Some believe Iowa has closed the gap with Penn State, but Tom Brands wants no part of that narrative
By Pat Harty
MOUNT VERNON, Iowa – There will be a time again when Penn State doesn’t win the national title in wrestling, but until that happens, Cael Sanderson’s dynasty-in-the-making still is the king until somebody else proves otherwise.
That somebody could be a once-proud dynasty from the Midwest that ruled college wrestling for most of the 1980s and 1990s.
Before Penn State, it was Iowa that dominated college wrestling, winning 15 national titles under the legendary Dan Gable, and three apiece under former head coach Jim Zalesky and current head coach Tom Brands.
But not since 2010 has Iowa won a national title in wrestling, and by Iowa’s lofty standards, that’s an eternity.
“I think about it every day,” junior Alex Marinelli said at Iowa’s annual media day event on Wednesday. “I’ve got the 2010 national title picture in my apartment right now. My wife and I have it hung up and it’s a motivation for me every single day.”
Iowa still has elite status in wrestling, but the dynasty is long gone and has since been supplanted by Penn State’s dynasty, which includes winning eight of the last nine national titles.
Penn State was hit hard by graduation, losing three NCAA individual champions, while Iowa returns the bulk of its roster, and that is fueling a belief that Iowa could be a legitimate threat to Penn State’s dominance.
Wednesday’s media day event was held outside at Kroul Farms on Highway 1 just south of Mount Vernon despite almost freezing temperatures, and the first question asked to Iowa head coach Tom Brands was if he was trying to make a correlation with toughness.
The farm is owned and operated by the family of former Iowa football player Matt Kroul.
“There’s not a correlation of toughness,” Brands said. “I think wrestlers pride themselves on being tough. That’s not what we’re trying to show. We’re trying to do something different, and include a part of Iowa that is synonymous with wrestling.
“I came from a rural community, all the bailing hay and all that, wood smoke, it’s what everybody in Iowa is about, really, or at least their roots.”
Iowa’s wrestling roots also run deep and it didn’t long on Wednesday for Brands to be asked about closing the gap with Penn State.
He was asked specifically what makes him think that Iowa has closed the gap with Penn State.
“Did I say I closed the gap?” Brands fired back. “I didn’t say that. I think that we have the guys that are putting the work in every day. I’m not going to compare ourselves like every other year. People thought that I was bananas maybe for thinking we could win last year with that high-powered team Penn State had.
“Well, all the sudden Penn State got two more guys from that team because of medicals. That makes them better. They have three returning national champs on their team right.”
That was Brands’ way of tempering the expectations because he knows that trying to crush a dynasty is a daunting task.
Brands knows first-hand because he was part of the dynasty at Iowa under Gable, winning three NCAA individual titles and two team titles in 1991 and 1992.
“We got to get busy,” Brands said. “But we’ve got the personnel.”
Gable was among those who withstood the cold weather on Wednesday to attend media day.
His presence is a reminder of the glory years, and should serve as motivation.
But there is also pressure because Gable set a standard of excellence that might be beyond reach.
Even Sanderson still has a ways to go to match what Gable did as a head coach.
The ability to reload rather than rebuild is essential in sustaining a dynasty and that is where Penn State has excelled under Sanderson.
The names change every three to four years, but the results seldom do, just like with Iowa during the Gable dynasty.
Sanderson is doing for Penn State what Gable did for Iowa, and that’s just one of their similarities.
They are also two of the greatest wrestlers of all time, two of the greatest coaches of all time in any sport, and they both attended Iowa State.
Iowa was a force of nature under Gable, fundamentally sound, incredibly tough and always on the attack and never tired.
There were seasons when it came down to which team would finish second to Iowa because first place was a foregone conclusion.
It is now sort of the same way with Penn State, although, the message coming out of Iowa’s annual media day event on Wednesday seemed to suggest that the Hawkeyes are poised to make a run at Penn State.
Iowa wrestlers always talk about winning the national title at media day because that still is the standard despite the current drought.
Penn State still is loaded, but the narrative coming out of media day is that Iowa finally has climbed to Penn State’s level, at least on paper.
Iowa is ranked second behind Penn State in the preseason rankings, so even the polls say that Iowa is Penn State's biggest threat.
Brands, however, tried to downplay the hype, the rankings and any comparisons to Penn State.
“Just because the media or the pundits put us in a close second ranked category with Penn State doesn’t mean that I put us there,” Brands said. “But I know what I think of our guys and I wouldn’t trade our team for any other team.
“I love our guys. We have the personnel.”
Brands then reeled off the names of Spencer Lee, Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer and also mentioned that Iowa has four returning All-Americans behind them.
Lee is the two-time defending national champion at 125 pounds and the Pennsylvania native enters the season ranked first at that weight.
“I just think we have such a great team bond,” Lee said. “We’re all very confident in each other and we all want the best for each other. I’m not saying the other teams didn’t have that kind of bond, but this team is different, I think.
“There is just so much love. I’d do anything for these guys and they’d do anything for me.”
Marinelli finished 27-2 last season and won a Big Ten title, but he struggled at the NCAA Championships and finished in a disappointing seventh place.
“I kind of let my axe go dull in between Big Tens and nationals,” Marinelli said of his poor showing at the NCAA Championships. “I won Big Tens, so you’ve got to look at it like the job isn’t done. You’ve got to keep the axe sharp. You can’t let it sit out in the rain and you can’t let it rust.”
Kemerer missed last season due to an injury, but is now healthy and ready to show what he can do at 174 pounds after having competed at 157 pounds as a freshman and sophomore. The Murrysville, Pa., native finished third at the NCAA Championships as a freshman and fourth as a sophomore, and has a 60-6 career record
So Brands does have a solid triumvirate to build around, and there is quality at pretty much every weight.
That’s what it’ll take to dethrone Penn State, quality and depth.
It was the same with trying to defeat Iowa during the Gable years.
But sooner or later, it’ll happen, although, we're probably past the sooner part in the case of Iowa trying to defeat Penn State.