MOUNT VERNON — Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands said UI associate director of athletic communications Chris Brewer asked him if he’d like to hold last Wednesday’s Media Day at Kroul Farms.
Brands said he asked why. To do something different, Brewer told him. Brands’ immediate response:
Something different would also be Iowa winning the NCAA team title. This season will mark the 10-year anniversary of the Hawkeyes’ last national championship, a once-unthinkable thing. Penn State has wrested the role of dynasty, with eight titles in the last nine years. The king, loaded with talent again this season, shows no signs of abdicating the throne.
However, this season feels different for Iowa, and in a good way. It started with a media session next to a corn maze. It will end in an NFL stadium in the heart of a major city when the NCAA tourney is held at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium.
In between, much excitement is promised in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. It has to be the best home schedule in college wrestling history. After its Nov. 17 season-opening dual meet against Chattanooga, here is Iowa’s opposition in Carver: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, Oklahoma State.
Those are six of the top seven teams in the National Wrestling Coaches Association’s Division I preseason rankings. The seventh? No. 2 Iowa.
“We are excited about our schedule,” Brands said. “It’s a challenge. We’ve got to represent, we’ve got to defend the home and we’ve got to conquer the away.”
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He has a team, one with more potential across the lineup than any Hawkeye squad in a good while. It starts with two-time defending national-champ in 125-pound junior Spencer Lee. There are six other former All-Americans including 2019 Big Ten-champ Alex Marinelli. There are a couple redshirt freshmen who did a lot of winning last season competing unattached in tournaments.
The talent and schedule are things to like. Yet, the thing to like most may be the attitude. There’s no concession to Penn State, but no denial of what has happened in the last decade.
“Just because the media or the pundits put us in a close second-ranked category with Penn State doesn’t mean that I put us there,” Brands said. “But I know what I think of our guys, and I wouldn’t trade our team for any other team. I love our guys. We have the personnel.”
This is wrestling, not football or basketball. When you ask wrestling coaches about expectations, they say “Pile them on.”
“We’re accountable to perform,” Brands said. “Our guys know it. Our fans expect it. We love it. We love it as coaches. When that day comes where you’re fatigued by those expectations or you’re fatigued by the battle that you wake up every day, take head on, then …
“This isn’t about a paycheck for any of us. This is about waking up ready to fight every day, every comer, and not in an illegal way, in a wrestling way, in a legal, sportsmanship, Division I collegial atmosphere way.”
Brands’ smallest wrestler is his biggest. Lee has scaled the NCAA mountain twice. Now he goes from Denali to Everest. Besides gunning for college title No. 3, he also wants to make the U.S. Olympic freestyle team and go on to win gold in Tokyo next summer.
Many collegians have taken redshirt seasons during Olympic years. Not Lee. He will miss duals here and there for national freestyle events, Olympic qualifiers. So be it. He is helping his college team chase a team title.
But make no mistake, the Olympics come first.
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“It’s my dream,” Lee said. “It’s everyone’s dream. You ask a kid what they’d rather win, NCAAs or Olympics, you’re never going to get NCAAs.”
However, this guy will be gung-ho in March in Minneapolis. What a scene that will be. The national tournament might — might — top the college wrestling single-event record of 42,287 fans who attended the Oklahoma State-Iowa dual in Kinnick Stadium four years ago.
“There’s going to be a lot of Hawkeye fans that are going to contribute to that environment,” Brands said. “And we’re fired up to go up there.”
Oh, the Penn State-Iowa dual is Jan. 31. There won’t be 42,287 fans in Carver for it. But it will feel like it.
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