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Wrestling: Tom Brands’ coaching tree on display at 57th Midlands Championships

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — Here inside Sears Centre Arena, Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands is surrounded by several familiar faces.

In the corner on Mat 1, there’s Mike Evans, a three-time All-American for the Hawkeyes who’s now coaching at Campbell, telling a Camel wrestler to move his hands and feet.

Walking by Mat 2, there’s Matt McDonough, a two-time NCAA champion for Iowa who’s now coaching at Wisconsin, offering advice and encouragement to a Badger wrestler after winning a close match in the second round.

Underneath the arena, there’s Tony Ramos, another Hawkeye national champ and two-time Senior men’s freestyle world-teamer, who’s now the top assistant at North Carolina, helping a Tar Heel wrestler ready himself for his next bout.

Part of Brands’ coaching tree is on display here at the 57th Ken Kraft Midlands Championships. It has steadily grown over the years, stretching to as many as six different Division I wrestling programs (not counting his current assistants, of course).

Iowa head coach Tom Brands addresses the fans during the second day of preseason Hawkeye wrestling matches, Friday, Nov., 8, 2019, inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa.

The three here at Sears Centre Arena are still chasing their mentor. The top-ranked Hawkeyes sat atop the team standings after Day One with 115.5 points. Northern Iowa was in second (69.5), followed by Wisconsin (68.5) Illinois (57) and Princeton (53.5).

In all, 10 Iowa wrestlers reached the semifinals — teams can bring more than 10 — with another four in the wrestlebacks. Northern Iowa and Wisconsin were next, both with four. 

Barring a barrage of upsets and letdowns, the Hawkeyes are in line to win their 29th Midlands team title.

“We love it,” Brands said. “We love having good results.”

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It is not uncommon for successful wrestling coaches to produce a lengthy coaching tree. Many of Dan Gable’s former wrestlers are still spread around the Big Ten — Tom Ryan at Ohio State and Jim Heffernan at Illinois, among others. Many more are at other schools around the country.

Brands’ coaching tree is starting to take shape, too. There’s Evans, McDonough and Ramos, but also Josh Dziewa at Drexel, Luke and Ethen Lofthouse at Utah Valley, Brent Metcalf and Derek St. John at Iowa State.

“I feel very blessed to have had a long history at Iowa with a lot of high-level people and high-level thinkers surrounding me that gave me a lot of knowledge,” McDonough told HawkCentral when he was hired at Wisconsin ahead of the 2018-19 season.

“I learned as much as I could, both the hard way and the easy way, and I want to take those tools and the knowledge I gained and give it to another group of guys. That’s the ultimate goal, to bring what you know to where you’re at.”

Iowa's Spencer Lee chats with Matt McDonough before practice at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018.

Each of the ones here at the Midlands are helping their new programs find success, too.

McDonough has been crucial in Wisconsin’s rise. Alongside head coach Chris Bono and assistant Jon Reader — both former Iowa State wrestlers — the Badgers have climbed to No. 5 in Trackwrestling’s Division I national poll, and have created plenty of excitement on the recruiting trail, too.

Evans is now the head assistant coach at Campbell, just one year after being promoted to a full-time assistant. The Camels sent a school-record six wrestlers to the 2019 NCAA Championships, and earned its first-ever top-25 ranking (they’re currently No. 32 by Track).

Ramos, the associate head coach at North Carolina under 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott, has helped lead the Tar Heels back to being a consistent top-25 team. North Carolina finished 19th at the 2019 NCAA Championships in March with two All-Americans. They’ve brought in back-to-back top-20 recruiting classes. They’re currently No. 18 by Track.

“We’ve already done some great things with the guys we already have here,” Ramos told HawkCentral shortly after he announced his retirement from competition in May. “… I have a special place for coaching in my heart. I love it.”

North Carolina's Troy Heilmann goes to hug assistant coach Tony Ramos after his 2-1 tiebreaker victory over Ohio State's Ke-Shawn Hayes in the 149 pound quarterfinals at the NCAA Wrestling Championships at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Friday, March 16, 2018.

Time will tell if those three programs will catch the mighty Hawkeyes. Brands’ 2019-20 squad is primed to contend for the national team title in March. Iowa’s last NCAA team crown came in 2010 — when McDonough was a redshirt freshman national champ, Ramos was a true freshman and Evans was a senior in high school.

Each of them have seen their respective teams reach the highest level, in other words. They know what it takes, and are using the knowledge learned from their Hawkeye days to help their pupils now.

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

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57th Ken Kraft Midlands Championships

Team Standings after Session II

1. Iowa, 115.5

2. Northern Iowa, 69.5

3. Wisconsin, 68.5

4. Illinois, 57

5. Princeton, 53.5