By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Almost a decade has passed since the Iowa wrestling team won a national title.
And with wrestling, it feels even longer due to Iowa’s unique history in the sport.
National titles used to almost be taken for granted at Iowa due the extraordinary success under Dan Gable, but the circumstances have changed since the Hawkeyes last won a national title in 2010.
Penn State is the current king of college wrestling, winning eight of the last nine national titles, but there is a growing belief that the Nittany Lions are vulnerable this season, partly due to some of its own issues, but also because of what Tom Brands has assembled at Iowa from a roster standpoint.
It has taken longer than maybe what some Hawkeye fans had expected, but the gap between Penn State and Iowa has narrowed considerably.
In fact, some close to the sport, including WIN Magazine editor Mike Finn, say that top-ranked Iowa has more than just narrowed the gap with Penn State, which is currently ranked second nationally.
“To be honest with you, I think it could break records,” Finn said of Iowa’s potential at the 2020 NCAA Wrestling Championships, which will be held on March 19-21 in Minneapolis. “And the fact that it’s going to happen at Minnesota before maybe fifty thousand people in the dome for the finals, and if Iowa does what they could do on paper, they’ll break records and they’ll do it before a whole bunch of people.”
Finn is the furthest thing from being a Hawkeye homer. He calls it like he sees it, and right now, he sees Iowa having a clear advantage on paper heading into Friday’s match against No. 4 Ohio State at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and against any opponent for that matter.
Finn didn’t feel that way as recently as a year ago because the circumstances were different with Penn State pretty much in a class by itself under head coach Cael Sanderson.
Penn State was to the past decade what Iowa was to wrestling during most of the 1980s and 1990s. The Nittany Lions have been so dominant since 2011 that it often has come down to the other teams wrestling for second place at the NCAA Championships.
It was the same way with Iowa under Gable, and if what Finn says is true about the current Iowa team, this season could prove to be a return to dominance.
Iowa currently has 10 wrestlers ranked in the top 10 nationally, six in the top three, and two who are ranked first at their weight in 125-pound junior Spencer Lee and senior Pat Lugo at 141 pounds.
Lee is the two-time defending national champion at 125 pounds and is 9-0 this season. The Pennsylvania native also has won his last four bouts by technical fall while outscoring his opponents, 66-1.
Finn sees some similarities with this Iowa team and the 2001 Minnesota squad that won the national title, and was also the first team to have 10 All-Americans.
“Iowa wants to get back to what they were ten years ago, and what a statement if they did it with ten All-Americans,” Finn said.
Tom Brands was a major part of the Iowa dynasty under Gable as a three-time national champion in 1990, 1991 and 1992.
Brands also led Iowa to the national title in his second, third and fourth seasons as head coach, but none since then.
Iowa’s best finish since winning it all in 2010 was national runner-up in 2015. Iowa also has finished third nationally three times since 2011.
Brands never has said much about Penn State’s dominance publicly because that’s just not how he operates. He respects the Nittany Lions, but his sole focus is trying to make Iowa better.
Brands is more concerned about looking inward than outward, as he showed while addressing the media on Tuesday.
“You get ready to go in a tough schedule, you do it week to week, opponent to opponent,” Brands said. “You’re looking for characteristics. You’re not dwelling on things that our opponent does.
“We worry about and focus and keep things in house, and do what you set out to do.”
Iowa sets out to win the national title in wrestling every year, and the current drought hasn’t changed that lofty expectation.
However, for much of the past decade, Iowa was considered a long shot to win it all due to Penn State’s dominance.
Ohio State also has flirted with elite status, including winning the national title in 2015.
Penn State and Ohio State are both still formidable opponents, but Iowa looks stronger on paper, and that hasn’t been the case for a while, probably for about a decade.
Penn State has been hurt by graduation and by some key injuries, but it would be naïve and foolish to dismiss the second-ranked Nittany Lions as title contenders.
Iowa will face Penn State on Jan. 31 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in a much-anticipated match that could show just how much the gap has narrowed.
Tom Brands has stayed the course and worked hard to assemble a deep and talented roster. He and his assistants have recruited well and have benefitted from the transfer route with Lugo and with 133-pounder Austin DeSanto.
Lugo transferred to Iowa from Edinboro, while the second-ranked DeSanto started his career at Drexel.
There is also some luck involved with winning a national title in any sport. Iowa has been fortunate so far to avoid any serious injuries, while Penn State has been hurt by injuries.
The Iowa wrestlers appreciate having a target on their back just like the old days when it seemed as if Iowa was always ranked No. 1 nationally.
But the only No. 1 ranking that really matters is at the end of the season.
“It’s good, but at the same time, I think back to a year ago, or two years ago at this time, and I don’t even know what we were ranked,” said senior Michael Kemerer, who is ranked second nationally at 174 pounds. “Obviously, what people remember is what happens in the last stretch.
“It doesn’t mean these matches aren’t important. But just because we’re ranked number one doesn’t solidify anything at the end of the year. So we’ve got to be prepared and we’ve just got to keep working to get better.
Individual national rankings
As of Jan. 14
Spencer Lee (125) 1/1/1
Austin DeSanto (133) 2/2/2
Max Murin (141) 6/3/5
Pat Lugo (149) 1/1/1
Kaleb Young (157) 6/4/4
Alex Marinelli (165) 2/2/2
Michael Kemerer (174) 2/2/2
Abe Assad (184) 10/9/10
Jacob Warner (197) 4/4/5
Tony Cassioppi (285) 3/3/3