Coaching changes bring back spark to Iowa State-Iowa wrestling
It took two major shifts in the coaching landscape 20 months ago before Iowans could feel the tremors returning to a rivalry that once used to shake the state.
Then all it took was another seven minutes to take the Iowa-Iowa State series to a new, earthshaking level.
"I'm not going to say there's hatred," Iowa's Mark Perry Jr. said. "But the Iowa-Iowa State thing grows on you, and I think the rivalry picked up last year from where it was when it was big, and it might even be more heated now than it's ever been."
Perry got a good feel for the temperature change last year when he was at the epicenter of what might be the most heated moment in 72 duals between the Hawkeyes and Cyclones. And it doesn't figure to be any cooler Sunday when the two teams meet in front of a sellout crowd at Hilton Coliseum in Ames with perhaps the top spot in the national rankings riding on the outcome.
"I think there are going to be quite a few brawls on Sunday," Perry said. "I'm not saying fights, but I think there will be a lot of good action, a lot of good wrestling and guys are going to get after it."
Iowa State will likely enter the dual as the No. 1 team in the country after taking down defending NCAA champion Minnesota over the weekend. Iowa has been ranked as high as No. 3 early in the season, and if the Hawkeyes jump the Gophers in the rankings, it would set up the first No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown between Iowa and Iowa State since 1999.
This is just the kind of plot Iowans envisioned in the spring of 2006 when both schools made coaching changes that rekindled the interest in a series that gripped the attention of the wrestling world throughout the 1980s before the Hawkeyes assembled a 30-meet winning streak over the Cyclones and both programs lost their stature as perennial national championship threats.
Iowa bought out the final year of coach Jim Zalesky's contract on March 29. Hours later, Iowa State called a news conference for later that week to announce Bobby Douglas was stepping down as the coach of the Cyclones. Those moves triggered the return of Tom Brands to Iowa, the arrival of the Cael Sanderson era at Iowa State and the beginning of an eight-month wait for the first dual between the two programs that put their future in the hands of iconic figures from their past.
Much of the buildup leading into last December's dual in Iowa City dealt with the first-year head coaches matching wits for the first time. Much of the talk after Iowa's 24-6 victory centered around a fiery exchange in the middle of the mat that still seems almost surreal to some of those involved.
The first match had yet to come to a close last year and coaches from both sides had already gotten into a verbal exchange that later grew into a heated argument in the middle of the mat with Brands and Iowa assistant Dan Gable on one side and Sanderson, his brother and assistant coach Cody Sanderson and Iowa State assistant Tim Hartung on the other.
"I know I lost myself in the moment and kind of stepped back afterward and said, 'Wow, what was going on?'" Hartung said. "It was crazy. You couldn't hear, you couldn't even hear yourself think during that specific moment. It was nuts."
The squabble started in the final seconds of the 165-pound bout when Perry came out on top of a wild scramble to score a takedown to force overtime against Travis Paulson in a bout between two All-Americans. Perry clutched his left knee at the end of regulation, inciting the Iowa State bench.
"He wasn't hurt," said Hartung, who spent the previous two seasons as an assistant at Iowa under Zalesky. "It was a hell of a scramble, [Perry] was obviously fatigued, but so was our guy. We were ready to continue to wrestle and he takes the injury time. Whatever. I remember Tom was telling me to worry about my guy and that's exactly what I should've been doing. It was crazy, man. I don't really remember much of what was said or hardly even the situation that the two wrestlers were in."
Perry won the match with a takedown midway through overtime that ignited the crowd of 13,732. Seconds later, coaches from both teams were sprinting back to the center to resume the dispute.
"You have to realize you're being looked at as a role model and your job is to display calmness under fire, but you've got to stick up for your athlete," Brands said. "I felt Mark Perry was being assaulted by their coaching staff, so I was out there sticking up for him.
"I remember thinking, 'You're going to be alone here,' and then all of a sudden there's Gable sprinting to the center. That makes a guy feel real good when you've got backup, and Gable is the ultimate backup. I was jawing at Hartung and he didn't care what I was saying. He was jawing at Gable. Cody Sanderson was jawing at Gable. Cael Sanderson was jawing at Gable. It was like I wasn't even there."
The jawing continued in the post-meet news conferences. Cael Sanderson pointed to how easily the outcome could have been different after Iowa won six matches by a collective nine points and said he felt Iowa State controlled the pace of several bouts.
"We didn't take a timeout," Sanderson said. "I don't know how many timeouts they took. We were pushing them all over. They had injury times."
Said Brands: "Our guy took one timeout. It was Mark Perry. We've got to work on that. You know what, I'll throw some fuel right back on that. I had Mark Perry for a year here [as an Iowa assistant] and then Hartung had him for two years. We're still working the kinks out of him."
On his way out of the interview room, Sanderson asked photographers if anybody had caught Gable "flipping us the bird" during the first match.
"I didn't flip him the bird, I flipped him the arm," Gable said. "The bird, I know what that means. I don't know what [the arm] means. To me, it meant, 'Come on, guys.' He had just called me a crybaby right before that or something. Sometimes you get a little emotional, but that's part of the game."
The game has changed. The rivalry that used to shake the state of Iowa has reached a new level on college wrestling's seismograph.
Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
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