How Terry Brands recruited Spencer Lee to the Iowa Hawkeye wrestling program
Take Spencer Lee’s Iowa wrestling career and hit rewind — before the 55-match win streak, the 95 career wins, the three NCAA titles, the two Hodge Trophies — and you’ll find Lee, at 17 years old, sitting on his back porch in Murrysville, Pa.
Now press play.
It’s April 2016, and Spencer is ready to announce his college commitment. He was a once-in-a-generation wrestling prospect, a three-time age-level world champ and, to that point, undefeated in three years at Pennsylvania powerhouse Franklin Regional. He was the No. 1 prospect in the 2017 senior class.
We know his decision now, of course. Spencer chose Iowa, and all these years later, he is the rare blue-chip prospect that’s surpassed every sky-high expectation, a three-time national champion who will attempt to win a fourth at this week’s NCAA Championships.
On that April day in 2016, with FloWrestling on hand for his announcement, Spencer not only decided, but explained why he was joining the Hawkeyes. He read a list of 10 reasons why he would call Iowa City home — the academics, Iowa’s love for wrestling, the program’s history, the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, on and on.
But the number one reason?
“Terry Brands,” Spencer said that day. “He’s the one guy I would love to have in my corner for the rest of my career.”
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‘I was still in pretty good shape, but I had my hands on a big ‘ol engine’
Terry Brands first met Spencer Lee in 2014, at a wrestling tournament in Akron, Ohio. Brands was looking at wall brackets when he saw a 5-foot-3 kid wearing black-and-gold plaid pajama pants walking toward him.
For years, Brands had heard about Spencer, a Pennsylvania phenom who trained with Jody Strittmatter, a former Hawkeye who now leads the nationally-renowned Young Guns Wrestling Club. Strittmatter wrestled under Brands during the 1999-00 season and was a training partner for Brands when he won Olympic bronze in 2000.
On that day in Akron, inside the Stile Athletics Field House, Brands was finally face-to-face with the guy Strittmatter called “the total package.” They exchanged introductions and Spencer went on his way. Shortly after, Brands found Strittmatter.
“That’s the guy you need to pay attention to,” Brands, the associate head coach of the Iowa wrestling team, remembers Strittmatter saying. “You hear that a lot, but you listen when Jody Strittmatter gives a recommendation like that.”
A year later, in 2015, Brands saw Spencer again at a USA Wrestling training camp in Arizona. Brands was there with Tony Ramos, fresh off making his second Senior world team. Spencer, a Junior world team member that summer, had come with Strittmatter.
Brands got to know Spencer a little better that week. Got to wrestle with him a little bit, too.
“It was crazy what he could do and how strong he was,” Brands says now. “He was cartwheeling out of high-crotches and stuff like that. He was doing things you just don’t see a lot of guys do.
“I was probably 48 then, so I was still in pretty good shape, but I had my hands on a big ‘ol engine. Very Lincoln McIlravy-ish. Lincoln was bigger, but they were very similar. Crazy balance and flexibility combined with explosiveness and strength.”
When Brands returned to Iowa City afterward, he raved about Spencer — his skills, training process, mentality, the whole nine. Spencer won a world title that summer and was a high school junior that fall. An intense recruiting process was about to unfold.
Sensing the connection Terry had made with Spencer, Tom Brands assigned his twin brother to lead Lee’s recruitment.
“The connections through wrestling and being competitive and the standard of him wanting to be the very, very best in the world — yeah, that was natural,” Terry says now. “Tom was like, ‘You have to do it,’ so, well, all right.”
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‘You guys are in the wrong state’: Iowa wrestling or Penn State?
On the first day college coaches could contact 2017 prospects, Spencer received 28 phone calls. Many more reached out by the end of the week, but he quickly whittled the list down to 10 schools, then five, then eventually two, Iowa and Penn State.
The allure of Penn State was easy. Cael Sanderson turned the Nittany Lion program into a dynasty by keeping in-state wrestlers home. Pennsylvania has the best high school wrestling in the country. At this week’s NCAA Championships, for example, there are 44 Pennsylvania natives in the field, more than any other state.
On top of that, Spencer had previously made world teams with Bo Nickal and Mark Hall, both Nittany Lion national champs, and looked up to Jason Nolf, a Young Guns teammate who also chose Penn State. It would’ve been an easy choice.
“He really loves Pennsylvania,” Spencer’s father, Larry, says. “He loves the wrestling and loves representing PA. His identity was Pennsylvania, but there was some pressure that came with that, too.”
Later in the recruiting process, Tom, Terry and assistant coach Ryan Morningstar drove through the night to Pennsylvania to watch Lee, Max Murin, Kaleb Young and others at a Young Guns practice. They stopped at a gas station in Ebensburg around 6 a.m.
“We got out and this guy looks at us and goes, ‘You guys are in the wrong state,’” Tom Brands says. “We weren’t wearing anything Iowa, but you’re talking two short guys that look exactly the same in the cradle of college wrestling. He knew why we were there.”
“You guys are in the wrong state,” Brands repeats, drawing out the “wrong” for emphasis. “That’s all he said. I’ll never forget that. We just nodded and kept walking. That’s the kind of attention Spencer Lee was garnering.”
Larry advised Spencer to keep his options open. There’s a story Larry loves to share. In 2013, Spencer rode with Strittmatter and some Young Guns teammates to Iowa City for the Iowa-Penn State dual. That night, Ramos pinned Jordan Conaway, sending the Hawkeye-heavy crowd of 15,077 into a frenzy, and Iowa prevailed, 22-16.
“Spencer texted me that night: ‘Dad, this place is crazy, I can’t hear myself think, I want to wrestle here someday,’” Larry says now. “It was the first time he had talked about wrestling in college — and wrestling somewhere specifically.
“Up until then, we were just wrestling, you know? We weren’t thinking about colleges. But that moment captured Spencer. That was the moment he started dreaming big.”
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‘I need to leave my comfort zone in order to reach my potential’
Terry Brands lives on the west side of Iowa City, not far from West High School. On his way to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, he drives by Spencer Drive — by Benton St., which leads to Mormon Trek. He often sent a picture of the street sign to Spencer.
“I would say, ‘You’re not even here yet and they’ve already named a street after you,’” Brands says and smiles.
Brands spent many hours on the phone with Larry and Spencer. Made several trips to Pennsylvania to meet with them, too. When they, or any recruit, called, Brands pulled off of the road so he could finish the conversations without losing cell service.
Brands realized quickly that Spencer is a wrestling junkie and loves the sport’s history. Their text threads became an wrestling encyclopedia. Brands would send Spencer the name of a wrestler and asked if Spencer knew their story. More often than not, Spencer knew.
One day, Brands texted Spencer about Adam and Buvaisar Saitiev, brothers who grew up in Dagestan. Spencer was “flustered,” according to Larry. He couldn’t figure out why Brands wanted him to know about these two Russian wrestlers.
A day later, Brands explained:
Both brothers were recruited to train at the Mindiashvili Wrestling Academy in Serbia, more than 3,000 miles away, led by legendary coach Dmitry Mindiashvili. Buvaisar went and ultimately won three Olympic gold medals, six more world titles, and lost just twice in 13 years. Adam stayed home and won one Olympic gold and two world titles.
“Dad, Terry is telling me I need to leave my comfort zone in order to reach my potential,” Larry recalls Spencer saying, then adds: “Spencer had a smile from ear-to-ear. It was a great story. It really resonated with Spencer. It really made him think.”
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‘These are decent people, they’re going to take care of your kid’
One of the more underrated aspects of Spencer Lee’s college career has been the remarkable determination and perseverance.
Spencer joined Iowa’s starting lineup as a true freshman less than 12 months after tearing his ACL. He tore it again in the 2019 NCAA finals, opted against surgery, then wrestled the entire 2019-20 season with it still torn. It took hours of rehab, but he made it look easy, going 18-0 while outscoring his opponents by a staggering 234-18.
This trait developed early in his wrestling career. Ahead of the 2015 Junior world championships, Spencer tore his labrum while training in Colorado Springs, Colo. He went on to win a world title anyway, outscoring his five opponents 56-4, capped by a 10-0 technical fall over Iran’s Ali Reza Goodarzi, a past world champ, in the finals.
Spencer had surgery shortly after, causing him to miss most of his junior season at Franklin Regional. He returned in February and wrestled just 12 matches that year, winning them all. Internally, his parents worried about his future health.
“We knew taking care of him was everything, paramount, the most important thing,” Tom Brands says. “We made sure that that part of it was understood. That’s where Strittmatter helped us. He was as professional as they come, but he told them, ‘These are decent people. They took care of me, they’re going to take care of your kid.’
“It meant a lot to the family when they knew that we would take care of them.”
Spencer’s season debut that year was a 54-second fall. Terry Brands was in the building that night. He sat next to Cathy Lee, Spencer’s mom. Cathy is originally from France, and met Larry at a judo competition, where she tossed him on his head. They’ve been married for over three decades now.
Brands and Cathy talked that night about Spencer going to Iowa, almost 700 miles from Murrysville.
“She said, ‘Oh, but he’s going to be so far away from home,’” Terry says. “She may disagree with this, or may not remember it, but I said, ‘Well, you went to America from France, and your parents probably didn’t like that, but you did it, and it was the best thing you ever did, right?’”
Terry lets the idea hang for a second, then proceeds.
“She wasn’t, like, rattled, but her reaction was like, this guy is challenging me,” Brands continues. “So then I shut up, but I put the idea out there. That’s really the first time where I really pushed.”
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‘I’m the perfect person to coach your son’
On one of the final home visits, Terry Brands sat with Larry and Cathy in their living room and talked. As Brands prepared to leave, he said, “Don’t let me leave if there are any lingering concerns about Iowa. Please, ask away.”
Larry spoke up.
“Coach, I do have one issue.”
“Please,” Brands said, “tell me.”
“My biggest concern about the University of Iowa,” Larry said, “is you.”
“I didn’t expect that,” Brands replied. “Tell me more.”
“Well coach,” Larry began, “Spencer thinks you walk on water. He thinks so highly of you. But I’ve seen you as an athlete, and I’ve seen you as a coach, and what scares me to death is that you two are so similar.”
Brands had recently worked with FloWrestling to produce “TERRY: The Film,” which chronicled his life, triumphs, tragedies and psyche. They showed his upbringing, his successes at the 1993 and 1995 world championships, the heart-wrenching defeat at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials, and his comeback to win Olympic bronze in 2000.
“My biggest challenge with Spencer is not pushing him, but it’s almost holding him back, to make sure he’s training smart,” Larry continued, “and I worry about that the two of you together are going to be combustable. Who’s going to moderate that?”
To his surprise, Brands answered without missing a beat.
“He gave me the best answer,” Larry recalls now. “He said, ‘Well, that’s exactly why I’m the perfect person to coach your son.’
“So I go, why’s that? And he said, ‘The older Terry Brands knows all the mistakes that young Terry Brands made. I’m the perfect person to coach your son.’”
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‘I didn’t want Terry Brands coaching against me’
Spencer Lee was in Iowa City a lot during his junior year. He came in November for the Grapple on the Gridiron, where 42,287 fans packed into Kinnick Stadium and watched Iowa beat Oklahoma State, then returned for the Olympic Trials at Carver in April.
While in town for the Trials, Tom Brands called Paul Federici, Iowa football’s director of operations. Tom explained that a blue-chip recruit was on campus and they wanted him to meet head coach Kirk Ferentz.
“When?” Federici asked Tom.
“How about 45 minutes?”
“Bring ‘em over.”
“We went over there, and Ferentz just took over,” Tom says now. “They spent three hours with Ferentz. Brought him down to the weight room, where he met Brian Ferentz and (then-strength coach) Chris Doyle.
“Both guys told him, ‘This is the best lightweight factory in the country. Why would you go anywhere else?’”
Later that weekend, Spencer and Tom wrestled in the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex. Tom got to feel Spencer’s McIlravy-esque skillset — the crazy balance and flexibility combined with explosiveness and strength that Terry felt in Arizona. Royce Alger, a former Hawkeye wrestler, watched the whole thing. Spencer took Tom down.
“Tom comes up to me afterwards and I say, ‘Tom, that’s no joke,’” Alger told HawkCentral a few years ago. “And Tom goes, ‘No s---, it’s no joke. I had to fight my a-- off.’
“I’m like, Tom, we have to get him.' He said, ‘No s--- we have to get him.’”
Ten days after the Olympic Trials, Spencer sat on his back porch, and with FloWrestling there filming, he announced his commitment to Iowa.
“Honestly, it just felt like home,” Spencer said that day.
But he later added: “I didn’t want Terry Brands coaching against me.”
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‘I haven't seen anybody better — ever’
Now fast forward.
Six-and-a-half years later — after three NCAA titles, a national team championship, two Hodge Trophies, plus a James E. Sullivan Award — Terry Brands sits in his Carver office and recalls that multi-year process that brought Spencer to Iowa.
“He felt like he needed Iowa to become the best wrestler that he could become,” Brands says now, “and he was right. No question about it.”
Iowa wrestling’s storied history includes some of the greatest collegiate wrestlers of all time, but Spencer Lee’s career will stand alone as its own singular historic chapter.
He boasts a 95-5 career record, which includes 34 pins and 32 technical falls. He is just the seventh Iowa wrestler to win three NCAA titles, and could become the first to win four. He joined Mark Ironside and Brent Metcalf as the only Hawkeye wrestlers to win the prestigious Hodge Trophy, college wrestling’s Heisman equivalent, and one of just five college wrestlers all-time to win the award multiple times.
"I haven't seen anybody better — ever," Tom Brands, a three-time NCAA champ and Olympic gold medalist himself, says. "That's not an overstatement. I'm talking my heroes when I was young, the current guys winning titles for the United States, because we have a powerhouse team right now, and you can go back to the Russians, like (Sergei Beloglazov) and (Arsen Fadzaev)."
High praise, for sure. But Spencer views it differently. He hasn’t accomplished any of his goals thus far. When he wrote them down, he wanted to win four state titles, four NCAA titles, nine world titles and three Olympic golds. He only won three state titles, so he views this week as an opportunity to finally check off one of those goals.
But, honestly, that mindset is what attracted Terry Brands to Spencer all those years ago, and Terry’s ability to provide Spencer with every opportunity to run down those dreams, and his commitment to being in Spencer’s corner for the rest of his career, is what sold him on the Hawkeyes.
“I love their passion,” Spencer says. “I loved how each and every guy in the room, starter or not, got their blood, sweat, tears. Whatever you need, they’re going to give you their all. That really resonated with me.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at@codygoodwin.