It can be intimidating to follow in the footsteps of one’s mentor, especially if that mentor happens to be the mastermind behind one of college athletics’ longest-running dynasties. But that’s not the case for University of Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands.
In fact, when Brands accepted the offer in 2006 to lead the Hawkeyes on the mat, he invited Dan Gable, who coached Iowa to 15 national titles during his tenure, to join him as an assistant. Though Gable has since relinquished that position, he remains on the athletics department staff and is a trusted confidante to Brands.
After spending two years in the top spot at Virginia Tech University, Brands says he was thrilled to return to the Iowa campus, where he won 95 percent of his collegiate matches, was a four-time all-American, and served 12 years as an assistant under Gable and then Jim Zalesky. The onerous task of meeting fans’ high expectations and restoring the program to a position of dominance does not deter the 1996 Olympic gold medalist. It motivates him. It pushes him. Every loss he has endured, including those of friends and fellow grapplers, drives him, he insists.
For all the intensity his career demands, Brands does have a soft side. He lights up when he talks about his wife, Jeni, and their three children, Madigan, Kinsee, and Tommy. He eagerly anticipates the periodic pheasant-hunting expeditions he schedules with his staff. He saves every letter he gets—a deep desk drawer in his Carver-Hawkeye Arena office brims with them—and he takes time to respond to each one with a handwritten note.
Brands recently spoke with fyi about Gable’s influence on him, coaching student athletes, and his upbringing.
You’re a native of Sheldon, Iowa, and a 1992 University of Iowa graduate. What drew you back?
Coaching at Iowa was something I have wanted for a long time. I remember working with young kids in the summer wrestling camps with Gable when I was an athlete here. The coaching side of the sport was very attractive to me. I knew I wanted to make a career out of it. I really believed I had the best coach training me and I learned a lot under Gable. I saw how he interacted differently with different personalities who had different needs. Building each person up according to his need—it’s a biblical, timeless principle.
So wrestling under Gable inspired you to coach?
No question about it. His impact on his athletes is legendary, and the ones who had great success are disciples for life. There’s a loyalty there and trust.
Gable’s still pretty involved with the program, and if there is disagreement, we can talk to each other and nobody gets offended. It’s not difficult to work with him, because my ego is in check. We need help and I know that. I’m the first one to tell you that I need help.
Something must be clicking. Iowa was top-ranked this season for the first time in seven years. How do you get the best from your student athletes?
By having high standards that aren’t compromised. If you like to do things that are contrary to a championship lifestyle, you do those in extreme moderation. It’s called discipline lifestyle—that’s what we preach all the time. I’m a wrestling coach first, and I always will be, but that doesn’t mean that the academics aren’t right up there. We are making progress—our academics are coming up. There’s no reason why you can’t do well both on the mat and in the classroom.
What do you find most rewarding—and most challenging—about being a collegiate coach?
The most rewarding part is seeing success. These guys set out to accomplish goals and then they start attaining them. Let’s not mince words here, winning is important. Division I athletics is big-time wrestling. These kids come to school to get an education but they also come to school to win wrestling matches and championships. And when they do, it’s an incredible feeling for them and their families.
The most challenging thing is also rewarding and that’s dealing with individuals, trying to get them from here to there—or, if they’re already there, keeping them there.
What is your coaching style?
It’s never [being] satisfied. You’re going to get compliments, but if you’re looking for a compliment on any given day, it’s not going to happen. We had two or three guys who did a good job [against Oklahoma State] and all they got for it was a hand slap. In this sport, you’re supposed to go and take something from somebody and hurt them on the scoreboard and hurt them emotionally and physically. When you do that, it’s an unbelievably, intensely satisfying feeling, but that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Is there anything you despise more than losing?
It’s not really about the winning and losing, it’s about seeing success. Sometimes success can be effort, but usually if the effort’s there, you’re going to have your hand raised on the mat. Sometimes a guy falls short but there was an unbelievable challenge and now we know we made progress. So we’re better prepared the next time. What I despise most is lack of effort, lack of attitude.
When did you get involved in wrestling, and why?
Fifth grade. I have a twin brother, Terry [a 2000 Olympic bronze medalist who also competed for Iowa], and wrestling was a legal way for us to beat each other up, as brutal as that sounds. We’d be downstairs and you’d hear the thumping from upstairs and our mom would yell down the stairs, ‘What’s going on down there?’ ‘We’re just wrestling, Mom.’ We might be elbow deep into throwing blows, but for us it was a legal way to resolve conflicts.
Do you still wrestle with each other?
Not much any more. We’re very close, though. He trains Olympic-level athletes in Colorado Springs.
What is it that you love about wrestling?
It’s very demanding and physical—and it takes a lot to be the best. If you cut corners, you’re going to pay for it. Every time out is a personal test. Your opponent is another human being who’s trying to take something away from you, and it’s a test of wills.
With all of your success, both as a wrestler and now as a coach, have you ever experienced a humbling moment on the mat?
You experience humbling moments all the time. When I was a student athlete here, you’d walk in that room and have unbelievable workout partners who could lick you up and down. You didn’t have to go too far to get humbled. That’s why this environment isn’t for everybody, and that’s why we recruit the right kinds of individuals. They have to be very driven, very motivated, and have very high standards. These kids are not looking for a cupcake route; they’ve got to go through the gauntlet daily.
How will this experience serve them later in life?
When things go cattywampus—say, a problem with the family, kids smoking dope, losing their wife or spouse, or whatever—they’ll fight hard for what they believe in and not take the easy way out. In wrestling, you learn not just to survive but to excel. Not a day goes by when we don’t talk about those things.
Who has been the biggest influence on you?
My mom’s very fiery. My dad is very hard-nosed competitive. My parents never drove us, but there were no excuses—ever. If you placed fourth, my dad would say, ‘You were fourth because you decided you wanted fourth. If you want to be the champion next time, then you’ll be the champion. If not, then you won’t be.’ There was no ‘woe-is-me.’
Was your dad a wrestler?
No, but my dad was very tough, and he taught me and my brother more about competition than anybody did when we were growing up in the sport. Even when we wrestled internationally, he impacted us that way.
Do you have any superstitions?
Nothing that’s overboard, but you probably wouldn’t want to live in my head for a day. There’s a lot that goes through that coconut. I’ve got good help here, though, so when there’s something goofy in my head and I want to run with it, I’ve always got great checks and balances. In fact, what I like best about my coaches is that they come to me unsolicited, instead of waiting, afraid. They’ll say, ‘You’re way off base here’ or whatever. It’s fun. It’s been a blast even though we’ve gotten our nose bloodied a lot, last year especially. This year we’re having okay success.
By Sara Epstein Moninger