brands, here was Lee’s epic response: “No. If I die, then I can’t wrestle.”
“That’s not only a great story,” Brands says. “That’s a great mentality.”
Whatever Lee’s been doing, it’s working.
He is one of the best pound-for-pound wrestling prospects in decades. He is the consensus overall No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2017, and projects at 125 pounds at Iowa — the spot top-ranked Thomas Gilman vacates after this season.
Once Brands got the low-down on Lee from Jody Strittmatter, a trusted former Hawkeye who operates the Young Guns Wrestling Club in Pennsylvania where Lee trains, he knew this was a guy he had to get.
“There’s nothing that doesn’t jive with who we are,” Brands said. “And especially with who I am and who my brother (assistant coach Terry) is. I’m talking about a total dedication and commitment.”
Finding all-in guys was a recruiting lesson Brands learned the hard way.
His fantastic (on paper) recruiting class of 2010 failed to deliver on its top-ranked expectations. None of the four top-20 overall recruits he landed in that class would ever reach an NCAA final. Two never reached a podium.
“You know what, I made some mistakes,” Brands says. “I think if we could’ve put our money where we had other options … we (instead) opted for looking maybe more at the best wrestler. And we had some problems.”
Brands never called out any recruiting class or wrestler in our interview; he was merely making a tough admission of misreads that have contributed to the Hawkeyes' current NCAA title drought of six years after they won three straight from 2008 to 2010.
However, Brands has no character concerns about Lee.
Same goes for Warner, the No. 1-ranked wrestler at his weight (195 pounds) and No. 8 overall in the Class of 2017 by Intermat.
Iowa also is getting do-it-right guys in Max Murin (unsigned as of Thursday; ranked No. 5 at 132 pounds), Zach Axmear (unsigned; unranked at 152); Myles Wilson (unsigned; No. 13 at 170) and Aaron Costello (signed; No. 13 at 285).
Warner had Brands and assistant coach Ryan Morningstar sweating this one out until the final days. When the Washington (Ill.) High School product announced Wednesday afternoon that he chose Iowa over Ohio State, Brands suddenly had two elite prospects in one class, including a much-needed horse at the upper weights (he’ll wrestle 197 in college) that could compete for multiple national titles.
“He held his cards pretty tight to his chest,” Brands says, “which is exactly what he was coached to do.”
Speaking of cards … if Brands has the right read on these guys and develops them, he could be building the Hawkeyes back into powerhouse mode, especially once No. 3 overall 2018 prospect Gavin Teasdale (another Young Guns star) comes aboard.
This is me just spit-balling a 2018-19 dream-team lineup:
125: Spencer Lee (redshirt freshman).
133: Gavin Teasdale (true freshman).
141: Vince Turk (RS junior).
149: Max Murin (RS freshman).
157: Michael Kemerer (RS junior).
165: Alex Marinelli (junior or RS sophomore; maybe he redshirts in 2017?).
174: Kaleb Young (RS sophomore).
184: Cash Wilcke (RS junior).
197: Jacob Warner (RS freshman).
Hwt.: Sam Stoll (RS senior).
Iowa wrestling fans should be really excited.
And they are.
Lee is already such a star in the sport that during one of his unofficial visits to Iowa City, he was recognized by a six to eight people as he stood next to the Old Capitol Mall on Clinton Street — just inside the edge of campus.
“As we’re standing there,” Brands recalls, “he’s 10 feet off the street — his mom, his dad, his sister, Terry, Morningstar — and people are stopping. Traffic is stopping. People are rolling down their windows and looking through the passenger’s side through the driver’s seat, (yelling), ‘Spencer Lee! Hey! Go Hawks!’”
It’s a great story.
And it could be for years to come.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.