Former teammates Tom Brands and Tom Ryan meet once again when No. 6 Iowa wrestles No. 1 Ohio State

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The wrestling coach answers his phone and begins talking about old teammates. He laughs as the memories come back. But Tom Ryan can’t discuss Tom and Terry Brands without thanking them. 

“They were — and they still are, in some ways — but they were critically important to my development as a competitor,” Ryan says. “They were great examples. They were guys that really made a difference in my success and growth.”

On Sunday, Ryan and the Brands brothers will meet once again, sitting on opposite sides of the mat when No. 1 Ohio State hosts No. 6 Iowa at the Schottenstein Center (2:30 p.m., BTN). Both teams enter with perfect 9-0 records, and 4-0 marks in Big Ten Conference competition.

Ohio State head coach Tom Ryan.

It will be another reunion, of sorts, for the three longtime friends-turned-fierce competitors. Ryan and the Brands brothers all wrestled at Iowa under Dan Gable in the '90s, helping the Hawkeyes win national team titles in 1991 and 1992. Now, like many former Gable wrestlers, they all play a role in leading Big Ten programs that are perennially in contention of hardware in March.

“There’s a lot of good memories with Tom Ryan,” Tom Brands says. “He was a good teammate and a classmate, and even more memories with him and Terry, my brother.”

Ryan spent his first two collegiate years at Syracuse. He won an Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association crown in 1989 and qualified for the national tournament. He transferred to Iowa ahead of the 1990-91 season and was drawn to the intense twin brothers from Sheldon.

“Wrestling is incredibly hard,” Ryan says, “but when you’re around people who love it and embrace it and can’t wait for the next challenge, that is very inspiring to be around. I saw that in them. They just love the sport. They love to compete. They love to learn.

“Anytime you love something like that, normally, you’re pretty darn good at it.”

Iowa head coach Tom Brands' collegiate portrait is pictured outside the wrestling room at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

As such, Ryan wanted to experience that passion firsthand. He lived with Terry Brands during his time in Iowa City, and they lived across the hall from Tom Brands in apartments near Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Ryan saw up close the lifestyle that led them to five combined NCAA titles.

There was more than just wrestling during that time, of course — Tom Brands borrowed Ryan’s car when he first took Jennifer, now his wife, on a date — but it almost always came back to the mat. Ryan recalls a time when he and Terry Brands got into it while watching hockey. Terry didn’t like that his team was substituting so often. Ryan didn’t understand why that upset him.

“Terry was always very animated,” Ryan says. “He threw an empty water bottle at the TV and called them 'wimps.' I was like, 'It’s a sprinting sport.' One thing led to another, and we got so mad at each other that we went to Carver and wrestled until the first one broke.

“We wrestled for over an hour straight, just live wrestling. We were both tired but neither would quit. So I suggested, ‘I’m going not to stop, and I don’t think you’re going to stop, so how about a truce?’ And he was like, ‘Good,’ and we went back to the apartment like nothing happened.”

Iowa associate head coach Terry Brands celebrates the Hawkeyes' 20-12 win over Oklahoma State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018.

All of them graduated after the 1992 season. The Brands became assistants under Gable but continued to compete. They both won world titles in 1993. Terry Brands won another in 1995, and Tom Brands won Olympic gold in 1996 in Atlanta. 

Ryan graduated a two-time All-American, placing second in 1991 and third in 1992 at 158 pounds. He also competed post-collegiately, but landed as an assistant at Indiana upon graduation. In 1995, he was named the head coach at Hofstra, which didn’t surprise his former teammates.

“There was passion, which is kind of a funny thing to say,” Tom Brands says. “He competed internationally, but was looking for an assistant job somewhere. It wasn’t like, 'hey, I’m going to go to law school' — his brother is a successful lawyer, his dad is a successful entrepreneur.

“He wanted to coach. Absolutely he was wired that way.”

In this 1991 photo, Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable helps Tom Ryan off the mat after a match.

By now, the rest is history. Tom Brands spent more than a decade as an Iowa assistant, then was the head coach at Virginia Tech for two years before returning to Iowa City ahead of the 2006-07 season. He was excited about the opportunity to coach the Hawkeyes.

“It is an enormous challenge,” Brands said at his introductory press conference. “North of us, we have J Robinson and the Minnesota Gophers who are doing a good job. South of us, you have John Smith in Stillwater (Oklahoma) doing a good job. To the west, there is a little bit of buzz going on with Cael Sanderson being hired as the new head coach at Iowa State University.

“To the east of us, Columbus, Ohio, is a potential hot bed. Ohio State University looking for a new coach could create a dynasty with the right person in there.”

Sixteen days later, Ohio State hired Ryan as its head coach after 11 years at Hofstra, using the same lessons he learned from Gable and the Brands. Iowa won three straight NCAA team titles from 2008-10, edging out the Buckeyes in both 2008 (117.5 points to 79) and 2009 (96.5 to 92).

Ohio State overtook Iowa for the 2015 NCAA team title and has finished ahead of the Hawkeyes each of the last two years. This season, the Buckeyes have again assembled a team that has them in title contention with the likes of Penn State, which has won six of the last seven national titles.

“I remind my teammates all the time, the last time we won was 2010,” Iowa redshirt freshman Alex Marinelli says. “From the fans and outsiders, there’s some pressure, because you want to take Iowa back to where it was, and that’s the thing.

“When we beat these top-tier teams, it shows the fans that we belong there.”

Co-Big Ten champions Iowa and Ohio State coaches Tom Brands (left) and Tom Ryan receive the trophy as part of the Big Ten Championships at St. John Arena.

On Sunday, the Hawkeyes will get a chance to see how they measure up against mighty Ohio State, which, according to Trackwrestling’s latest Division I poll, boasts a ranked wrestler at each weight. They will get another crack at them in March at both the Big Ten and NCAA tournament.

The same mindset that Gable instilled in his former wrestlers is still with them today as coaches, and they all try to pass that knowledge to their own athletes. It’s made for some exciting competitions recently — Iowa has won the last three duals in the series, but the Buckeyes have found more postseason success the last three seasons.

Both parties believe Sunday will be much of the same.

“The respect is still there,” Tom Brands says, “but you’re after that little piece of real estate. He’s busy doing what he’s trying to do to get there, and we’re busy doing what we’re trying to do to get there.”

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.

No. 6 Iowa (9-0, 4-0 Big Ten) vs. No. 1 Ohio State (9-0, 4-0)

WHEN: Sunday, 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: Schottenstein Center, Columbus, Ohio
WATCH/LISTEN: Big Ten Network/AM 800 KXIC