Looking for Team Leaders to step up at Iowa

Updated: November 15, 2017

(Photo: Michael Kemerer, who finished third at 157 pounds last March, is one of just two returning All-Americans for Iowa … and could be one of seven underclassmen to wrestle for the Hawkeyes in 2017-18.)

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By Mike Finn

If there was ever a “bad” season during the career of legendary Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable, it was during the winter of 1988-89.

Two years removed from seeing his Hawkeyes win a ninth straight NCAA championship, the Hawkeyes won the Big Tens for the 16th time in string of 25 straight conference championship during the final year of the 1980s.

But when it came to the national tournament, the Hawkeyes finished sixth; the program’s “worst” showing since and an 11th-place finish in 1972; five years before Gable was hired in Iowa City.

Gable knew things had to change.

“I went back to the basics and education and made sure everyone totally understood what I knew,” recalled Gable. “I had to make sure they had the ability to understand (the goal) and I had to understand what I was missing. I had to make sure they understood the 365-day plan that was signed by every wrestler.”

And Gable also knew he needed someone in a Hawkeye singlet to execute his plan.

“I had someone on my team that was extraordinary, but had not been given that responsibility yet,” Gable recalled. “That person was Tom Brands.”

Tom (right) and Terry Brands (left) were redshirt freshmen when they competed for Dan Gable and Iowa in 1989, when the Hawkeyes finished sixth nationally. By the time they graduated, Iowa won two NCAA titles and they combined to earn five titles and seven All-American honors.

Actually, there were two Iowa wrestlers who helped Gable turn things around — the other being Tom’s twin brother Terry Brands — especially in 1990-91 when the Hawkeyes were back on top of the wrestling world that March when the Brands brothers were junior starters. Eventually, the Brandses combined to earn seven All-American honors and five NCAA titles and ignited a run that saw Gable’s final seven teams win six national team championships.

“We lived the right lifestyle,” recalled Tom, who eventually won three NCAA championships and taught his teammates how to fight back when everyone else was counting them out.

“We were ornery. We had a lot of fun and we loved to compete. We didn’t apologize for anything. If a table got knocked over in the process of running someone over, that was OK. And sometimes that builds a reputation, especially when people get to know you and realize that is an asset.”

Tom (left) and Terry Brands have led to Iowa to three NCAA titles since 2006, but has not reached the top spot since 2010.

Nearly 30 years later, the Hawkeye program — which has produced 23 team titles; second only to Oklahoma State’s 34 championships — is in a phase of rebuilding considering only two All-Americans return from last season; the fewest Top-8 finishers since 2010-11, which was also one year after the Hawkeyes — of coach Tom Brands — won their last team title.

Iowa brought Brands back to Iowa in 2006 because his coaching goals were similar to that of Gable’s and — after his first team finished eighth in 2007 — he lived up to those goals by winning three team championships (including 2008 and ’09). Since 2010, the Hawkeyes have finished in the Top 5 each March, and as high as second in 2015, and fourth last season.

But with the 2017-18 Hawkeyes ranked No. 11 in WIN’s first regular-season rankings, Brands is calling this season both a “reloading and rebuilding year” and one where patience will be asked of Brands and others.

“Are the fans going to be restless?” quizzed Brands. “Yeah, if we’re not performing. I don’t think any coach that’s ever coached here has ever been satisfied. I think Gable maybe started that “never satisfied” play on words, or whatever you want to call it, and we’re never satisfied.”

So the natural question is: are there any current Hawkeyes who can do for Brands and Iowa what Brands did for Gable and Iowa?

Brandon Sorensen

“We have two guys who really need to get to the point where they know that they can overcome what’s in front of them,” Brands said of 149-pound senior Brandon Sorensen, a three-time All-American and 2016 finalist, and 157-pound sophomore Michael Kemerer, who finished third last season.

“Sorensen and Kemerer need to know what their mission is when they are in the wrestling room,” said Brands.

Kemerer, a native of Murrysville, Pa., welcomes that opportunity of leadership.

“It’s a role that has been handed down to me,” Kemerer said. “I take it seriously, but I also get a lot of help and a lot of good role models on this team.”

Michael Kemerer

One of those may be 125-pound true freshman Spencer Lee, a former Franklin Regional High School teammate of Kemerer, who won three Pennsylvania state championships and two Junior World freestyle titles.

“He’s got more international experience than I have,” said Kemerer. “He’s wrestled and trained in some of the best rooms in the country and the world the last couple of years. When you look at how he competes, he competes hard and that speaks for itself.”

But it should also be pointed out that Lee is coming off a serious knee injury, which cost him a fourth state title last March, and Brands is reluctant to call Lee the “next Tom Brands.”

Spencer Lee (right) is a true freshman who brought three Pennsylvania state titles and two Junior World gold medals to Iowa City this year.

“Spencer Lee has only been here three months. Tom Brands had been there for over a year,” said the current Iowa head coach, who must decide when to actually insert Lee into the varsity lineup. With as many as seven underclassmen possibly starting in the nine other weights, why wrestle Lee this season?

“Because Spencer Lee is a unique individual,” said Brands, who may not make his final decision on Lee’s varsity status until after the Midlands in late December. “He’s a competitor from the word go. And in Spencer Lee’s case, it might be best thing for him to compete and not sit him, not put him on the shelf. But we’re going to be very careful with what we do.

“He’s fun to watch. He’s entertaining. He brings a lot of scoring energy, a lot of boom, boom, boom, and that’s very refreshing for our fans.”

Lee admitted he told Brands he wanted to wrestle immediately for the Hawkeyes this winter.

“I want to wrestle because I don’t like sitting out,” Lee said. “I want to be part of the team. Rather than wrestle unattached, I’d rather wear the Iowa singlet. But if it’s not the best thing for me and the coaching staff and I don’t come together and agree on what’s best for me, then I’m going to redshirt.”

Brands is very aware that Penn State — NCAA team champs in six of the last seven years, including the past two — and Ohio State (the 2015 champs) are projected to be the top two programs this winter … and isn’t ready to concede anything to the Nittany Lions and Buckeyes.

But Brands, who said Iowa is planning on building a new wrestling complex, also has to change the perception of his program, which he learned more about while recruiting Lee.


“When we got a commitment from Spencer Lee and his dad, Larry Lee, who was close to that process, they gave us a portfolio of gold intel of how we were being recruited against,” said Brands.

But that didn’t stop Lee or Kemerer from leaving Pennsylvania to wrestle for Brands.

“You hear things about how (the Iowa coaches) burn people out or wrestlers are not enjoying their time here,” said Spencer Lee. “But I don’t know how you couldn’t enjoy yourself here. This place is awesome and I’m having a blast here.

“I think anyone can be successful here, as long as you are ready to work and listen to the coaches. If you come here every day with a purpose and listen to the coaches, anything is possible.”

Kemerer, who is ranked No. 3 nationally, does not want to look past this season.

“When you are on the mat, you don’t want to say, ‘Wait ‘til next year,’,” he said. “When you are on the mat, your expectation is to win, whether you are a fifth-year senior or a guy who is in his first couple months in the room. It’s about having that pride and expectation of yourself. When you step on the mat, you wrestle to dominate.

“It doesn’t matter where people are ranking you because of that pride and expectations.”

Especially at Iowa.