For Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee, 2020 Hodge Trophy represents 2021 motivation

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The Hodge Trophy is truly a marvel up-close. The wooden base has wrestlers at each corner, all with their left hands lunging forward, attacking. The body is all bronze, a slim neck with a small bowl. A chiseled man stands at attention on top.

Spencer Lee finally held his version of the award Tuesday. He was formally presented with the 2020 Hodge Trophy, given annually by Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine to the most dominant college wrestler. Had his name on it and everything.

Lee, now a senior — crazy, right? — smiled and posed for pictures. Make no mistake, this moment was well-earned after his remarkable 2019-20 season. He won a Big Ten title with an 18-0 record. In 17 contested matches, he outscored his opponents by a staggering 234-18, with four pins, nine technical falls, three major decisions, plus a win by forfeit.

But for Lee, a two-time NCAA champion, his thoughts were partially elsewhere.

“It was an honor just to be nominated,” he started. “I'm humbled to have won.”

But …

“I'm not going to say I didn't deserve the Hodge Trophy,” Lee continued, “but I'm also the only one that won the Hodge that didn't win a national title.

“Think about that, right? You don't really feel like your season is finished unless you win (the NCAA Championships).”

The top-ranked Hawkeye wrestlers begin their 2021 season this month. They host No. 5 Nebraska on Jan. 15. But on Tuesday, 10 days before the Huskers come to town, Lee stood inside Kinnick Stadium’s McCord Club celebrating something he actually won 281 days ago.

Maybe "celebrating" isn’t the right word. Maybe "acknowledging" is better. Iowa coach Tom Brands was fired-up for Lee to finally experience the proper recognition for an honor only two other Hawkeye wrestlers — Brent Metcalf (2008) and Mark Ironside (1998) — have won.

“There's no controversy on who the Hodge Trophy winner was in 2020,” said Brands, who is entering his 15th year as the Hawkeyes’ head coach. “In other years, there's been maybe where somebody feels like they got left out.

“This one was without a doubt. That shows the dominance.”

Winning the Hodge was an individual consolation after the novel coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 NCAA Championships. The Hawkeyes were the heavy favorites to win the team title, which would’ve been their first since 2010.

But the trophy itself is a symbol of excellence, college wrestling’s Heisman Trophy, “the (sport’s) most sought-after award,” Brands later said. The trophy’s origins are literally rooted in wrestling dominance.

It begins with Mike Chapman, a retired sports journalist and founder of the Hodge Trophy. He was there Tuesday to present Lee the award. He first attended an Iowa wrestling meet as a high-schooler in 1960. They were held in the old Fieldhouse back then. Admission was fifty cents, he said. Attendance was 200-300 people, maybe.

Twelve years later, Chapman was an assistant sports editor at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. That same year, 1972, Dave McCuskey retired after 20 seasons as Iowa’s head coach, and Gary Kurdelmeier was named his replacement. Kurdelmeier called Chapman to his office and laid out a plan.

“He said, ‘Mike, I’m going to transform Iowa wrestling. We’re going to wrestle on the main floor of the Fieldhouse on Saturday nights. We’re going to have crowds of 3,000-4,000,’” Chapman recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’d sure like to see that happen.’

“Then he says, ‘I’m going to hire Dan Gable as my assistant.’ I broke out laughing. I said, ‘Those other things may be possible, but how are you going to get Dan Gable away from Iowa State?’

“We all know what happened next.”

Journalist and author Mike Chapman speaks to reporters during Hawkeyes wrestling media day before presenting the Hodge Trophy, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, at the McCord Club level of Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Kurdelmeier stepped down in 1976 to make way for Dan Gable. That same year, Chapman became the sports editor at the Cedar Rapids Gazette. He chronicled Gable’s Iowa wrestling dynasty: 15 national team titles in 21 seasons; 355 career dual victories; 152 All-Americans; 45 national champions; and 12 Olympians.

By the 1994-95 season, Chapman hatched an idea. He had always admired the Heisman Trophy, which has been awarded annually to the most outstanding college football player since Jay Berwanger won the first in 1935. He wanted college wrestling to have something similar — and he knew exactly what to call it, too.

The same year Gable took over the Iowa program, Chapman authored a book called “Two Guys Named Dan,” about Gable and Dan Hodge. Before Gable’s coaching career, he won two NCAA titles at Iowa State and a gold medal at the 1972 Olympics. At one point, he pinned 24 opponents in a row, which surpassed Hodge’s old record of 22.

Hodge was a three-time NCAA champ for Oklahoma. He went 46-0 with 36 pins during his career. In 1956, his junior year, he won an NCAA title, then won national titles in freestyle and Greco-Roman two weeks later. He won 13 matches in that span, all by fall. He is the only wrestler to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Hodge died Dec. 24 at the age of 88. In one of Chapman’s last conversations with him, he told Hodge that Lee won this year’s trophy. “What a great choice,” Chapman recalled Hodge saying.

A few months ago, Lee received a copy of Hodge’s Sports Illustrated cover, signed by the man himself.

Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee received a copy of the Sports Illustrated cover featuring Dan Hodge after winning the 2020 Hodge Trophy.

“Wish I could have won it next year and shook his hand,” Lee said. “Maybe he might have broken my hand. He's pretty strong, right? Really wish I could have seen him again.”

Lee first understood the significance of the Hodge Trophy when Cael Sanderson won it. Sanderson, now Penn State’s coach, won it three times, from 2000-02, while at Iowa State. He was the first to win it multiple times. Three others have done it since: Ben Askren (2006-07), David Taylor (2012, 2014) and Zain Retherford (2017-18).

Lee would like to become the fifth, but much like last season, his goals are bigger. He wants another national title and a team championship. Then to make the the U.S. Olympic Team, and to win gold in Tokyo.

“Nothing changes,” he said. “What's next is the biggest thing. What's next for me right now is we got Nebraska on the 15th. That's what's next.”

That mindset served Lee well a year ago, and he believes it will be a necessary ingredient to create similar results now. These were the thoughts that ran through his mind while holding the Hodge Trophy on Tuesday.

Because it represents more than just last year’s dominance. For Spencer Lee, it is real, tangible motivation for the upcoming season — not just for himself, but for his teammates, too.

“I want to win a team title,” he said. “We want to win a team title. I promised (University of Iowa) President Bruce Harreld that I'd win him one as a freshman. I know he's retiring soon, but hopefully he doesn't retire before March 20, so I can adhere to that promise.”

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