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Iowa vs. Penn State: The story behind the tweets

BY CODY GOODWIN | DECEMBER 20, 2013 5:00 AM

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The first tweet was fired at 11:43 a.m. Sept. 5 from a phone somewhere on American soil.

“@TomBrandsHAWK there seems to be something BIG missing on our schedules this year …” it read. The tweet came from Cael Sanderson, head coach of the now three-time defending national champion Penn State wrestling team, who in another life was the most successful collegiate wrestler to ever step on the mat (he posted an astounding 159-0 record and won four national titles at Iowa State).

While the schedule had been out for a month, the tweet spurred uproar from wrestling fans all over the country. Message boards exploded. Tweets flew back and forth between wrestlers and coaches and fans. Iowa and Penn State weren’t scheduled to wrestle during the 2013-14 season, so people started asking if Sanderson and Iowa’s Tom Brands could do anything about it.

Ten minutes later, Brands answered Sanderson from Belarus. It was his very first tweet.

“@caelsanderson yeah. I agree. Let’s do something about it.” Brands wrote.

Sanderson responded by asking if the dual could be at Penn State’s Rec Hall. After a half-hour without a response, Sanderson jokingly hit Brands with a stall warning. It took Brands just seven minutes after the “stalling” call to write that Sanderson owed Iowa two-in-a-row at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Sanderson obliged but asked in return if he could have the locker-room with pink walls — a joke, perhaps. Brands guaranteed the pink walls and a sold-out arena. The conversation ended with a tentative date for the dual.

All the while, wrestling fans around the Twitter-sphere became enthralled by the idea. Collectively, the exchange garnered more than 400 retweets and 350 favorites, while more than 100 others added their remarks.

The Brands-Sanderson back-and-forth was the show, and the audience was doing everything it could to find out more.

But above all, the tweets between Brands and Sanderson caused plenty of observers to ponder a simple question: Could two of the most powerful coaches in the wrestling world really set up a dual on Twitter?

The general consensus was that, no, it probably wouldn’t happen. It was too far-fetched. There was no way a conversation on Twitter could lead to a dual between Iowa and Penn State.

The next day, Sept. 6, both schools announced that Iowa would host Penn State in a non conference dual on Dec. 21.

•••

Here we are now, just a day away from what people are calling the first wrestling dual to be set up over Twitter. Iowa and Penn State are set to wrestle at 8 p.m. on Saturday.

More than three months after the official announcement, the specifics and motivation behind how the dual was scheduled go far beyond social media. It’s a tale that began last spring, was cast aside, and then rekindled again over the summer. There was still some uncertainty in the days leading up to the big announcement that the dual wasn’t going to happen.

It seemed silly not to schedule an Iowa-Penn State wrestling match. The two programs, which have met every year since 1982, have combined to win the last six national titles. They topped the charts last year in average attendance for a dual meet, and when the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions met up on Feb. 1 last season, they brought in 15,077 fans with them, filling Carver-Hawkeye Arena to the top of the bowl.

It was a wrong that needed to be fixed if all was to be right in the college-wrestling world. And because of the determination of two of wrestling’s most powerful coaches — and a bit of help along the way — what’s been dubbed the “national dual” will actually come to fruition, an early holiday gift to those who were first upset back in early August.

•••

When Iowa’s wrestling schedule was released on Aug. 5, fans responded more because of who wasn’t on the schedule as opposed to who was. Both Penn State and Ohio State were missing while Minnesota and Oklahoma State made the cut. Rather than facing four of the nation’s top six programs in the last few years, the Hawkeyes would wrestle just two — along with a few of last year’s basement-dwelling conference foes.

“We knew it was coming. It just didn’t come to our attention. You don’t really look a year ahead, although it was on our radar,” Brands said. “I think it might’ve been mentioned before the season was over. But you don’t really put your attention there.

“But the spring meeting of the Big Ten is where we really started to talk about it.”

Plenty of obstacles were in the way, though. The first struggle was trying to find a date and location for the dual. Logistics came into play, too, as both schools either needed to drop a conference matchup or wrestle the dual as a nonconference contest.

But on top of it all was also an opportunity for both coaches to prove a point.

Over the course of the last year, both Sanderson and Brands have been fighting against a proposal to change the national team championship — which is decided through a point system at the NCAA championships each March — to a 16-team dual tournament. The idea behind the movement is to increase attendance for the sport when, according to both Sanderson and Brands, it wouldn’t help at all.

Take last year’s National Wrestling Coaches Association National Duals, for example. Just over 2,300 fans were in attendance when the four of the nation’s top-six teams — along with Kyle Dake, the former Cornell wrestler who’s been named one of the best collegiate wrestlers ever (he won four NCAA titles at four different weight classes) — were all in the building.

But when Iowa and Penn State met up inside Carver a year ago, the dual attracted almost seven-times as many fans. A dual between Iowa and Oklahoma State, two of the nation’s premier programs, attracted more than 5,500 fans. To attract more fans, Brands says, you needed to pack one arena with two top-ranked teams that had plenty of All-American talent.

“Coach Brands and I decided, hey, we need to take the bull by the horns,” Sanderson said. “We needed to make sure this dual meet happens, and reinforce how big dual meets are right now.

“More than anything we wanted to make sure to put our best product out there for our sport, and a Penn State-Iowa dual is about as good as it gets.”

This year was as good as any to make it happen. Using InterMat, Iowa and Penn State combine to field 19 ranked wrestlers out of a possible 20, making all but one matchup a battle between foes among the nation’s top-20.

A match such as this, in theory, should help the sport grow. That’s the ultimate goal, Brands said.

So back in the spring, when he and Sanderson were talking to try to line up an Iowa-Penn State dual, they knew in the back of their minds what kind of impression they could make. The early talks eventually died down a bit, but they were revitalized again at the 2013 World Team Trials. Brands and Sanderson spoke again when they met up at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, and that’s where things got more serious.

•••

Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta was first approached over the summer about the idea of an Iowa-Penn State dual meet. He, like so many other Hawkeye wrestling fans, knew that the teams weren’t set to wrestle by virtue of the Big Ten scheduling.

Before Brands left for Belarus, he and Barta came up with three different options to schedule the dual. They settled on Saturday inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but a few more problems still needed to be solved. Two big events were scheduled to take place in Carver on that day — a graduation commencement and a women’s basketball game — so for Iowa and Penn State to claim the primetime spot, some shifting needed to happen.

“They were willing to modify it just a little bit,” Barta said. “Clearly, that was a campus decision, not an Athletics-Department decision. But my office, not Tom’s, worked on it. We have a great relationship on campus.”

The graduation ceremonies for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the Tippie College of Business are now scheduled for 9 a.m. — the original time for the commencement hadn’t initially been advertised, Barta said.

Head coach Lisa Bluder’s squad was also slated to host Drake that same day. Barta approached Bluder, proposing that she push the game to 4 p.m., and Bluder agreed to it without much hesitation.

Bluder grew up in Iowa. She graduated from Linn-Mar High School. While Linn-Mar’s wrestling program wasn’t the most successful during her prep days, she still grew up around the sport and knows just how important wrestling is to the state and its fans.

“To us, it was a no-brainer,” Bluder said. “We had a chance for our wrestling team to host the No. 1 wrestling team in the country, Penn State, a huge rival of ours. We had this opportunity, it’s best for the Athletics Department, let’s do it, end of conversation.”

With both the graduation ceremonies and a women’s basketball game now shifted, this allowed for plenty of time to lay the mat down ahead of the wrestling dual. It was a small example of how close-knit the University of Iowa community really is — and it showed how much wrestling really means to the entire school.

“We had several things on campus that were already scheduled,” Barta said. “And to those groups’ credit, they were willing to work with us.

“I think everybody realized what a big event it could be. Campus worked with us to help us get the arena ready. Lisa worked with us, too, so it all came together. Had some of those things not come together, we probably wouldn’t have been able to host the event.”

•••

There’s been plenty of talk about the dual over the last three months. The matchups have been the highlight, of course, but it’s hard to talk about an Iowa-Penn State dual without bringing up the potential attendance numbers.

Iowa held the record for the largest crowd at a college-wrestling meet at the start of the season. In 2008, 15,955 people packed Carver to watch the top-ranked Hawkeyes beat the second-ranked Iowa State Cyclones, 20-15. That record fell this year, when Penn State hosted Pitt in front of 15,996 wrestling fans.

“That’s a big deal,” Sanderson said then. “But I’m sure the record will be broken again here in two weeks” — here, he smiled, a not-so-subtle reference to the dual with Iowa.

Since then, both Brands and Sanderson have talked with media all over the country, explaining again and again how this dual meet came to be, if this will be an issue going forward, and everything in between.

“I can’t really tell you anything that you probably don’t already know,” Sanderson says now. “A motivated Tom Brands is going to get things done.”

And that’s evident just by looking at Iowa’s coach. Sitting inside the Dan Gable Wrestling Complex one day, Brands finished rehashing the story again. In the story, he admitted that his kids set up his Twitter account and that he needed guidance from Sports Information assistant Chris Brewer to write his first tweet.

But above all, you can hear through his voice that he’s excited to wrestle top-ranked Penn State again — Brands owns a 6-1 all-time record over Sanderson, and a seventh win just might propel his team atop those meaningless rankings.

“That’s really what happened,” Brands said at the end of the story. “I was in Belarus, at a training camp, and Cael was back in the United States.

“And then he sent me a tweet.”


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