Tom Brands sat in the locker room at Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena last Saturday night and strained to hear sounds that weren't there. "It wasn't as loud as it should have been," Brands, a 134-pound junior wrestler for Iowa, later said. Since the crowd of 13,233 that packed the arena for the 61st NCAA wrestling championships included plenty of Iowa fans, Brands knew what that meant: His twin brother, Terry, was losing his final-round match to Nebraska's Jason Kelber.
It was a good thing Tom didn't know more. The 126-pound match ended with Kelber winning decisively, 10-5. Terry refused to shake Kelber's hand; instead, he slapped at it derisively. The crowd booed Terry, and the referee subtracted a point from Iowa's team total for unsportsmanlike conduct. It was Tom's turn to try to win the Hawkeyes' first individual title of the meet.
The team championship had already been decided. By the end of Friday night's semifinals, Iowa had an insurmountable 136 points, 43.75 more than two-time defending champion Oklahoma State, which was in second place. This was Iowa's best performance in the NCAAs since 1986, when the meet was last held in Iowa City. That year's Hawkeyes may well have been the greatest collegiate wrestling team ever assembled. Five of the eight wrestlers who qualified for the tournament won titles, and the Hawkeyes amassed a meet-record 158 points, still the NCAA record. The team crown was Iowa's ninth in a row, tying the Hawkeyes with Yale in golf (1905-13) and Southern Cal in track (1935-43) for the most consecutive national championships.
But with success came complacency. "We had too much talent," says Iowa coach Dan Gable of the '86 Hawkeyes. "Those guys didn't have to work as hard, and new people came in and picked up that [lack of] work ethic."
The Hawkeyes became so cocky that they went through the 1987 season wearing huge black X's—the Roman numeral 10—on their uniforms. Those X's became woes at the NCAA tournament, where Iowa State beat Iowa 133-108. Three more years passed without the team winning a championship.
Gable takes much of the blame for his team's slide. "There were things I needed to change," he says. "Even with the best company in the world, you have to make adjustments. I had always looked to the future. All of a sudden, I was thinking about the past."
By his own admission, Gable needed a jolt. He got one from the Brands, twin terrors from Sheldon, Iowa. "The Brands brought back my intensity," says Gable.
No wonder. These are Fire Brands. They wrestle with the single-mindedness of pit bulls, handling opponents with contempt as well as muscle. Tom got so frustrated with one rival's stalling earlier this season that he sat down in the middle of the mat and taunted him by saying, "Come on. Jump on me."
"I'm not by any means a favorite [of opponents]," said Tom with a smile, after an action-packed 33-19 win over Michigan's Joey Gilbert in the semifinals.
Gilbert agreed. "We don't like each other," he said. "Maybe it's because I don't take his crap—his pushing and slapping—like a lot of other guys do."
"Among other wrestlers, Tom Brands is known as a cheap-shot wrestler," says Oklahoma State assistant coach John Smith, a former Cowboy star who last week became the first wrestler to win the Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete. "But I don't think it's purposefully done. The kid is so intense, he doesn't control his emotions. If you have that kind of intensity, you're almost a violent person when you step to the mat. I enjoy watching both the Brands. If they were out on the street somewhere, you wouldn't want to face them. Here, at least, you're under some rules."
That didn't help Cowboy freshman Alan Fried, who faced Tom in the final. At the start, though, Tom looked tight, and Fried scored first with a takedown. But Tom hammered away. "I could hear him grunting under me," said Tom. "I knew I could last longer than he could." Tom scored a decisive takedown in the second period and, with a one-point bonus for riding time, won 5-3.
Afterward, Tom's voice cracked repeatedly when he considered his brother's defeat. "You never forget the pain of losing," he said. Someone mentioned that Terry had suffered a near pin. "Terry did?" said Tom incredulously. "Ah, geez. Let's not talk about my brother."
One Hawkeye, though, fared more like Tom than Terry. In the 167-pound division, junior Mark Reiland, Iowa's last remaining finalist, faced Kevin Randleman of Ohio State. Reiland, who had missed last year's NCAA meet with a broken jaw, was nearly flawless. Leading 6-2 as the second period was running out, he caught Randleman on his back. "Mark elongated Randleman's neck, making his head go down," said Gable. The result was a fall, with one second remaining in the second period.
Reiland's win gave the Hawkeyes 157 points—one unsportsmanlike conduct penalty point shy of the record. Gable, who got his 10th championship with a team that doesn't have a single senior, didn't seem to mind. "The Brands aren't the happiest losers," he said. "They aren't good losers. That's why they're good."
Indeed, the same can be said for a number of Hawkeyes. A renowned motivator, Gable constructs little time bombs of emotion. They don't always explode in joy. After losing 14-0 to Jeff Prescott of Penn State in the final of the 118-pound division, Chad Zaputil blew up. John Coyle, the NCAA official who drew the unenviable assignment of getting the losers to sign out, described Zaputil's departure delicately. "He went up to his locker at a high rate of speed," said Coyle. There were bloodstains on the sign-out sheet after Coyle got Zaputil to sign, and one can imagine that the wrestler's locker looked as bad as his hand.
Later, Hawkeye Troy Steiner lost 8-7 to West Virginia's Scott Collins for the 142-pound title and went behind a partition and wailed for 10 minutes.
Gable found encouragement in such anguished reactions. "I don't want them to forget them [the losses]," he said, adding that he has considered having videos made of such scenes. "You remember the pain as long as you can."