Skip to main content

MOUNT VERNON, Iowa — It was 38 degrees — AccuWeather RealFeel had it somewhere around 28 degrees — when Tom Brands stepped in front of the microphones outside at Kroul Farms.

The wind had that mid-autumn bite, there were spits of snow. A wood fire burned near the writers sitting on logs.

It was Iowa’s wrestling media day.

“Iowa weather, love it or leave it,” Brands, the Hawkeyes’ coach, said and, like everything he says, he meant it.

Someone asked if there was symbolism to having the event in such an environment.

“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 mean, Frank Gotch, he wouldn't even be sitting on these logs, he'd be splitting them. (Former Iowa coach Dan) Gable would be splitting these logs for his wood-burning sauna. So it's synonymous for those types of people, and that's where I came from. I came from a rural community, and all the baling hay and all that and wood smoke, it's a part of what everybody in Iowa is about really, or at least their roots.”

And so maybe that’s what this was all about. Iowa’s wrestling roots are deep. The Hawkeyes have 23 national titles, but none since 2010. That is a long time for this program.

Iowa is in the best position in a while to go get another one — starting the season at No. 2 in the national rankings.

Alex Marinelli has photos of that 2010 team, and the 1997-98 team that won a national crown, on his apartment wall.

“I think about it every day,” the 165-pound junior said about the Hawkeyes’ title drought. “It’s a motivation for me every day. It’s two important posters that I use as motivation, for sure."

Iowa finished fourth in the NCAA Championships last season, but the wrestlers who scored 74 of the Hawkeyes’ 76 points return, led by 125-pound two-time national champion Spencer Lee.

The Hawkeyes have seven wrestlers who have been All-Americans — Lee, Marinelli, 174-pounder Michael Kemerer, 133-pounder Austin DeSanto, 149-pounder Pat Lugo, 157-pounder Kaleb Young and 197-pounder Jacob Warner. Kemerer was an All-American in 2018 — he sat out last season as a medical redshirt.

The Hawkeyes finished 50 points behind Penn State for the Big Ten title, 61 1/2 points behind the Nittany Lions for the national title. The two teams shared the Big Ten regular-season championship, and are 1-2 in about every preseason ranking around.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Someone asked Brands if he thought the Hawkeyes had “closed the gap” with the Nittany Lions and it went about as well as expected.

“Did I say I closed the gap? I didn't say that,” Brands said. “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 that Penn State had. Well, all of a sudden Penn State has two more guys from that team because of medicals, which you know, that makes them better. They have three returning champs on their team, right?

“So we're going to look at it like we do every year. We don't look at it any different this year. 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. 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. And I'll say three names right now — Spencer Lee, Alex Marinelli and Michael Kemerer, and then we have four more all-Americans behind those guys, and I know that seventh and eighth place, that's not going to get the job done. So Lugo, you've got to get busy; Warner, you've got to get busy; DeSanto, you've got to get busy; (141-pounder Max) Murin, you've got to get busy; you weren't even on this stand, so you've got to get busy. But we have the personnel.”

The Hawkeyes get six of the top eight teams in the preseason rankings at home.

Told that number, Lee smiled and interrupted the question.

“Awesome,” he said.

The big one, though, will be when Penn State comes to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Jan. 31.

“Penn State’s definitely motivation,” Marinelli said. “We hate seeing other people win. It’s just a proven fact. (Oklahoma State), Ohio State, everyone’s that contending, we want to prove to them that we should be on the stand, at the top of the stand, in every single weight class.”

“I think the sky’s the limit,” Lee said. “We’ve got such talent, such hard-working individuals.”

“I think the double-edged sword for me is my expectations are high, and sometimes I talk a certain way and then I get questions asked about why aren't you basically backing up what you said or something like that,” Brands said. “That's a cheap shot. Our standards are high. Are we not supposed to be high standard? Yes, we are supposed to be high standard. We'll take on all comers, that type of thing.”

So, the Hawkeyes are ready for a battle. A little cold weather was a good test.

“It’s more the mental side of things,” Marinelli said. “We’ve got all of the talent, we’ve got all the strength and everyone who can contribute to win a national title. But let’s get our minds right, and believe we can do it.

“It’s not like this is a rebuilding year. This is the year we’re going to do this thing. I know, in my heart, that we can do it.”