Noise doesn't phase Iowa's Gilman

BY CODY GOODWIN | MARCH 06, 2015 5:00 AM

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Brad Hildebrandt was driving on Wednesday afternoon when he got a call from someone who wanted to talk about Thomas Gilman. Of course, he said, but he had to pull over and park because Gilman “excites me that much.”

Hildebrandt then told a story. Back when he wrestled for Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha, where he won four Nebraska state championships, Gilman was always 15 minutes early. Morning weights, practice after school, before the team left for an away meet — literally everything.

Success at Skutt is nothing new — the program has won 17 team state titles in the last 18 years — but Gilman’s habits were something Hildebrandt, the Skyhawks’ wrestling coach, wasn’t accustomed to.

“I would say, why are you always so early?” Hildebrandt said. “And he would say, ‘Coach, if I’m not 15 minutes early, I’m late.’ That’s just the type of attitude he has. He has this drive, and I love it.”

Gilman’s desire to be the best has captivated Black and Gold wrestling fans for a couple of years now. His will to learn and win has forced even the most casual fan to watch when he steps out on the mat. But it has also caused him to be one of the most criticized athletes in Division I wrestling.

The sophomore has built himself into a character that most wrestling fans love to hate. Heads turned and eyes rolled when Gilman spoke in the preseason about he and Cory Clark being one of the best lightweight duos Iowa’s ever had. When the Hawkeyes traveled to Minnesota, he made a series of power moves that left many questioning his level of discipline. Those questions became an intense dislike after his roller-coaster performance at the National Duals.

“I’ve always been like that,” Gilman said. “People are just paying attention to it now that I’m in college, at Iowa, and I’m winning matches. People are maybe noticing it more and paying attention because they love to talk about our program.

“But as long as the Iowa fans love me, that’s all I really care about.”

• • •

Confidence comes in many forms and can be interpreted differently depending on who receives the message. Where someone sees assertiveness and credence, another might see arrogance and egotism. It is hard to please the majority, which is why Gilman does not try to.

“He kind of likes that — not bad boy, but that go-against-the-grain persona,” Hildebrandt said. “That helps his wrestling. That gives him a mental edge.”

The stories can rub some the wrong way, but they are also relatively entertaining. During the Iowa-Minnesota pre-dual handshakes, Gilman broke through the Gophers’ huddle to find Ethan Lizak and shake his hand. Before matches, he wears cut-off sweatpants. When he speaks to the media, he’s very analytical and aware, and he does not shy away from correcting wrong “information.”

After Gilman tried to humiliate Illinois’s Dominic Olivieri on Jan. 16, someone asked about how Iowa struggled in scoring just two first-period takedowns. Gilman looked down, then locked eyes with the reporter, and responded: “You mean two guys scored first-period takedowns — because I had three.”

“He’s a very introspective kid,” Hildebrandt said. “He wants things done right. That’s how he goes about his technique. If we were doing individuals or technique work, he would do the same thing over and over.

“It might be 45 minutes to an hour because there was one thing he wanted to master. We’ve never had a kid just be able to lock in like that.”

That acuteness in the practice room has intensified as he has grown older, and it helps Gilman in two ways. It gives him the confidence that he can beat anybody, for one, but it also assures his teammates that, when he’s on the mat, he’s out there to win for them, too.

Humility can sometimes be a reminder of the latter. After Gilman was upset by Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Sean Boyle during the National Duals, teammate Sammy Brooks found him and told him to get his head out of his “you know what.” Gilman responded by beating Cornell’s Nahshon Garrett, the defending NCAA finalist.

“You’ve got to realize: There are nine other guys who need you,” Gilman said after the victory.

That’s another thing about him: He is undeniably team-first, and the stories are just as revealing.

He won a tournament in high school in dominating fashion — so much that he was named the Outstanding Wrestler. But Skutt won the tournament thanks largely to a junior-varsity wrestler who filled in and knocked off a top-ranked wrestler to give Skutt the necessary points to win.

Gilman found his teammate — Hildebrandt said the two were really good friends — after the tournament  and gave him the Outstanding Wrestling award, saying, “You deserve this more than I do.”

• • •

For all the flak Gilman receives, one thing is certain: his teammates still love him. They all know the work he’s put into his craft and how much he’s dedicated himself to performing to the best he can.

“That’s part of the sport, and that’s part of coming to this program,” heavyweight Bobby Telford said. “He didn’t come in here as a freshman workout partner. He came in to make himself better. He didn’t care if it hurt anybody else’s feelings, and that’s the kind of attitude you need to have.”

That attitude has served Gilman well so far. He posted a 24-3 record during the regular season and earned the top seed at 125 pounds for this weekend’s Big Ten championships. He’s in line to not only make a run for his first conference crown but to position himself for a shot at the national title, too.

“That’s what we want to keep doing,” coach Tom Brands said. “We want to keep getting better. Fast — I think fast is a good word for him and how we want him to wrestle.”

If Gilman succeeds, it will undoubtedly spark more talk about him. Maybe people will seethe; maybe they will come around. Gilman does not care. He knows what he’s about, what he wants, and what he must do to get there.

Besides, the chatter is sometimes funny for him. He learned from a guy who was great at creating conversation.

“I love that people hate me,” Gilman said. “It’s like what Tony Ramos used to say: They may not like me, but they’re talking about me.

“They might not like me, but I’m entertaining.”

Follow @codygoodwin on Twitter for updates, news, and analysis about the Iowa wrestling team.

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