IOWA CITY, Iowa – The sport of wrestling is lucky that Tom Brands wasn’t a better football player.
Because who knows what would’ve happened if the ultra-competitive Brands, who grew up in the northwest Iowa town of Sheldon, had excelled on the gridiron in high school. He might have dedicated his life to football instead of becoming a star wrestler and a respected head coach.
“I played football,” Brands said Tuesday while addressing the media. “I was third-string defensive back. I thought I was second-team until the starter got hurt and the coach literally looked over my head and pointed at the guy behind me.
"But I was ready to go and it crushed me. And then I was guard, end and tackle. I sat on the end of the bench and guarded the water bottle and tackled anybody who got near it.”
Brands was part of a press conference doubleheader on Tuesday, along with Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz, who always meets with the media on Tuesday throughout the season.
Brands was there to have a little fun at his own expense, but also to promote Saturday’s unprecedented event in which the Iowa wrestling team will host fellow powerhouse Oklahoma State in an outdoor match at Kinnick Stadium.
The match starts at 11 a.m. and will be held several hours before the undefeated Iowa football team faces Minnesota in a rare night game at Kinnick Stadium, making it sort of a unique doubleheader involving two sports that thrive on toughness.
This is Brands’ way of helping to gain notoriety for a sport that has changed his life as a three-time NCAA champion and Olympic gold medalist, but also his way of gaining an edge on rival Penn State.
The Nittany Lions currently hold the attendance record for a college wrestling match at nearly 16,000. But not for long as over 33,000 tickets have been sold for Saturday’s match at Kinnick Stadium, which is being called the “Grapple on the Gridiron.”
“It turns out it’s a pretty big event and it’s good for the fans and it’s good for wrestling, but the reason was because Penn State has the record and I think it’s important to our program and to our fans,” Brands said when asked what inspired him to arrange the historic match. “And our fans are probably the number one motivation for us because they want to have the record. They take a lot of pride in it.”
The questions for Brands on Tuesday shifted back and forth from wrestling to the surprising success of the Iowa football team, which is 9-0 and ranked fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The way in which he handled reporters was vintage Brands in how he mixed humor with intensity. He paid homage to Ferentz and thanked him for supporting the event, while also stressing the seriousness of Saturday’s wrestling match.
“If I was astute and more maybe polished I would have come up here and said, first I’d like to thank Kirk Ferentz and Paul Federici and the entire football staff for allowing us because without them it doesn’t even get off the ground,” Brands said. “This is something that when Penn State broke the record they were immediately fans of. It just took us a couple years to get going.”
Brands showed his respect for Ferentz when asked how he felt about Hawkeye football.
“I feel great,” Brands said. “I’m a Ferentz fans. I’ve said it again and again and again.
“And the best compliment I could give him is I could have played for him. I think he’s a no-nonsense guy and he expects accountability and he expects a high standard every time out. And he doesn’t ever want to hear excuses as far as I know.”
Ferentz said Tuesday that he is a fan of wrestling, but only from an observer’s standpoint. His three sons also wrestled at City High before playing football at Iowa.
"His sons all wrestled and that’s another good quality in a football coach as far as where I stand," Brands said.
Ferentz understands the significance of Saturday’s match. He knows that it will help promote the sport of wrestling, while also entertaining the Iowa fans.
It helps that Kinnick Stadium will be available at 11 a.m. for the start of the match. The weather is also expected to cooperate with temperatures in the mid-40s and little chance of precipitation.
“It’s not like we’re going to be doing anything at 11:00 or whatever time they’re going,” Ferentz said. “I think it’s a great thing. It’s great for the sport first and foremost, and I happen to be a wrestling fan. I’m not an expert by any stretch. I’m not even a novice, but I really enjoy it. And I have tremendous respect, like I do for all the coaches on our campus, for Tom. All those guys really just do a great job.”
Another person who deserves praise for making Saturday’s match a reality is Oklahoma State coach John Smith. He embraced the opportunity to wrestle the rival Hawkeyes outside in-mid-November and in a hostile environment.
"It was a minute-thirty conversation and I thought it would be longer, like me maybe trying to fluff it up a little bit and say, ‘ah, come on type thing,’" Brands said of his call to Smith about staging the match. "But he didn’t even hesitate. He understood what we were asking for and we’re in."