IOWA CITY, Iowa — In a quaint dinner hall eight years ago and halfway across the state, Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands stood before a hundred supporters and told them major change was coming to his sport.
The town was Boone, 15 miles west of Ames. That’s in the same county as rival Iowa State. Brands dropped hints but declined to reveal what was coming. Two days later, the wrestling world found out and it was seismic.
Iowa State coach Cael Sanderson was leaving central Iowa for the wrestling oil well around Penn State. It was a crushing move for the Cyclones. Sanderson remains the only NCAA wrestler to finish his career unbeaten, 159-0, with four national titles. He did it at Iowa State. As head coach, he guided the Cyclones to three Big 12 titles and three top-5 NCAA finishes in his three seasons.
Not since Dan Gable left Iowa State for Iowa in the mid-1970s has any change altered the wrestling landscape like this one. Gable famously took over at Iowa in 1976 and led the Hawkeyes to 15 national titles in 21 years. In seven seasons with the Nittany Lions, Sanderson has five national titles. Since his first NCAA title in 2011, Iowa has none.
Before Sanderson arrived, Penn State was a solid second-tier program. But since the mid-1950s, it never finished higher than an NCAA runner-up, and that was in 1993. With many of the nation’s best wrestlers located within a 300-mile radius of State College, the program underachieved. Sanderson changed that label within a year.
“I think for a long time people have been saying that (Penn State was a sleeping giant),” Brands said. “Then it’s a matter of getting the right catalyst to make that into something big. It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen. So we haven’t done our job maybe.”
In wrestling, Iowa is every team’s biggest rival. Iowa State, that goes without saying. Minnesota has wrestled the Hawkeyes 101 times and several times for the top national ranking. Oklahoma State is the only program that carries a similar wrestling tradition to Iowa. Every other team guns for the brash Hawkeyes, who lead the nation in annual attendance almost every year.
All of those matches carry equal importance to Iowa. In 2015, Brands moved a home dual with Oklahoma State to Kinnick Stadium and set a national record with 42,287 people. But in recent years, the Iowa-Penn State dual carries even greater significance. Currently, it’s the best rivalry in a sport full of them. It matters to both teams and fan bases, who have learned to dislike the other side in equal fashion. The No. 2 Hawkeyes (7-1) host the No. 3 Nittany Lions (7-0) on Friday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (8 p.m. CT/9 p.m. ET, BTN).
Among the nation’s most attended meets, Penn State owns second and third place against Pittsburgh and Ohio State, respectively. Iowa is part of the next 47 duals. In ticket revenue for the 2015 fiscal year, Iowa and Penn State each exceeded $530,000. No other Big Ten program earned more than $250,000. Six didn’t even make $13,000.
Styles, personalities and prominence are involved in this series. Penn State has won five of the last six NCAA titles. Iowa won the previous three. They compete in the same league. Sanderson has his Iowa State background; Brands was a three-time national champ at Iowa. Both were Olympic gold medalists. They are the major faces and forces in the sport. And they are as competitive as you’ll ever find two people.
“The respect is there,” Brands said. “I think it’s mutual, but at the same time we’re after the same thing. We were in Rio together and there’s this mountain with monkeys in there and it’s a rainforest and we went hiking together. Me, him and one of his assistants. It’s not like a hate there. When it comes to what wrestling needs, it’s not complicated. Freaking go out there and kick people’s butt and be entertaining about it. Maybe we have different ways. He’s more soft-spoken or what.”
— Brett McIntyre (@BrettMcWx) September 6, 2013
The Big Ten’s awkward schedule grants each wrestling team one permanent opponent. For Iowa, that’s Minnesota. Penn State picks up neighboring Ohio State. In 2013-14, Iowa and Penn State failed to land on the other’s schedule. So over a Twitter exchange, Sanderson and Brands set up a two-match nonconference series.
“One thing about Cael Sanderson is he knows how to promote the sport,” Brands said. “He has an idea in his head and he believes in it. That’s put an entertaining team on the mat and then the fans will come. He’s proven that.”
The platitudes are nice among the teams, but they come with an expiration. In the past Sanderson has had run-ins on the mat with Brands. Since Sanderson took over at Penn State, Iowa leads the dual series 4-2. They didn’t meet last season, and Iowa won the last dual two years ago in State College.
Iowa wrestler and Pennsylvania native Michael Kemerer knows several of his opponents and the magnitude of this meet.
“We know it’s a big deal and we love wrestling in big environments,” said Kemerer, who is ranked No. 2 at 157 pounds. He’ll face top-ranked Jason Nolf in his match. “We have the best college wrestling venue in the country, possibly the best venue in the world.
“It’s going to be an awesome environment.
Penn State officials declined to make Sanderson available for this story. On his weekly radio show, he tried to downplay the dual’s significance as just a battle between good teams. Then, as if he didn’t believe what he was saying, he gave in.
“It’s like any other match,” Sanderson said. “It’s … which that’s not true. It’s a big match, we get that. I get that. I came from Iowa State, and I wanted to beat those guys worse than anything and we never did. But they know what’s on the line. You don’t have to tell kids what’s important if they want to win.”
The naturally intense Brands grows tired of talking about Penn State. He switches his focus to the dual, rather than the pomp and circumstance.
‘Give him credit but what are we talking about here?” Brands said. “What are we talking about here? We’re trying to beat him, and he’s trying to beat us. We’re after the same thing.
“I’m really done talking about Cael Sanderson and giving him kudos. I say that jokingly.”
But his tone suggests just the opposite. If interviewed, Sanderson would be the same way. Two alpha wolves in one Big Ten pack. Only one can lead it. Friday’s dual will determine which one does this year.