Iowa wrestlers complete long journey to the top
Jay Borschel shifted in his seat, trying to find a comfortable spot on the University of Iowa team bus bound for St. Louis. He yawned almost uncontrollably. What can you say? Nearly five hours on the road to the NCAA wrestling championships is excruciatingly boring.
Unless, of course, it has taken two torturous years to get to the point of even making the drive.
"This is nothing," said Borschel, the No. 4 seed at 174 pounds. "I'm ready. I've waited long enough."
A story within a story will play out this weekend at the Scottrade Center, site of the 2008 Division I championships. The major headline is the return to prominence -- and the favorite's role -- of the Iowa wrestling team. Perhaps the most renowned program in collegiate wrestling history because of its deep connection to the Dan Gable-coached dynasty from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, Iowa is the odds-on pick to win the team title in St. Louis.
But the secondary story also has resonance, and a tinge of bitterness along the way. It has to do with Borschel and four other Iowa sophomores, four of which will be competing at the NCAAs for the first time -- largely because they were denied a year of their college careers for having the audacity to want to wrestle for a particular coach.
"And," said Brent Metcalf, the No. 1 seed at 149 pounds, "it was absolutely worth it."
That coach, Tom Brands, left his assistant's job at Iowa in 2004 to take over the program at Virginia Tech, a school with scant history in the sport. In short order, Brands, whose fiery demeanor and Gable-esque work ethic led him to three NCAA titles and an Olympic gold medal during his competitive days, turned the NCAA on its ear by securing five significant commitments from elite high school wrestlers.
Of particular note was the geography. Metcalf hailed from Michigan and T.H. Leet from Georgia, but it was the announcement that Brands had signed three native Iowans -- four-time state champs Borschel and Dan LeClere, and two-time winner Joey Slaton -- that superheated the conversation around the Hawkeye state.
Some people saw the wrestlers' decisions as a slap in the face of Iowa's program; others openly worried that the signings signaled the end of the Hawkeyes' ability to annually round up much of the top talent in the wrestling-rich state. But the most direct connection was from the wrestlers to Brands, a propulsive, inspirational coach who had fiercely recruited them for months.
Brands, born and raised in Sheldon, is an Iowan through and through -- but when the Virginia Tech position beckoned, he saw his opportunity to make his own mark as a head coach, and he jumped at it. He didn't foresee that only two years later, the Hawkeyes would release Gable's successor, Jim Zalesky, with a year remaining on his contract and offer Brands what he described as his "dream job" -- head coach of the program once run by the great Gable, the man for whom both Brands and Zalesky wrestled.
But the job came with a nightmarish kicker. When Brands' five highlight recruits to Virginia Tech tried to follow him to Iowa in time for the 2006-07 season, the VT administration balked. Upset at seeing Brands bolt from the Hokies' still-building program after only two seasons, the university refused to allow the wrestlers -- subsequently dubbed the "VT Five" -- to be released from their scholarships. (In Olympic sports at the collegiate level, such "open transfers" are common, allowing the athletes to resume competition without losing a year's eligibility.)
It was a bizarre refusal and one that Tech's athletic department officials admitted they had not enacted in recent memory. But it was, technically, within the NCAA's rules. Virginia Tech wasn't under any requirement to release the wrestlers, all of whom had redshirted their freshman seasons under Brands and hadn't officially competed for the Hokies.
Still, the overwhelming perception was that VT was punishing the athletes for what the school viewed as Brands' transgressions.
"It turned into a pissing contest," Leet said, "and we got hurt."
When subsequent appeals by their families failed, the athletes were faced with a choice: follow their coach and sit out a year, or remain at Virginia Tech and compete for a new coaching staff. It was no contest -- all five wrestlers transferred to Iowa without much of a second thought -- but the price was steep. For most competitors, wrestling ends in college. Borschel, Metcalf and the others had just willingly given away one of their few remaining years of competition.
"But, you know, they weren't Virginia Tech boys. They were Tom Brands' boys," said Gable, who returned to the Hawkeyes' wrestling room full time upon Brands' return to Iowa. "They were really three Iowa kids and a Michigan kid, plus Leet from Georgia. And even though the rules say that you attend a school for the school and not for the specific coach, that's not really the case a lot of the time in our sport -- and it wasn't the case here."
All five wrestlers sat out the 2006-07 season under the NCAA rules, and Borschel's year was further derailed by a concussion that cost him nearly six months of training and competition. But Brands never lost track of his VT Five, constantly finding fierce workout partners for them in the wrestling room, allowing Gable free rein to impart his knowledge and experience, and gearing up for the 2007-08 season.
"That year I took off, I probably learned more about how to wrestle than at any other time in my wrestling life," said Metcalf, 34-1 this season. "We were coming to a new team, but it wasn't really new. I had a whole crew of guys with me, and we knew how to work with Tom. It was more like, 'Everybody, get on board.'"
Although the transition wasn't always smooth, particularly for some of the Iowa wrestlers who suddenly found themselves being coached in Brands' insistent style, the investment has paid rich dividends. Iowa finished the season with a 21-1 dual record -- its only loss was to Oklahoma State in January -- and team titles at both the Midlands Championships and the Big Ten conference tournament.
Of the Virginia Tech transfers, only Leet did not crack the Iowa starting lineup. In St. Louis, Metcalf has his No. 1 seed, and both Borschel and Slaton (133 pounds) are seeded fourth. LeClere has the No. 8 seed at 141. Iowa has four other seeded wrestlers, including defending national champion Mark Perry (No. 2) at 165 pounds.
It has been a long road to the Scottrade Center. And for Borschel, LeClere and Slaton, who grew up idolizing the Hawkeyes' program and dreaming of wearing Iowa colors, it has been the longest of journeys. Those high school titles, achieved among such fanfare because of Iowa's passionate love affair with the sport, seem eons ago.
"It's been so long since then," Borschel said. "Up to then, there was always some goal at the end of each year, but for the last two years, there was really nothing going on for us as a group of wrestlers. But if anything, it kept me focused. I learned so much the last year and a half, two years -- more than I ever could have learned by staying at Virginia Tech.
"It was the right move. I've always said you've got to give up something to get something. But I missed it, you know? We all did."
Mark Kreidler's book "Four Days to Glory," about the historic high school senior seasons of Jay Borschel and Dan LeClere, has been optioned for film and/or TV development by ESPN Original Entertainment. His book "Six Good Innings", about the curious ability of one American town to win Little League championships, will be released in June. A regular contributor to ESPN.com, Kreidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.