By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – After watching his team struggle to a sixth-place finish at the 1989 NCAA Wrestling Championships, Dan Gable knew that his storied program needed an upgrade in talent and attitude.
Iowa had won nine consecutive NCAA titles under Gable from 1977 to 1986, but then went three years in a row without winning a title, the low point being the unraveling in 1989.
A lot of programs would’ve been thrilled with a sixth-place finish at the NCAA Championships, but Iowa wasn’t like any other program under Gable. It was a dynasty to where in the early to mid-1980s the biggest question heading into the NCAA Championships was who would finish second to Iowa.
That aura of invincibility had faded by the end of the 1980s and Gable had to address it.
He already had addressed it in one critical way by adding a pair of talented twin brothers from the northwest Iowa town of Sheldon.
Tom and Terry Brands were freshmen on Iowa’s 1989 squad and they both would go on to achieve greatness under Gable, combining to win five national titles and leading Iowa to the team title in 1991 and 1992.
Now almost 30 years later Tom Brands is in a similar situation as the Iowa wrestling coach. His program needs to be energized after finishing fourth at last year’s NCAA Championships and fifth the year before.
Iowa hasn’t won an NCAA team title since 2010, which by Iowa’s incredibly high standards is an eternity.
Gable used Tom and Terry Brands to help rekindle Iowa’s dominance, and now the Brands brothers hope that prize freshman Spencer Lee, who wrestles at 125 pounds, can do the same with his impact on and off the mat.
A native of Murrysville, Pa., Lee is arguably the most decorated wrestler to ever sign with Iowa and that’s saying a lot.
His status for this season still is uncertain as Lee continues to recover from a knee injury.
But Lee represents Iowa’s future and a new commitment to winning.
“Gable told me he had to stop everything and sort of start over (in 1989), but he had to find certain individuals who could really deliver his message because he felt like the message was lost, and he said that guy was Tom Brands and Terry Brands,” said Mike Finn, who is the editor of Wrestling Insider News Magazine. “And so basically Tom is trying to find the same, a Tom or Terry Brands, to do what those guys did. And Spencer Lee could be that guy.
“And I think that’s why Tom still is considering wrestling him (this season) because he needs that spark plug.”
Iowa held its annual media day event on Wednesday and Tom Brands was his usual self in that he was confident, intense and entertaining.
Outside expectations are as low as they’ve been for a while with Iowa ranked seventh heading into the season, but you’d never know it by listening to Tom Brands.
He raved about Lee and about the freshmen class as a whole.
“There's a lot of exciting things for fans to be paying attention to or looking toward to, but there's also a lot of unknowns,” Tom Brands said. “We have a unique recruiting class this year where we have two or three guys that could maybe step in the lineup, and we have a transfer who, you look at a couple different weight classes he could go and how you would shift some things around, there's some unknowns there that are exciting.
“And with unknowns, you also have some uncertainty. That means that this year, we're not going to know what we have until later on, and we're not in a hurry to get everything pieced together. But I know one thing. We've got a lot of guys in that room that are bringing a lot of life and a lot of energy every day.”
Brands usually prefers to redshirt his true freshmen, but Lee might be an exception because of what he brings to the mat.
"Spencer is a unique individual," said Brands. "He is a competitor from the word go. It might be the best thing for him to compete, not sit him and not put him on the shelf. We're going to be careful with what we do."
Lee said Wednesday that he is healthy and wants to wrestle this season, but will accept whatever role Brands chooses for him.
“I’m just kind of day-by-day right now training and getting ready for March in case they do pull it,” Lee said of his redshirt.
Brands was asked on Wednesday if this was a rebuilding year or a reloading year for the Iowa program?
He answered by saying both and by pointing out that Iowa has to replace five All-Americans from last season.
“When you look at the core of that, you know what, we're going to have to rebuild,” Brands said. “But it's also a reload where we have some very capable guys that come to work every day the right way. Like Alex Marinelli, we've been talking about him for a long time. You know what, we're excited about him and I know our fans are, as well. When you talk about patience and stuff like that, that's like maybe coach-speak for: You know what, he doesn't really know what he has.
“But you're going to have to be patient because it's November. It's November, and we have some things that are going on that you won't see our best team right away.”
Marinelli also represents the future of Iowa wrestling as a redshirt freshman. He came highly regarded from Ohio and showed flashes last season while wrestling unattached and compiling a 13-2 record.
“The expectations aren’t high because we have a young team,” Marinelli said. “So you’ve got to look at who are team is. We’re young, but we’re very, very elite.
“I guess the expectations aren’t high because of what’s been going on. They say it’s a building year, but it’s not. We’re going to be contenders no matter what. We’re all tough. We’re all elite. We’ve been there.”
Brands acknowledged on Wednesday that other teams have used negative recruiting tactics against Iowa, but he didn’t say which programs.
Other schools have reportedly told recruits that the Iowa wrestlers get burned out and don’t have fun and perform more like robots under Tom and Terry Brands, who is Tom’s top assistant.
Lee heard all of that criticism, but still chose Iowa over Penn State and Ohio State.
“It’s not what people say it is,” Lee said. “I’ve heard a lot of bad things about how they burn people out or that they’re not enjoying their time here.
“But I don’t how you couldn’t. This place is awesome. I’m having a blast here.”
The challenge for Tom Brands and the Iowa wrestlers is to topple Penn State’s dynasty and regain the throne.
The Nittany Lions have won six of the last seven national titles and return five national champions from a year ago.
Ohio State is considered the biggest threat to Penn State’s dominance with 10 standout wrestlers returning, including three national champions.
Iowa, on the other hand, is considered a notch or two below Penn State and Ohio State, but don’t try telling that to any of the Iowa wrestlers.
There is too much pride, tradition and talent in the Iowa wrestling room, past and present, to concede anything.
“We’ve got to go out and proves ourselves, I guess is all that means,” sophomore Michael Kemerer said of the low expectations. “You can’t put too much stock in what other people are saying. You wrestler for yourself, you wrestler for your teammates and the program.
“But it’s definitely something you take personally a little bit just because of the history of this program. But hey, we’ve got to go out and earn it. We’ve got to go out and prove ourselves.”
Kemerer and senior Brandon Sorensen are two of Iowa’s most established wrestlers after they both finished third at last year’s NCAA Championships at 157 and 149 pounds, respectively.
Kemerer refuses to use youth as an excuse for this season.
“When you’re on the mat your expectation is to win, I don’t care if you’re a fifth-year senior or if it’s your first couple months in the room,” Kemerer said. “So it’s just having that pride and that expectation in yourself. When you step on the mat you wrestler Iowa’s style, aggressive and dominate. It doesn’t matter where people are ranking you.”