By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - With Tom Brands, there never is a dull moment, especially when he addresses the media.
Iowa's head wrestling coach has a way of taking over a press conference, much like how he used to take over a wrestling match as a three-time national champion at Iowa, and as an Olympic gold medalist.
Brands uses the same energy and emotion that fueled him to greatness on the mat, along with his gift for gab and willingness to speak his mind, to turn mundane moments into must-see entertainment.
That’s what happened on Tuesday when Brands met with the media to discuss Sunday’s regular-season finale against Oklahoma State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and whatever else came up.
You know with Brands that there is always a chance he will have one of those classic press conference moments where he has you on the edge of your seat waiting for the next thing to come out of his mouth.
Tuesday’s press conference was like that pretty much from start to finish as Brands addressed three main topics, beginning with Oklahoma State.
Brands took offense to even the thought that Oklahoma State has lost some relevance due to its current fall from dominance, which currently has the Cowboys ranked ninth nationally.
“We know that they are coming in here to beat us,” Brands said. “They are coming in here to fight. Their program is very relevant. They take it very serious down there.”
Brands made it clear that any question about Oklahoma State not being as relevant as before would be met with strong resistance.
He also made it abundantly clear that Spencer Lee truly is special, and it stretches beyond the mat where Lee seems virtually unbeatable as the two-time defending national champion at 125 pounds.
Brands talked on Tuesday about Lee’s impact as a teammate. He praised Lee for his unselfishness and for his willingness to be a mentor, and did so in true Tom Brands fashion.
“So when you’ve got a guy who’s not a bad teammate, and Spencer is not a bad teammate, he not selfish that way,” Brands said. “And when you have a guy who’s not a dick, good relationships form that I see and that I’m proud of and those guys will be friends forever.”
Brands told the media on Tuesday that he actually gets e-mails from some of Lee’s professors at Iowa praising Lee for his positive impact in the classroom.
“That’s rare,” Brands said. “That’s rare, and he carries a big stick and he clears a wide path in the positive that he does and the type of ambassador that he is for our program.
“I’ve talked about that a lot, too. But you can’t say it enough. You really can’t.”
It would’ve already qualified as a highly entertaining press conference at that point, but Brands was far from finished.
He praised the 12 seniors that will be recognized after Sunday’s dual, but it was the discussion about junior Austin DeSanto that really caused Brands to take it to another level, even for him.
DeSanto is a superb talent, and is currently ranked third nationally at 133 pounds.
But he also struggles to control his emotions during the heat of the moment, and the challenge for Brands is to help DeSanto find that balance, to help him learn how to control his emotions, but without losing his edge on the mat.
“DeSanto has got to keep it together,” Brands said. “There are going to be guys poking him. And they might poke him just to poke him, but they might poke him because they know they’re going to get a reaction that’s negative that helps them.
“And rules, the way they’re written, if we blow our cork, and it’s flagrant misconduct, or whatever the hand signal, we’re out the next event. So we’ve got to be better than just blowing people off the mat with the score.”
Brands was then asked if the part of DeSanto that sometimes over-reacts is also what makes him successful?
Brands seemed a little perturbed with the question, and he pointed out that DeSanto obliterated his most recent opponent, a 24-8 technical fall over Minnesota’s Boo Dryden last Saturday.
“I never once said, and I’m going to sound like I’m bitter and angry at your comment, which I’m not, but I’ve never said I’m going to take his edge away,” Brands said. “I just told you blew the guy off the mat with points, that Minnesota guy. He blew him off the mat. That guy is going to be scarred for a long time from that beating and he’s going to be trying to make up a lot of ground trying to figure how do I stop that train going down the tracks?
“So I’m not saying that. I’m all for that. But the rules dictate that this is dangerous behavior, and it is on my mind because we do need Austin DeSanto. We do need him. And he’s not a circus act.”
By then I had a lump in my throat and was worried, since I had asked the question, that Brands might leap from his chair and put me in a cradle.
Okay, I’m kidding, but it was a powerful moment, even by Brands’ standards.
He definitely got his point across that DeSanto has to rise above and withstand the temptation to react and lash out when somebody tries to get a reaction.
DeSanto was told what his head coach had said about controlling his emotions just minutes before, and DeSanto was asked if that behavior helps make him an edgier wrestler.
“No, I don’t need to be an edgier wrestler, and don’t need to add those antics at the end of a match,’ DeSanto said. “So that’s what I need to improve on.”
It’s easy to overlook with all the drama that come from Tuesday’s press conference that Tom Brands has something special brewing in Iowa City this winter.
Iowa is ranked first nationally and outscored its conference opponents 307-63 while finishing 9-0 in the Big Ten. Hawkeye wrestlers were a combined 75-15 in nine Big Ten duals and 100-20 overall in duals.
Iowa finally appears to have the edge over Penn State, which has won eight of the last nine national titles, but don’t try telling that to Brands.
He isn’t one to make predictions or comparisons. He just keeps grinding and focusing on making his team better.
And it takes all of the wrestlers to make the team better, from stars such as Spencer Lee to seldom-used reserves like senior Jeremiah Moody, who explained to the media on Tuesday why he has stayed the course at Iowa despite getting little recognition.
“I love the grind and staying here for five years and pretty much just staying in the fire of Iowa wrestling,” Moody said. "
That fire was certainly on display during Tuesday’s press conference, thanks to Iowa's fiery head coach