Iowa’s replacements want to ‘put the world on notice’

Updated: November 21, 2023

Photo: Gabe Arnold celebrated winning his first match at 174 pounds at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The true freshman from Missouri and Georgia is replacing All-American Nelson Brands, who was among several Hawkeyes suspended because of illegal sports wagering. (Iowa photo)

By Mike Finn

Before Gabe Arnold took to the mat for the first time ever in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa’s dual meet with Oregon State this past Sunday, Hawkeye associate coach Terry Brands had a message for the 174-pound true freshman from Albany, Ga.

“He told me my match in this dual was to put the world on notice,” said Arnold, who posted a 4-2 victory over the Beavers’ Travis Wittlake, a 2021 All-American transfer from Oklahoma State.

“I kind of like that (message),” said head coach Tom Brands. “Let’s put them on notice. Convert when you get an opportunity.”

Coming to Iowa after first winning two National Prep championships for Wyoming Seminary (Pa.) before spending his senior year in Iowa City, where he captured a state championship for City High School, Arnold did not expect to see much varsity time as a true freshman this season.

And what made Arnold’s victory and pre-match speech from Terry Brands significant was that Arnold was only wrestling in Iowa’s 25-11 victory because Nelson Brands, Terry’s son, has been among at least four Hawkeyes who have been forced to miss this season by the NCAA because of a sports-wagering violation.

This came after the Hawkeyes, the 2021 NCAA team champs who finished in third and second place the past two NCAAs, were returning plenty of All-American points from 2023, led by Real Woods, the 2023 national runner-up. Unfortunately for Iowa, the 141-pound senior would have been the only returning Hawkeye from last year’s team with NCAA tournament experience.

On Nov. 8, the University of Iowa wrestling community learned something factual that was rumored throughout much of the preseason; that four of the top Hawkeyes have been suspended by the NCAA because of gambling issues.

The NCAA announced that student-athletes who wager on teams at their own school — excluding their own team — would result in a one-year suspension and a one-year loss of eligibility. The NCAA had considered no suspensions but settled on the one-year ban.

The group of four are all seniors, and it included Abe Assad (184 pounds), Anthony Cassioppi (Hwt) and Cobe Siebrecht (157).

Assad had qualified for three national tournaments (2020, ’22 and ’23) and was still looking for his first All-American honor. He also redshirted in the 2021 season.

Brands, also the nephew to head coach Tom Brands, had competed in two national tournaments: 2021 and 2023. He finished fifth last March in Tulsa.

Cassioppi, meanwhile, had earned three All-American honors in his Iowa career; placing third in 2021, seventh in 2022 and fourth in 2023.

Siebrecht did not become a starter until last year, when he qualified for the NCAAs after claiming seventh in the Big Tens.

Head coach Tom Brands, now in his 17th year, was also disappointed people were not asking why only Iowa and Iowa State athletes were being penalized for sports wagering. The Cyclones also lost NCAA qualifier Paniro Johnson and both schools had football players declared ineligible this fall.

“The leadership of the NCAA is on record saying there is a nationwide campus epidemic of sports wagering,” Brands said on Nov. 15. “No one is asking the question why the Department of Justice and the state of Iowa were targeting Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. No one is asking that question.”

“These guys knew what they were doing was wrong,” he said. “‘Well, why did you do it then?’ Because it’s everywhere. Didn’t even think about it. I’m not absolving them of responsibility and accountability. I’m not doing that. But what I am saying is, you are asking the wrong questions to the wrong guy about sports wagering. Because Iowa State University and the University of Iowa were unfairly targeted.

“These guys didn’t lie, they didn’t cheat, they didn’t do anything illegal. A 21-year-old can gamble. A 21-year-old is a junior in college. A one-year ban is a death sentence most of the time.”

Brands and the Hawkeyes did benefit over the summer from some talented transfers with a lot of experience.

A trio of national qualifiers from the 2023 NCAAs — All-Americans Jared Franek (157) and Michael Caliendo (165) from North Dakota State … and a former Oklahoma State starter Victor Voinovich (149) — came to Iowa City via the transfer portal. All three won their first-ever home matches while wearing an Iowa singlet against Oregon State.

But, none of those victories generated as much applause as Arnold’s win.

“It was an awesome experience,” said Arnold. “It was great to perform the way that I did. This is a show and at the end of the day I’m performing. I want all the fans in the stands cheering on me. They come to these meets because we (wrestlers) are performers.

Arnold first grew up in Georgia and has family ties near Columbia, Mo., the home of his cousin J’den Cox, the former three-time NCAA champ from Missouri and World champion. Cox wasn’t in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but much of Gabe’s family was there, including his father Phil who embraced his son after the win.

“We’ve been doing this journey since I was in fourth grade,” said the younger Arnold. “It’s been surreal how far I’ve come. I come from humble beginnings. It’s cool to be where I am now.”

Iowa’s victory came just a week before the Hawkeyes travel to Ames, next Sunday, Nov. 26, when the host school Iowa State will be looking to end an 18-match winning streak by their instate rivals from Iowa City.

Brands said he was ticked after the Oregon State victory, adding “but that’s probably more my nature,” noting the off-mat issues as well as the fact that four of his Hawkeyes actually rallied to win their matches against Oregon State.

“The thing that irks me is that we let (Oregon State) dictate,” he said. “We need to dictate.”

Brody Teske, who was one of those Hawkeyes who gave up an opening takedown before beating his Oregon State opponent, agreed he and his teammates need to a better job controlling action in matches this season.

“We need to focus on simplifying our wrestling,” said Teske, the 23-year-old native of Ft. Dodge, Iowa, who started his career at Penn State. Teske went a combined 9-4 over his two years as a Nittany Lion before returning to his home state in 2020-21 at Northern Iowa. As a Panther, he qualified for two straight NCAAs and was eliminated in the rounds of 12 and 16 those two tournaments. Last year, in his first season at a Hawkeye, he went 1-2 at the NCAAs in an injury-filled season.

“I am one of the older guys and we need leadership in a way to go and dictate,” Teske said. “I take on that role and I need to dictate my positions. That’s the whole reason I’m back this year. After falling short and not getting what I want, I don’t want to dwell on yesterday. I’m moving forward. It’s all or nothing this year.”