Iowa wrestling: Tom Brands explains decision to pull redshirt off Spencer Lee
IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s official: Spencer Lee has been freed.
Lee, Iowa’s star freshman lightweight, will shed his redshirt and wrestle for Iowa on Friday when the Hawkeyes host Michigan State inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The dual is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.
"You know what, one reason this is big news is because Spencer Lee is special," Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said Wednesday afternoon. "On another level, it’s just a decision that’s made in your program — not that it’s ho-hum, but you would like it to be business as usual.
"But that’s not what the media or the fans or even probably opponents, they don’t want to leave it like that. That’s why we’re talking about it."
Brands said there were ongoing conversations with Lee, his family and the coaching staff about having him wrestle as a true freshman. It had to be a mutual decision, he added, because it first needed to be best for the individual.
"One of our goals is to put our best team on the mat," Brands said. "In order to do that, when there’s an option of a redshirt, we have to make sure that’s the best thing for the individual as well. It’s a no-brainer that it’s the best thing for the team, and now we’re to the point where we’ve sorted it out where both parties think it’s the best thing for the individual."
The decision came Wednesday morning, just four days after Lee competed unattached at the Midlands Championships, wrestling at 125 pounds. It was his second collegiate competition — Lee went 3-0 with two pins and a technical fall at the UNI Open in early December.
At the Midlands, the Murrysville, Pa., native strung together one more pin and two more technical falls to reach the semifinals, where he lost to Oregon State's Ronnie Bresser. The result of that match, or any of the six before it, did not have any bearing on the final decision, Brands said. He just wanted to see Lee compete, see how he looked and talk with him about how he felt on the mat.
"After the Midlands match, we talked," Brands continued, "and it was basically addressing the loss, addressing other things that go along with that and being able to move forward, and, 'Hey, where are we at with you being on the mat?' We were still thinking a go.
"When I say still, I’m not saying Michigan State was a target date, but we’ve been pointing to this and we’ve had conversations. This is an important decision. It’s not like you get to the Midlands and it hasn’t been talked about, and then all of a sudden, it’s a speedy conversation. That seems like a knee-jerk reaction, and that’s not what this was at all."
After seven collegiate matches, Lee will get his chance to don the legendary all-black singlet with the block letters “IOWA” down the left leg. He will likely face Michigan State’s Rayvon Foley, who is 14-3 overall.
"This seemed like the best time," Lee said Wednesday. "We don’t want to wait. There’s no point in waiting, so you might as well go out and get some matches in — this time, in a Hawkeye singlet."
Lee’s addition to Iowa’s lineup will elevate the Hawkeyes — currently ranked 4th nationally by Trackwrestling — into the NCAA trophy conversation. He will be considered a national title contender at a weight where as many as 10 guys could win it.
“There’s expectations,” Brands said earlier this season, “and he knows what those expectations are.”
Lee came to the program after a successful prep career at Franklin Regional High School, where he was teammates with fellow Hawkeye Michael Kemerer, Iowa’s 157-pound All-American. Lee won three state championships and three age-level freestyle world titles.
As such, Lee was the consensus No. 1 overall recruit of the 2017 class. He chose Iowa over Penn State, becoming the most decorated wrestler to commit to Brands, and the first consensus No. 1 recruit to pick the Hawkeyes since Mark Perry in 2003.
Upon his arrival, questions swarmed about whether Lee would compete as a true freshman or spend the entire year in redshirt, a situation that Brands has previously faced with other stellar recruits. It was a hot topic during the team’s media day in November, when Brands hinted that perhaps Lee could wrestle this season.
Lee repeatedly stated that Brands and the coaching staff would have the final say on his redshirt decision.
“I’m going to do whatever the coaches want me to do,” Lee said during media day. “We’re going to make the decision together. I mean, of course I want to wrestle. Why would I want to sit the bench and take a year off? I’m not that kind of guy.
“I’m not going to say, yeah, I’m going to wrestle. Of course, I want to. But we’re going to do what’s best for me and what’s best for the team.”
That decision came on Wednesday. Spencer Lee has been freed. The rest is up to him.
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.