IOWA CITY, Iowa – Wrestling is the one sport at the University of Iowa where fact often reads like fiction and where expectations border on the absurd.
And we have Dan Gable to thank for that.
Nearly 20 years have passed since Gable last coached the Hawkeyes in 1997, but his impact still is very much alive within the storied Iowa wrestling room.
That was apparent at the team’s annual media day event on Thursday when sophomore Brandon Sorensen was asked if this season still could be considered a success without Iowa winning a national title. The Cedar Falls native paused for a few seconds before answering.
“Individually, you can,” Sorensen said. “You can be on top of the podium. But it would make it that much better if the team was right there with you.”
Only in wrestling at the University of Iowa is the bar set at a point where there is virtually no margin for error. No other sport at Iowa comes close to carrying the same weight of high expectations.
Imagine an Iowa football player having to think before answering the same question that was asked to Sorensen. The Iowa football team is 8-0 heading into Saturday’s game at Indiana and its success is being reported like the first moon landing.
If the Iowa wrestling team goes 8-0 during any stretch, it’s considered business as usual because that’s the monster that Gable created with his dominance.
That’s why it gnaws at Sorensen to know that Iowa has gone five years without winning an NCAA team title.
Iowa has only won three NCAA wrestling championships in the last 15 seasons. And they all came in consecutive seasons under current head coach Tom Brands from 2008-10.
“It’s big. It’s huge,” Sorensen said of trying to end the drought “That’s what I’ve wanted to do since I watched them growing up. That’s what I wanted to be.
“It’s a big drive for the team. Everyone is motivated. That’s the goal. We want to win. We want to get back on the podium and show everyone what we can do.”
Gable led Iowa to 15 NCAA titles, including 10 in a row from 1976-86. He also led the Hawkeyes to 21 Big Ten titles and had a .940 winning percentage.
Gable was to college wrestling what John Wooden was to men’s collegiate basketball, a force of nature whose accomplishments probably never will be seen again.
Iowa’s dominance in wrestling reached the point under Gable where teams often were competing for second place nationally.
That’s no longer the case and probably never will be again. The college wrestling landscape has changed since Gable last ruled the earth.
There is more parity these days, which is probably caused by having fewer teams and more talented wrestlers from which to choose.
“We’re in the conversation,” Brands said Thursday when asked to access his team’s chances. “And I don’t know really where we’re ranked in specific rankings. I know we’re in the three, four range nationally, and three out of the four are Big Ten schools.”
The three Big Ten schools to which Brands was referring are Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. The Buckeyes won last year’s national title, while the Nittany Lions won the previous four before that. And don’t forget about Minnesota, which also has achieved elite status in wrestling.
“Nothing has changed,” Brands said of expectations. “We’re after winning a national title and we’re after winning individual titles.”
Expectations maybe haven’t changed, but the lineup certainly has from last season, along with the team’s attitude according to junior Thomas Gilman, who placed fourth at 125 pounds at the NCAA Championships last season.
“We have more camaraderie, more cohesion and we’re closer as a team,” Gilman said. “We lost some good guys at 74, 65 and heavyweight. But some of those guys were kind of outliers. I was good buddies with them. I was teammates with them. But they were outliers. They wanted to do their own thing.”
Gilman didn’t mention names, but Iowa has to replace Nick Moore at 165 pounds, Mike Evans at 174 and Bobby Telford at heavyweight.
Gilman also didn’t pull any punches when asked if any of the newcomers have stood out in practice.
“Not yet,” he said. “So that should be encouragement for them. They need to step and they need to standout.”
Iowa is among a handful of elite teams that almost always seem to battle for national supremacy. Iowa finished second at last year’s NCAA Championships, fourth in each of the two seasons before that and third in each of the two seasons before that.
Iowa also has crowned nine NCAA champions, 11 Big Ten champions and had 50 all-Americans under Brands, who is entering his 10th season as head coach.
In any other sport, that would be reason to throw a parade. But with Iowa wrestling, it’s incentive to work harder.
“Team champs and individual champs for me,” junior Cory Clark said when asked to describe his mindset for this season. “I think everybody has that same frame of mind.”
Clark is Iowa’s highest returning place-winner after finishing as the NCAA runner-up at 133 pounds last season. He was asked on Thursday what he has to do in order to be a champion.
“A lot of work in here,” Clark said of the Iowa wrestling room. “Just every day, just come in with the frame of mind to put work in and work hard.
Brands was a key piece of Iowa’s dominance under Gable, winning three NCAA individual titles from 1989-92. Brands always was on the attack as a competitor and he constantly preaches that approach to his wrestlers.
Sorensen, who finished fourth at 149 pounds at last year’s NCAA Championships, worked hard in the offseason to become more aggressive. His goal isn’t just to win matches, but to dominate them on the scoreboard.
“I’m really trying to improve on getting my attacks off and not keeping the matches close,” Sorensen said. “They don’t have to be close, blow the score wide open to improve and get on top of that stand in March.”
Long before that, though, Iowa will be part of a historic event when it wrestles against Oklahoma State next Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. The match will be held outside and just hours before the Iowa football team faces Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium.
“People have been wrestling outside since the beginning of time,” Brands said. “And it just so happens it’s the first time it’s been done in Division I.
“It’s a big deal because it’s about two storied programs and a rivalry that continues. And these rivalries are getting tougher to schedule just because of the Big Ten getting bigger.”
The Big Ten is getting bigger, but Iowa’s expectation for wrestling can’t get any bigger.