Former Iowa national champion Tony Ramos discusses the challenges his first two years of coaching has brought. Cody Goodwin/The Register
CEDAR FALLS, Ia. — It was hard to miss the sweater on Monday night, splattered with Tar Heel colors and UNC logos. It made Tony Ramos an easy target for wrestling fans inside the West Gym.
Not that many of them hurled jeers at the former Iowa wrestler. Rather, most fans approached him the same way they did during Ramos’s successful Hawkeye days — with a handshake, a big smile and a request for a picture.
North Carolina wrestled Northern Iowa here on Monday night, marking Ramos’s first wrestling-related return to the state of Iowa since the 2016 Olympic Trials. He has served as a volunteer assistant for the Tar Heels for the last year and a half.
“It’s been awesome,” Ramos told the Register before UNI’s 17-16 victory over the Tar Heels. “I have a lot of passion for wrestling and the sport of wrestling. But the coaching aspect has brought a whole new passion on.
“Seeing the impact you can make in these kids’ lives, and the bonds and relationships you build — I mean, I’ve only been there for a year (plus), and it’s amazing.”
Ramos dove into coaching after an ugly breakup with the Hawkeye Wrestling Club following the 2016 Trials at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There, he lost to fellow HWC member Daniel Dennis, two matches to zero, in the best-of-three finals at 57 kilograms (roughly 125 pounds). Dennis, a former Hawkeye himself, went to Rio de Janeiro. Ramos did not.
Following the match, Ramos told media he felt “stabbed in the back” by how HWC coaches approached both him and Dennis competing for the same Olympic spot. He added he needed to leave the program, and that he felt only Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands wanted to see him win.
“When you corner a guy, you're not in his corner for his matches, you're in his corner for his life,” Tom Brands said shortly after Ramos’s comments. “I’ve been in that guy’s corner since the day he walked on campus. Have been and always will be.”
Eighteen days later, Ramos announced he was headed to Chapel Hill, where he joined Coleman Scott — a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist who Ramos beat in the semifinals at the 2016 Trials — on the North Carolina coaching staff.
“With some of these kids, I would basically call them my children, which is kind of weird,” Ramos said and laughed. “I’m only like three or four years older than them, but that’s the kind of relationship and emotion that goes into working with these guys.
“When they’re out on the mat, it would be the same emotion I would have if my kids were wrestling. When they have big wins, I’m just as excited as they are.”
There’s been plenty for North Carolina wrestling fans to be excited about lately. With Scott at the helm and Ramos in the room, the Tar Heels are ranked 19th nationally by Trackwrestling, with as many as six wrestlers ranked at their respective weights. They are in line to improve on their 41st-place finish at last season’s NCAA Championships.
Ramos hopes to eventually run his own program but understands he still has much to learn in the ways of coaching. He said he pulls from the knowledge all his former coaches once imparted — and yes, he mentioned Tom and Terry here — to help his own athletes.
“I want to lead a program, but that takes time and takes results,” Ramos said. “We can’t just be OK or be mediocre. We have to keep moving forward. We need to keep getting big wins like we had against Nebraska, and we need to come into UNI and compete.
“I’ve asked people a lot, which is better: winning an NCAA title, or coaching someone to an NCAA title? ... They’re both pretty cool. I can’t wait to have that feeling, and I’m hoping and expecting it’ll happen soon.”
Additionally, Ramos has plans to keep competing. He said he expects to wrestle in Russia in January. Recently, he finished fourth at the Dave Schultz Memorial International at 61 kilograms, up from 57, where he had made two world teams and nearly made the Olympic squad.
That finish came five months after the 2017 World Team Trials, where Ramos met former Iowa teammate Thomas Gilman in the finals at 57 kilos last June. Gilman swept Ramos, two matches to none, and went on to win silver at the World Championships in Paris.
“Ramos is still a Hawk. Ramos will always be a Hawk, whether he wants to admit it or not,” Gilman told Hawk Central afterward. “I’m not going to stand here and pretend there aren’t hard feelings. There were words toward the program. I take that personal. That’s my family.
“But I love the guy. He loves me, whether he wants to admit it or not. Once a Hawk, always a Hawk.”
The feeling may not be mutual for other members of the Iowa program. Ramos said he hasn’t talked to any of them since he left Iowa. He said he’s called Terry Brands "hundreds of times," but none of those calls was returned.
“I don’t think there’s much of a relationship there,” Ramos said of the current Hawkeye Wrestling Club contingent. “I told them good job (after the 2017 trials), and we just kind of went our ways.”
There is a chance Ramos could return to Iowa City soon. The 2017 Freestyle World Cup featuring some of the world's best wrestlers will be held at Carver on April 7-8. He said he’ll only come if he represents Team USA. Otherwise, he’ll watch from afar.
Until then, Ramos will continue to press forward, his focus on the 2017-18 Tar Heels. But on Monday, he took time to snap pictures with wrestling fans. They remember the abrasive attitude often complemented by a vicious stare that led to 120 victories, three All-American finishes and the 133-pound national title in 2014.
The Tar Heels and Panthers competed in a riveting dual on Monday decided on a tiebreaker. Afterward, he met more fans and snapped more pictures in his North Carolina sweater.
For a night, 90 miles from where he became a star, his mind started racing.
“I love it here,” Ramos said. “I love Iowa. I’m hoping one day to eventually come back, but we’ll see what happens.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.