Leistikow: 'Getting whipped' inspires more change from Tom Brands

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Tom Brands, not necessarily the world’s most patient person, is playing the long game in an effort to put Iowa back on top of the college wrestling world.

“Good things,” the intense but calculated 12th-year Hawkeye coach says, “take time.”

Brands has earned some more time, with last week’s news that his contract had been extended three years, through the end of the 2022-23 season.

But make no mistake: Brands, 49, is operating with incredible urgency to address what he sees is the biggest challenge facing all college wrestling programs except one (Penn State): money.

Iowa head coach Tom Brands works with sophomore Perez Perez (bottom) at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

“When you look at the bigger picture, year to year, finances have become No. 1 for the first time in my coaching career,” Brands says. “We’re getting whipped.”

That’s not a knock on his own administration. In fact, Brands calls Gary Barta’s athletics department “a full partner” while also acknowledging everyone involved with Hawkeye wrestling must pick up the pace.

The source of that motivation?

A recent FloWrestling.com report showed the jaw-dropping financial disparity between the wrestling clubs at Penn State — which has won six of the past seven NCAA titles under Cael Sanderson — and Iowa.

According to 2015 tax returns obtained by FloWrestling, Penn State’s Nittany Lion Wrestling Club reported net assets of $5.7 million. The Hawkeye Wrestling Club ranked a distant second nationally, at just under $700,000.

Those clubs, which are privately funded, allow post-graduate wrestlers to train year-round with those at the collegiate level. "Who has the best club" is perhaps the top selling point for college coaches aiming to attract recruits with legitimate world-title aspirations.

So it was notable that as part of the Brands contract-extension announcement, the University of Iowa said it would “begin exploring possibilities for a new wrestling training center.”

That’s a big deal.

“If you have a facility that’s not even top 10 in the country, not even the best one in the state of Iowa,” Brands says, likely referring to NAIA powerhouse Grand View, “then that has to be part of the evaluation.”

TOM BRANDS, UNPLUGGED: Inside the wrestling coach's relentlessly complex world

A standalone facility would be the big next step for Brands, who says that $2.2 million has already been raised — most of it from two donors who want to see Iowa reclaim the national dominance it enjoyed in winning 23 NCAA Championships between 1976 and 2010.

Though Iowa’s Dan Gable Wrestling Complex was renovated in 2011, the program has been operating in the same second-floor space in Carver-Hawkeye Arena since 1983.

Brands knows that a new building isn’t solely separating Iowa from reeling off national titles again.

But he views it at one of the final pieces in a larger program reboot, of sorts, that Brands instituted — particularly since his ballyhooed, top-ranked recruiting class of 2010 underachieved while Penn State under Cael Sanderson charged to the top.

“We slipped,” Brands says.

Among the changes plugged-in Hawkeye wrestling fans have noticed...

More club firepower

The May addition of Mark Perry, an energetic and personable former four-time all-American at Iowa, to lead the Hawkeye Wrestling Club is already bearing fruit.

The club has added two prominent lightweights with explosive styles: Mexico’s Jesse Delgado, a dynamic former two-time NCAA champion at Illinois (where Perry was an assistant); and Bulgaria’s Boris Novachkov, a 2016 Olympian who competed at Cal-Poly when Perry was co-head coach there.

Perry is “important to that process,” Brands says. “Not just as a coach, but as a fundraiser and mouthpiece for what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Aggressiveness on transfers

Already in the program is 149-pounder Patricio Lugo, a two-time NCAA qualifier at Edinboro who transferred to Iowa. He has two years of eligibility remaining, plus a redshirt — which he’ll likely take with the Hawkeyes having three-time all-American Brandon Sorensen at that weight for one more year.

And then there’s Pat Downey. Brands wouldn’t discuss the troubled but ultra-talented 184-pounder, but Downey intends to become a Hawkeye as a graduate transfer — if he can wrap up his degree via online classes at Iowa State, where he was kicked off the team by former coach Kevin Jackson.

Downey, 25, has said he’s actively training with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club and hopes to be eligible by late December's Midlands Championships.

“I think we got a little more aggressive when we had somebody on the hook,” Brands says of the transfer influx. “And we have to do that. Whether it’s my style or not, we have to do that.”

Recruiting stars with character

Attracting top-end firepower is the key ingredient for Sanderson's formula to success at Penn State.

Brands has begun to counter, by landing two biggies in his Class of 2017 in Spencer Lee (125 pounds) and Jacob Warner (197). He knows he’ll need more, but money is tight with college wrestling limited to 9.9 scholarships.

“You know what? Good kids cost a lot of money,” Brands says. “And 9.9 doesn’t go very far. … It’s similar to a salary cap that’s very low. We’ll see. We’ll work it out.”

Brands is thrilled how Lee and Warner, plus other new guys in the room like Aaron Costello, Max Murin and Myles Wilson, have blended with young, high-character guys such as Michael Kemerer (third at NCAAs at 157 pounds as a freshman), Alex Marinelli and Kaleb Young.

“We keep stock-piling the right kind of character. That’s important to us,” Brands says. “This thing doesn’t work very well if you get guys that don’t like to work. You see the work ethic these guys have and how much they love wrestling every day, you feel pretty good about the future.”

So. About that future.

The prospects for 2018 look rough. Iowa has eight straight top-five NCAA finishes, but that consistency will be challenged this season after losing World Championships silver medalist Thomas Gilman and 133-pound NCAA champ Cory Clark to graduation. Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine lists Iowa 10th in its preseason power rankings.

“There’s people that lick their chops with Iowa being ranked (that low)," Brands says.

Look east, and it's no wonder there’s urgency for Brands. Penn State not only returns five NCAA champions, but its Class of 2018 is being billed as maybe the best in college wrestling history — five of InterMat’s national top six have committed to the Nittany Lions.

The rich are getting richer.

It’s a humbling position for Iowa, and a reminder to Brands that rebuilding requires checks with a lot of zeroes.

“That’s not the end-all. But … you’ve got to realize that they’ve got 10 times more money,” Brands says. “So the decisions we spend time making, they can make in the snap of a finger.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.