Terry Brands: The other brother

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | MARCH 21, 2012 6:30 AM

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An Iowa wrestler sits at his locker, almost ready to hit the showers after practice. Head coach Tom Brands walks over, sits down, and offers some advice — maybe he urges the wrestler to keep his head off the mat. The wrestler nods, and Brands leaves.

Assistant coach Terry Brands walks in moments later. He plops down next to the same wrestler and tells him exactly the same thing. It's a common scene in the Hawkeye locker room.

"And I mean 'verbatim,' " Terry Brands said. "It's funny because it happens a lot."

For almost four seasons now, the Brands brothers — identical twins distinguishable from Carver-Hawkeye Arena's press row only by the way they sit in their chairs — have coexisted on the Iowa coaching staff.

It presents a problem for people in the program who haven't spent enough time around them. Terry Brands says he's "almost sure" there are a number of freshmen on the Hawkeye roster who can't tell the twins apart. People scurrying the halls of the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex often address one coach thinking they are speaking to the other. Terry Brands quickly corrects the mistaken; Tom Brands lets them spend a whole conversation thinking he is his brother.

The partnership has also been a problem for Hawkeye opponents. It has led to two national titles and, most recently, a pair of third-place finishes during what were supposed to be rebuilding years.

"[Terry Brands] brings a lot of energy," Hawkeye sophomore Tony Ramos said. "You think Tom has a lot of energy? We have two of him."

It seemed unlikely years ago, but Tom and Terry Brands make a successful team — a head coach and his top assistant. It's a professional harmony that didn't always seem possible. It may never have been, if Terry Brands hadn't ventured away from Iowa City a decade ago.

A sibling rivalry postponed

The brothers were Iowa assistant coaches for eight years following their illustrious Hawkeye wrestling careers, during which Tom Brands won three national titles and Terry Brands won two. They had spent most of their lives near each other, and almost all of that time was spent competing against each other.

Lifelong friend Shawn Still recalls introducing the twins to hunting as kids, expecting it to be a relaxing outlet for them. By the end of the first day, they were assigning point totals to the shooting of different animals and turning it into a battle of wills.

"They competed over everything," Still said. "It's what drove both of them."

David Ray, who wrestled for the Hawkeyes in the 1980s, was a graduate assistant when the two Brands competed for Iowa. He remembers the twins rarely being allowed to wrestle each other in practice — and often having to be separated when they did.

"You never knew if it was going to come to blows or not," Ray said. "They were getting after each other over a rock-paper-scissors tournament, and when I tried to step in and tell them it was no big deal, they wanted to fight me."

The two Brands became assistant coaches under Hawkeye legend Dan Gable. But Terry Brands left the Hawkeye coaching staff after the 2000 season. He revered Gable. He loved working for a coach who trusted him and let him work with athletes his own way. He says now that if Gable hadn't stopped coaching, he would still happily be his assistant. But Gable retired in 1997, and Terry Brands missed that trust and autonomy.

He dismissed it as the real reason he left, but that sibling competition again popped up to the surface.

"There's a hierarchy in assistant coaches sometimes," Terry Brands said. "It was natural for Tom to progress and to have a position that maybe had more of a voice. And if [Gable's replacement Jim] Zalesky had moved on, there wasn't going to be a chance of me getting that head job."

Growing as a coach

Terry Brands became an assistant coach at Nebraska the following year. He was experiencing a new college program and a new way of doing things for the first time. And for the first time in his life, he wasn't around his brother. It wasn't a difficult adjustment to make, Terry Brands said.

"We were ready — or I was. I don't really care if he was," he said and smiled. "I was ready to leave."

He moved to Montana State-Northern to take another assistant-coach position after one season at Nebraska. Ray — the former Hawkeye graduate assistant who then was the head coach of the Lights — hired him.

Brands received a call from Tennessee-Chattanooga just a month into his time at Montana State-Northern. The Mocs wanted him to be their head coach. The interest was mutual, but he had to honor his commitment and finish the year in Montana.

He spent the season helping Ray coach, washing jerseys, opening concession stands, and performing other grunt work. He loved it.

Ray came away impressed with him as a coach. Ray knew his assistant was a "technique hound," but what impressed him was Brands' skill with athletes' psychological side. Ray often heard what was said in Brands' next-door office, and he liked what he heard.

"He met with the guys and just talked with them, trying to get the most out of them as a person," Ray said. "Even in camps with kids he didn't know, there was a genuine concern for their learning."

While he watched Brands shine as a wrestling teacher, Ray noticed that other aspects of coaching — fundraising, paperwork, dealing with alumni — didn't inspire him.

"He didn't always want to spend time doing that stuff," Ray said. "He just wanted to train student-athletes. He still wanted to be a head coach — and needed to be. And he was a great head coach and would be anywhere.

"But that's not his dream job."

'With wrestling, I see things very clearly'

Brands talks glowingly about his three years at the head of Chattanooga's wrestling program. The Mocs improved from 6-17 in his first year to 14-10 with a conference championship in his third.

Tyson Thivierge, who wrestled at Montana State-Northern while Brands was an assistant there, made the move to Tennessee to coach under Brands after graduation. By then, Brands had realized the importance of freedom as a coach; he made sure to give that to his eager young assistant.

"I wrestled a different style from what he did, as more of a scrambler," Thivierge said. "And he wanted the guys to see that style, too, so sometimes, he would just turn practice over to me. I really respect him for that."

Brands was thrilled by being a head coach. The program, he said, "holds a piece of my heart."

"With wrestling, and not so much other things in my life, I see things very clearly immediately," he said. "And all those years, I had notes and notes of things I felt maybe needed to change, but I didn't have the ability to implement that. As a head coach, it was very gratifying to see those things change and then play out the way I knew they would."

Family reunion

Still believes that the brothers missed each other during their years apart — although they don't admit it.

"I think so," Still said. "It wasn't like you could ever hang out with one and not the other … I always knew they would end up coming back together."

They did.

Terry Brands spent three seasons at Chattanooga and another three as the resident freestyle coach for USA Wrestling.

Then, in 2008, he joined the coaching staff of the reigning national champion — the Hawkeye coaching staff headlined by the brother he used to want so badly to beat. After running his own program in Tennessee, how could that be enough?

The answer, Terry Brands said, is that he and Tom Brands have the same trust he experienced under Gable. Terry Brands has the freedom to challenge his brother and often does. The brothers have plenty of "fire," Terry Brands said. "And maybe even a little bit of antagonistic fire." But now the brothers can direct that fire toward a common goal. Terry Brands said he knew returning to Iowa and reuniting with his brother — no matter whose title said what — would allow him to do his best coaching.

"I would say this is where I'm the most misunderstood," he said. "I don't need to be the 'guy in charge.' The title stuff didn't matter to me, and it still doesn't matter to me. If I want to implement something with [Hawkeye sophomore] Derek St. John, can I not because I'm an assistant? No. That's why I like it here."

He proved that in April 2009, when legendary Iowa State wrestler and coach Cael Sanderson left Ames for Penn State. Later that month, Terry Brands turned down a chance to become the head coach of the Cyclones. He said officials tried to sell him on the wrong things; they focused too much on beating Iowa and competing with Tom Brands and not enough on winning championships. Rather than make national headlines, he stayed put and had his title bumped from assistant coach to associate head coach.

"Let's say I went to another place someday," he said. "My excitement wouldn't be about the press conference of the hiring. The press conference would probably be boring to people. They'd go, 'We hired this guy?' They wouldn't understand until later that this guy is one day at a time, solve problems, and move forward."

The other side of town

Sports Illustrated published a feature on the Brands brothers in 1996.

"There's nobody in this world I love more than Tom … but that doesn't mean I go to his house for tea and cookies," Terry Brands told the magazine, noting that they lived on opposite sides of Iowa City. "The truth is, we just don't get along."

This reporter reminded him of that line and asked him if it had changed.

Before he had a chance to come up with a neatly packaged answer, he grinned. And despite the maturation, the success, and the national titles, he couldn't help himself.

"Well," he said, "we still live on opposite sides of Iowa City."

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