'Restless' Hawkeyes aim to defend NCAA title

Sept. 26, 2008

IOWA CITY, Iowa — If you thought University of Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands fidgeted, trembled, jumped and swayed during matches, you should see him in preseason when the NCAA keeps him from practicing with the Hawkeyes.

“I’m a little bit restless and there’s anxiety when you don’t have your hands on your guys during the summer,” Brands said. “We have a lot of work to do mentality-wise on this team…we really do.”

From that sound, you would think Brands was trying to resurrect a program that was wallowing in the wrestling world’s dark, dank crypt. But that’s just a reflection of the never-rest, keep-improving world in which he lives. That is also the mentality that helped Iowa win 21 of 22 dual meets a season ago en route to capturing its 32nd Big Ten Conference and 21st NCAA national championship. What should ease Brands’s apprehension is the fact that the Hawkeyes return a national champion (Brent Metcalf, 149 pounds) and five other All-Americans (Charlie Falck at 125, Joey Slaton at 133, Alex Tsirtsis at 141 in 2007, Jay Borschel at 174 and Phillip Keddy at 184).

“I feel good that we have some firepower in there,” Brands said. “If everybody does their job, that means we would have improvement at each individual weight class, including our returning national champion, which I know is his goal. Now the idea is to add to that firepower.”

One way to add to the existing firepower is with an exceptionally strong incoming class consisting of junior college national champion Colby Covington — a sophomore — and freshmen Mark Ballweg, Grant Gambrall, Matt McDonough and Nate Moore.

“Our recruiting class includes some guys who have done well at the national level,” Brands said. “We think we have a pretty good thing coming in. We like to think we go after guys who are self-motivated and they know what it takes. They’re going to do whatever it takes to get ready to go.”

Another way to improve on the existing firepower is to continue to fine-tune the collective competitive mindset already in place inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex.

“We’re trying to get our guys to crave the battle to the point where they come in on their own and they go from one end of the wrestling room to the other,” Brands said. “Then you know there’s something good going on, but we’re not there yet.”

The Hawkeyes return two other 2008 national qualifiers in Dan LeClere (141) and Ryan Morningstar (157). Iowa won its most recent NCAA championship by 38 ½ points over runner-up Ohio State. Penn State was third and two other Big Ten schools — Michigan and Minnesota — finished in the top 10. Fourteen of the 20 competitors in the national finals represented the Big Ten.

“It’s not like we have an automatic coming back here. We still have to prove our worthiness. There are teams out there that are motivated.”
UI head coach Tom Brands

“It’s not like we have an automatic coming back here,” Brands said. “We still have to prove our worthiness. There are teams out there that are motivated.”

One of those determined programs is two hours away from Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the form of rival Iowa State. The Hawkeyes and Cyclones meet in Iowa City on Dec. 6.

“You look at Iowa State and they feel good about themselves,” Brands said. “They’re well-coached and according to them, this is going to be their year. That’s good. We want people’s best effort. Minnesota will be here (Feb. 15). They have some fresh new guys coming in who replace some old guys who were maybe injured or worn out.”

Iowa must move on without the services of graduated All-Americans Mark Perry (165) and Matt Fields (285). Perry, a four-time All-American, owned a career record of 96-16 with two individual national championships. Fields compiled 95 career victories.

“I don’t think you can replace Perry,” Brands said. “He was very unique in his style and we knew he was a pot of gold at the end of the season. Fields came a long way. Talk about a guy who really got on board the last 10 months of his career.”

On one hand, Brands knows he has a team worthy of the buzz and excitement being generating in the preseason. W.I.N. magazine ranks the Hawkeyes No. 1 in its initial dual rankings (Ohio State is second) as well as its tournament power index (Iowa State is second). Slaton and Metcalf are rated No. 1 at their respective weight divisions, while Falck and Borschel are projected second.

On the other hand, Brands continues his pursuit of perfection…practice after practice and match after match.

“We want our guys ready to go every time,” he said. “That’s an asset and a characteristic of dominant wrestlers — the names (Mark) Ironside and (Royce) Alger come to mind. That’s what we want.”

The Hawkeyes open the 2008-09 season on Friday, Nov. 21, against Arizona State with a 4 p.m. start inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Organized practices began Friday, Sept. 26.

Perhaps now Brands can put his restful nature at ease.