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|First-year coach Tom Brands on a mission to put the Iowa Hawkeyes back on top in college wrestling|
By Craig Sesker USA Wrestling
Shortly after Tom Brands was hired last spring as head coach of the Iowa Hawkeyes, he implemented a number of changes.
Among them was putting the logo of the Olympic rings on the wall in Iowa's wrestling room.
"The Olympics, that's the ultimate," said Brands, a 1996 Olympic Gold Medalist. "We're not just about winning NCAA championships here. We're about having success internationally. And we're recruiting kids who want to be World and Olympic champions."
Iowa hasn't won an NCAA team title since 2000. That's no big deal at most schools. But in Iowa City, that's an eternity. Even though the Hawkeyes placed fourth at the 2006 NCAA Championships in Oklahoma City, that wasn't good enough.
Coach Jim Zalesky, who led Iowa to three NCAA titles from 1998 to 2000, was fired. And the 38-year-old Brands, a three-time NCAA champion for Iowa, was brought in after two years as the head coach at Virginia Tech.
Legendary wrestler and coach Dan Gable, who built Iowa into a national powerhouse and won 15 NCAA titles in 21 seasons with the Hawkeyes, is back working with the athletes as an assistant coach. Gable has served as an assistant athletic director at Iowa since retiring as head coach in 1997. It is a role he continues to serve in as well as being an ambassador who travels the country promoting the sport.
"We're only a few weeks into practice, but everything is going pretty well," Gable said. "Tom brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the room. He has a very strong presence and he's very positive. He's very motivated to get this program back on top."
So why would someone with Gable's credentials come back as an assistant coach?
"We were fourth in the country last year, but we were 50-some points behind (team champion) Oklahoma State, and that's not where we need to be," Gable said. "We also finished sixth in the Big Ten and lost seven dual meets. I want to see this program get back to where we are up there competing for a national title every year. I am here to help Tom, and make suggestions. We bounce ideas off each other, but he's running the show. It's his program now."
Brands, who wrestled for Gable and also was an assistant coach under him, said he appreciates having his mentor back in the room.
"I think it's great having Gable in here," said Brands, who spent a dozen years as a Hawkeye assistant coach. "Guys really take to him. They like him and he's a really personable guy. We certainly have worked well together."
Two-time All-American Mark Perry (165), a Hawkeye junior, said the transition has gone smoothly.
"Everybody seems to be happy and comfortable with the change," Perry said. "We worked hard before when Zalesky was here, but the intensity level now is as high as I've ever seen it in any wrestling room. It's extremely high. Not that things were terribly wrong before under Zalesky, but I think Brands is doing a real good job and I think he will be extremely successful."
Perry said the combination of Brands and Gable already is making a difference.
"It's great to think we have two Olympic champions coaching us - it's awesome," Perry said. "Both have unique and different ways of coaching and motivating guys, and they're very dedicated. Dan Gable is the best coach ever and Brands will soon be following Gable with his determination."
Iowa is ranked fourth nationally in the preaseason by Wrestling International Newsmagazine. That ranking is based on the assumption that five transfers from Virginia Tech, including top-ranked recruit and Junior World Team member Brent Metcalf, won't be eligible this year.
Those transfers each redshirted last season, but each are in danger of losing a year of eligibility this year since Virginia Tech wouldn't release them from their scholarships. The matter has gone to court, but still hasn't been resolved.
"We're just waiting to see what happens," Brands said. "All those guys want to do is wrestle. They are in the room training and they're doing a good job. Three of those kids are from Iowa, and all those guys have handled everything pretty well. I'm probably harder on those guys than anybody, because they've already been with me for a year."
Perry said he's been impressed with Metcalf, a 149-pounder from Davison, Mich.
"Metcalf is a legitimate title threat this year, if he's eligible," Perry said. "He has the ability to beat anybody. He's extremely talented and he has had a real good attitude about everything."
Even without the transfers, Brands likely will put a strong team on the mat this season. Iowa is led by Perry, who has placed second and third nationally. All-Americans Alex Tsirtsis (141) and Eric Luedke (174) also are back. Talented freshman Ryan Morningstar (157) was a Junior Nationals champion.
Mario Galanakis (133) and Matt Fields (285), national qualifiers in 2005, also return this year for the Hawkeyes. Dan Erekson (197) was a national qualifier last season.
"We're making progress every day," Brands said. "It's been overwhelmingly positive."
Perry said Brands has the Hawkeyes believing they can win a national team title this year.
"We're not settling for anything less than first," Perry said. "Anything other than first would be a disappointment."
Terry Brands, a two-time World Champion who is USA Wrestling's National Freestyle Resident Coach, spent some time with his twin brother last weekend in Iowa City. Terry Brands, a two-time NCAA champ at Iowa, stopped in Iowa City on his way to working a camp with past World Champion Dennis Hall in Wisconsin.
"I'm obviously biased, but Tom has a tremendous work ethic," Terry said. "Nobody is going to outwork him. He's in the room working with guys at 6 a.m., and you can see the fire and passion he brings to the table. He's pretty determined to get the job done."
Terry Brands watched from the stands at last season's NCAA meet.
"They didn't seem to have the intestinal fortitude to fight through adversity in the big matches," Terry Brands said of the Iowa wrestlers.
Tom Brands helped instill plenty of fight in former Hawkeye Mike Zadick, who won a silver medal last month at the World Championships. Brands worked with Zadick, a Hawkeye assistant coach, in Iowa City and helped prepare him for the Worlds.
"I'm not going to celebrate a silver medal, but Mike did make progress and that's a positive," Brands said. "But we're not satisfied and Mike's not satisfied. It's great having Mike in our room. We have a tremendous coaching staff with Gable, Wes Hand, Doug Schwab and Mike Zadick. We have everything we need here to be successful."
The Brands twins spent part of last weekend cutting down trees together in the Iowa City area. Virtually inseparable for the first three-plus decades of their lives, the twins now live a couple states away from each other with Terry in Colorado Springs now.
"It was great being able to spend time with Tom again," Terry said. "We have a lot of the same philosophies about wrestling and life, and being around him reinforces a lot of what I believe in."
And what they believe in on the mat is winning. And nothing less than that.
"There is a tremendous buzz and excitement with our program right now," Tom Brands said. "There also are tremendous expectations as well. If our guys buy into what we're doing they can meet those expectations and thrive in this environment."