IOWA CITY, Iowa — Dan Gable’s shadow looms large outside of Carver-Hawkeye Arena with his bronze statue erect and his fist pointed toward the sky.
“No stalling … execute” is inscribed at the bottom of the statue base. No one associated with wrestling would disagree that Gable’s philosophy of constant attack permeated the sport and especially within his former program.
Gable won 15 national titles in 21 years, including nine in a row from 1978-86. His teams were 98-1 in duals at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, which continues to provide the most intense wrestling pressure cooker the sport has known. For many years, championships at Iowa were defined not by the accomplishment but by the scope.
Tom Brands knows this. He lived it. He lives it now. Brands won three national titles under Gable and an Olympic gold medal in 1996. Nobody exemplifies the Gable inferno that turned Iowa wrestling into a firestorm quite like Brands.
But Iowa wrestling has seen better days. Brands led the Hawkeyes to three consecutive national titles from 2007-08 through 2009-10. Since then, Iowa has finished second just once, third twice, fourth twice and last year, fifth.
Fifth place. At Iowa.
The Hawkeyes failed to earn a single individual champion last year or the year before. At a place where wrestling is so revered, where the school held a dual meet inside Kinnick Stadium and drew 42,287 fans last November, there’s no palate for second place, let alone fifth
Brands knew that last March. At New York’s Madison Square Garden he told reporters Iowa was a “long ways away” from national champion Penn State, which has won five of the last six titles.
It’s through gritted teeth that Brands could dish some self-awareness about a program unaccustomed to failure. It’s his program now. He owns and shapes the legacy. In his analysis, the details matter. That’s what has been driven within his wrestling room in training camp this fall and in individual workouts since mid-March.
“Winning and dominating is very simple to talk about; it’s a simple philosophy,” Brands said. “But finding those ingredients in somebody every day that’s consistent, that’s the challenge, and that’s what everybody’s challenge is.”
“I feel like we’ve taken our medicine a lot these past few years, especially when Coach Brands comes out and says we’ve got a long way to go when compared to Penn State,” said 125-pound national runner-up Thomas Gilman. “That’s really taking our own medicine. He didn’t sugarcoat anything, and that’s good. That’s what we’re going to need to overstep Penn State and whoever else is in our way.”
In reality, Iowa isn’t that far from Penn State. The Hawkeyes return three national runners-up plus two other All-Americans. They’ve got the drive and toughness, but so does every other national contender. It’s the details that Brands referenced that will separate the Hawkeyes from a win or a loss, a victory or a major decision. Bonus points mean the difference between third place and first. At Iowa, anything less than first has a taint about it.
“The expectation every year is to be national champs. Team champs and individual champs from 25 all the way up to heavyweight,” Gilman said. “Are those realistic? Some people say no. I say yes, just because I’m biased and I’m wired a little bit differently. But if we put everything together every single week and every single minute of the match, there’s no reason why we can’t have a national champ from me all the way up to (heavyweight Sam) Stoll and just totally blow everyone out of the water. That’s always the expectation.”
Gilman is an extension of Brands. He’s feisty, tenacious and focused. Gilman has taken charge of Iowa’s wrestling room with a slogan that reads, “Stay clear while machine is in use.” Brands brought a small piece of paper with that motto to his news conference and placed it in front of his microphone.
“It’s a warning to his opponents, in the practice room, and it’s serving a national message that says, ‘Stay clear while machine is in use,'” Brands said.
That mantra no doubt represents Gilman. Does it fit today’s Iowa wrestling program? It’s all about how the Hawkeyes execute the details.