Inside Tom Brands' decision to redshirt Alex Marinelli

Chad Leistikow
Iowa's Alex Marinelli poses for a photo during media day at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Tom Brands says it’s one of the toughest calls he’s had to make in his 11 years as Iowa’s wrestling coach.

But the decision has been made: Talented freshman Alex Marinelli is going to redshirt.

“The best thing for Alex Marinelli right now is to keep him in redshirt,” Brands told “Because we have that option. There might be some guys that have already redshirted that need another redshirt. We don’t have that option. Alex Marinelli, we have that option.”

And though the door remains ever-so-slightly open to a reversal, the decision to sit the four-time Ohio state champion came with careful consideration.

Sure, Marinelli is Iowa’s best option at 165 pounds this season. So it might seem unconventional, on the surface, to keep your best option on the bench.

Iowa's Alex Marinelli said on media day in November that he was hopeful to be the Hawkeyes' first true freshman to win a national championship since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993.

But Brands acknowledges that Iowa operates “differently than maybe other programs.”

“A lot of people say scholarship comes into play, because this is a kid, it’s no secret, he’s on a lot of scholarship money,” Brands said. “And (some say) you’ve got to get him out of the program because it’s five years of scholarship instead of four. None of that factors in. That’s stuff that I don’t sweat. I never sweat any of that stuff. The bottom line is what’s best for our individuals.”

A lot of things came into play, including a knee injury that kept Marinelli off the mat for nearly two months. Marinelli didn’t compete (unattached) from the early-November Grand View Open until the late-December Midlands Championships, where he finished fourth with three wins over top-20 wrestlers.

“Yeah, he’s ready. Is he as ready as he needs to be or maybe could have been had he not had two months off because of a knee injury?” Brands said. “You know what, that’s the things that you factor into it.”

If Brands was going to pull Marinelli’s redshirt, this week would’ve been the time.

The third-ranked Hawkeyes have their first of three straight mega-duals Sunday at No. 1 Oklahoma State. But instead of Marinelli, who had been ranked 11th nationally at 165 by Trackwrestling until this week, it’ll probably be redshirt freshman Joey Gunther (12-3) taking on the Cowboys’ sixth-ranked Chandler Rogers.

Iowa's Alex Marinelli warms up during practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

“You look at it like, what’s best for him, No. 1. No. 2, how’s the guy that’s doing the job there now, how’s he been doing?” Brands said. “And he’s making progress. Gunther has been making progress.”

After Oklahoma State, it’s home against Penn State (Jan. 20) and Ohio State (Jan. 27), who combined have won the last six NCAA championships – a run that Iowa is trying to snap with four highly ranked seniors in Thomas Gilman, Cory Clark, Alex Meyer and Sammy Brooks.

What if Marinelli could score, say, 6-8 points at the NCAA Championships vs. possibly zero for one of his teammates?

While that was a factor in Brands’ thinking, he also looks at bigger prizes.

The bar is always high at Iowa.

“It’s not even about the eight points,” Brands said. “It’s, does he think he can win the national tournament? And if he does, is that realistic?

“I don’t look at how many points he can score. It’s where are you at against the competition that you’re going to be facing in the quarterfinals of the national tournament? Where are you at against the competition if, God forbid, you’re knocked into the consolation bracket?”

Brands knows that sitting Marinelli is a risk. It’s possible that every point will matter at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis in mid-March.

But it’s true to form. The only true freshman to wrestle varsity at Iowa in Brands’ 11 years is Nathan Burak, and that was a case where Burak trained for a year between high school and college.

If not for the missed mat time, Brands said, that streak might’ve ended.

“We’re bringing (Marinelli) along,” Brands said. “I tell you what, he’s a soldier.”