Iowa wrestling is in the midst of its best season in several years -- the Hawkeyes are 11-0 in dual meet competition this season, including 8-0 in Big Ten action. That includes a win over #2 Penn State in one of the most hyped up dual meets in recent memory. Last weekend's win over Michigan granted Iowa a share of the Big Ten regular season (dual meet) championship (Iowa can win that title outright with a win over Minnesota on Saturday night). Iowa is also ranked #1 in every poll and poised to end long droughts for a Big Ten championship (five years) and an NCAA championship (10 years): they have a wrestler ranked in the Top 10 at all 10 weights, including eight ranked in the Top 5 at their respective weights. This looks to be the best Iowa team since the 2010 team that steamrolled the field on the way to Big Ten and NCAA championships. We'll know in about a month if this team can be the first Iowa team since that one to hold the NCAA team championship trophy aloft.
But whether they win it all next month or not, the Iowa athletic department is all-in on the brain trust that's put Iowa wrestling in this position, which they made very clear today by extending the contracts of head coach Tom Brands, associate head coach Terry Brands, and assistant coach Ryan Morningstar through the 2025-26 season. Tom Brands has been the head coach at Iowa since 2007 and his contract was last extended in 2017, when it was renewed through the 2022-23 season. Terry Brands has been an assistant at Iowa for over 20 years, beginning with nine years under Dan Gable and Jim Zalesky (1992-2000), and adding a decade-plus since returning to Iowa to coach under his brother Tom in 2009. He was promoted to associate head coach in 2011. Morningstar was a wrestler at Iowa during their national title three-peat from 2008-10 and he's been an assistant coach at Iowa since 2012. He's widely regarded as one of the best recruiters in the nation and he's been a key factor in Iowa's ability to land several blue-chip recruits in recent years.
Brands & Co. are in line for pay raises with this contract extension as well. Per Cody Goodwin at Hawk Central, Tom Brands made $190,000 in base pay this season; that's set to jump to $350,000 in base pay next season and gradually escalate to $400,000 in 2024-25 an 2025-26. He's also set to receive an additional $100,000 per year from "guaranteed annual income" (i.e., I-Club appearances, TV and radio commitments, etc.). Terry Brands' base pay is set to rise to $205,000, while Morningstar's base salary will rise to $110,000.
Brands' overall numbers at Iowa are beyond reproach: in 13+ years, Brands has won four Big Ten championships and three NCAA championships, while also winning over 90% of his dual meets (229-23-1). Among current coaches only John Smith and Cael Sanderson can match those accomplishments. Of course, the catch is that just one of those Big Ten championships has come in the last decade, while 2020 will mark the 10-year anniversary of Iowa wrestling's last national championship. For a fanbase that saw Iowa win 23 of 36 championships from 1975 to 2010, that 10-year gap has been interminable. Penn State rose up and usurped Iowa as the pre-eminent power in the sport, winning eight of the last nine titles. In fact, Iowa hasn't even been the second-best program in the Big Ten over the last decade -- Ohio State (led by another former Iowa wrestler, Tom Ryan) has taken over that mantle, with an NCAA championship in 2015 (which was also Iowa's only top-two finish since 2010) and runner-up finishes in each of the past three seasons.
The pressure is on for Iowa to break through and add to its championship collection. The good news is that Iowa hasn't been in a better position to do so since arguably that last title-winning team they fielded in 2010. Iowa has a solid handful of potential NCAA finalists, led by top-ranked Spencer Lee and Michael Kemerer. They also have an overall lineup that, if healthy, could place an All-American at all 10 weights (something only one other team has done: 2001 national champion Minnesota), with many wrestlers poised to finish on the top half of the podium. Even better: every single starter on this team is set to return next year, minus Pat Lugo at 149 lbs. Iowa should be poised to contend for top honors once again next year. And that, as much as any current success, is likely what these contract extensions (and raises) are about: recognition of the work that the Iowa staff has done to put Iowa back into a position to legitimately contend for the top honors in the sport. The trick now is to turn that contention into actual championships.
Meanwhile, this news follows on the heels of some other significant off-the-mat news for Iowa wrestling: the Iowa Board of Regents' formal approval last week of plans for a new, $20 million training facility for the wrestling program. The training facility, which is set to be located south of Carver and across the street from Duane Banks Field (there's currently a cluster of trees there), would be a considerable expansion from Iowa's current facilities inside Carver, as Chad Leistikow described at Hawk Central:
It would offer 37,000 square feet of operating space on two levels and would include men’s and women’s locker rooms, a wrestling space about twice the size of the current room, a strength-and-conditioning center, therapy rooms for recovery, offices for the coaching staff and a “Hall of Champions” space that honors a rich Hawkeye wrestling history that includes 23 NCAA championships and 84 individual national titles.
Iowa would still wrestle duals inside Carver-Hawkeye Arena (when you can easily average 8-9000 fans per dual, there's no need to build a smaller facility to host dual meets), but everything else would move to this brand-new facility, which would also be home to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club and help serve as a training platform for Iowa alums' post-college World Championship and Olympic aspirations. The facility is set to be funded by private donations entirely (Brands & Co. have currently raised about $10 million so far, or about half the estimated total price tag). Much more information on the project, including proposed renderings of what it could look like, are available here.
Much like it's been in football, wrestling facilities have been one of the latest arms races in college sports, at least among the teams at the very top of the sport. Ohio State and Penn State have recently opened shiny new facilities and Oklahoma State is seeking to build new facilities of their own; this project is a step to help Iowa keep pace with those programs. And, frankly, the Hall of Champions space seems like a long overdue feature on campus -- Iowa wrestling has one of the richest, and most trophy-laden, histories in all of college sports, so finding a way to celebrate and honor that history with the public is a no-brainer idea.
Big things are happening for Iowa wrestling lately -- both on the mat and off. After a decade on the sidelines, can Iowa return to a spot atop the sport it dominated for over two decades? We sure as hell hope so.