Coach of the year: Brands atop wrestling
In three years, no other current Iowa coach has accomplished more than Tom Brands. All others are dwarfed in comparison.
Twice named Big Ten Coach of the Year, the 41-year-old has molded two national champions, three conference champions, and 11 All-Americans while guiding the Hawkeyes to back-to-back Big Ten and NCAA titles.
But Brands’ reach as a coach extends further than his accolades, junior 133-pounder Daniel Dennis said. The former Olympic gold medalist has an uncanny knack for motivational speaking.
“Tom keeps us grounded when we’re getting too high up and we’re getting talked about too much,” Dennis said. “Which is extremely important because if we get too high, we’re going to let our guard down, and we’re going to get beat.”
Nearly two months ago at the NCAA championships in St. Louis, that almost happened.
Iowa entered the final day of competition down 3.5 points with four wrestlers in the consolation bracket, one in the finals, and Ohio State threatening to unseat the Hawkeyes from their top-ranked perch.
But a serendipitous turn helped Brands and company claim the school’s 22nd team title by 4.5 points without crowning a single individual champion. Iowa hadn’t accomplished that feat since 1978, when legendary Hawkeye coach Dan Gable stood at the helm of the program.
“We were very open to lose the national tournament this year, and [Brands] let us know that,” Dennis said. “He was going into that tournament knowing it was going to be a fight, and it’s always going to be a fight. He knows that more than everyone else, and sometimes, I think we as athletes forgot that.”
Brands communicates more than winning, though. He communicates living a lifestyle that produces success in all facets of life, which begins in the practice room.
“As far as getting the most out of guys, you just have to get them excited to come into that room every day,” Brands said. “As a coach, you have to help facilitate that, and that means you’re throwing a lot of things at them that builds their confidence and that test them every day.”
Early in the season, he certainly tested heavyweight Dan Erekson, who struggled against top-tier competitors until his head coach intervened.
After talking with the junior’s parents, Brands found a way to break through Erekson’s mental barriers. And by the end of the four-month season, the Eagle, Idaho, native was able to contend with the nation’s best, winning an individual Big Ten title and placing fourth at the NCAA championships to earn All-American status.
It’s an accomplishment Brands attributes to both Erekson and the assistant coaching staff. Although, he recognizes the rewards are deeply personal.
“To be able to get through to him, it’s incredible,” Brands said. “And not because you’re doing your job at a higher level, but more because you’re seeing success. That’s really what it’s all about.”
The effects didn’t go unnoticed by Erekson, either. He remembers finishing several end-of-practice workouts last season and being amazed by his own performance.
In turn, that’s sparked an undying devotion.
“He pushed me to a limit that I didn’t know I could go to until I hit it,” Erekson said. “It’s almost like he knew me more than I knew myself, and that just helped me for the rest of the season. He helped me realize that I was a lot tougher than I thought I was. “I’ll do anything he tells me now.”
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