Wrestling Fever: Catch It!

It was quite a year for the Iowa Wrestling team. Beat ISU? Check. Win the Midlands? Check. Win the National Duals? Check. Win a dual at Minnesota? Check. Perfect Big Ten Dual Meet season? Check. Big Ten Championship? Check. First national title since 2000? Check, and how! HN Publisher Jon Miller talks about this year and once again being bitten by the wrestling bug, plus the future.

This year was as plugged into Iowa Wrestling as I have ever been in my life. I have been a fan for as long as I can remember, as my father would take my brother and I to dual meets back when the Fieldhouse was still the venue and Carver Hawkeye Arena was nothing but ground covered by trees.

But nothing compared to this year for me as far as being in tune with the Iowa wrestling scene, in addition to what was taking place around the Big Ten and the nation.

And something happened along the way….I have become a wrestling nut.

The way I see it, there are two kinds of Iowa wrestling fans. There is the kind that wants to see the Hawkeyes do well and will follow them casually throughout the year, rooting them on, maybe going to a dual meet, occasionally reading a Tom Brands transcript or listening to one of his interviews, perhaps being able to list off half of the starting lineup, if you will.

Then there is the kind that will attend several home meets, a few road meets, plans their vacation schedule around the National Tournament, will sit and listen to 10 or more hours of coverage of The Midlands and can list off half the starting lineups at Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Minnesota and any number of Big Ten teams.

I have quickly fallen into the second category, and I don't think there is any turning back for me now.

In fact, I spent more time either watching or listening to Iowa's march to its 21st National Championship this past week and weekend than I did watching the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament.

If you knew me well, having known my lifelong love affair with the hoops tournament and how I used to plan my vacation days around that event, you would know that's not some easy switch for me.

Don't get me wrong; I love the NCAA basketball tournament and was caught up in the madness this weekend like many of you were. It's just that this year's Iowa wrestling team captured my interest right away…they had me in Ames.

I went to that meet back in early December, blogging from my seat on press row, sitting in on the post match interview sessions with Cael Sanderson and Tom Brands and feeling like a kid in a candy store.

Wrestling is the oldest sport known to man. Most of us that grew up in Iowa spent at least some time on the mat, so we understand the sport better than most fan bases. The vast majority of us were not all that great in wrestling, but still love to watch it.

People my age (37ish) also grew up on a steady diet of Iowa basketball tournament appearances. That has changed over the course of the last nine years, so perhaps my falling head over heels in love with Iowa wrestling this year has something to do with the void that has been in my sports life with Iowa missing six of the last nine NCAA basketball tournaments. There has to be at least something to that.

But from the day that Tom Brands was introduced as Iowa's head coach, which was nearly two years ago, and after having listened to that introductory press conference, I was sucked in.

Here are some snippets from that press conference. The first one is when Coach Brands was asked about there being more parity in the sport (on 4/5/06, when he was introduced as Iowa's new coach) than in the Gable heyday era, and if that could be brought back.

"Parity has been talked about a lot. Parity is not being 60 points out of first place. I don't believe that parity is Oklahoma State running away with the title last year with five champs and having it over by Friday night this year. That is not parity; that is someone dominating the scene of college wrestling. There might be parity 2 through 10, but nobody remembers 2 through 10." – Tom Brands

One thing that jumps out at me is than in less than two years on the job, Brands and Company had the 2008 National Title in the bag on Friday night and they were running away with it. They had three wrestlers in the finals and two won championships.

Here is another line that I loved from that presser, one where Brands pounded the podium when he said it:

My biggest priority is to unite the program. Unite everything, because when you are talking about domination, because this is Iowa wrestling; when you talk about domination, and that is the idea. That happens by training in the room and competing on the mat that way. Competing on the mat to dominate.

Do I think Iowa is going to dominate the way the did in the 1980's and 1990's? No. I don't think that any program will dominate the sport the way the Hawks did during those years, because there are fewer Division I college programs now and the talent is coming together in greater numbers at more than just one or two schools.

But we are at the beginning of what is a foreseeable three year ride that might remind us of the 1980's and 1990's under Gable.

Iowa qualified nine wrestlers for nationals this year, and seven of those young men will return this year. Iowa returns five All Americans and they have one All American in Alex Tsirtsis that redshirted this year.

Iowa might be more consistent at 197 and 184 from the beginning to the end of the year than they were this year. Five wrestlers would appear to have realistic national championship aspirations; Brent Metcalf, Jay Borschel, Phil Keddy, Joey Slaton and Charlie Falck.

Iowa will lose defending national champion Mark Perry, but the Hawks didn't lose a dual meet when he was out from mid January through the dual meet season.

Iowa won every big meet or tournament this past year, save the home dual against Oklahoma State. They won at Ames. They dominated the Midlands. They won the National Duals, they beat Minnesota in Minneapolis, they won the Big Ten's by wrestling back in the consolations and they dominated the Nationals by advancing five wrestlers to the semifinals.

Iowa State will return a lot of firepower, too; they had seven All Americans this year and six return. As Brands hinted at when he was hired, a storm is rising in the East as Ohio State had its best ever finish at Nationals (second place) this weekend.

But the Hawkeyes are back on top, and all feels right in the wrestling world. The Hawk Haters are out in full force and we all have to relearn how to relish that role. It feels good, doesn't it?

I have already told my wife that I will be at nationals next year in St. Louis, so we have the dates marked out on our calendar.

I wish we could start it all up again right now. Iowa will try to set the NCAA attendance record next year in its home dual meet against Iowa State. My bet is they will get more than the required 15,600 do that and take that back from the Gophers.

I'll be there, and I hope you will, too.

The ride is just beginning.

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