Commentary

Hawkeyes building new dynasty with veteran wrestlers, committed transfers

Originally Published: March 23, 2008
By Andy Hamilton | Special to ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- Standing on a platform of champions above a sea of black and gold-clad fans late Saturday night, Brent Metcalf finally cracked a smile.

Hours earlier, the ultra-intense Iowa sophomore led the Hawkeyes to a long-awaited NCAA title and grabbed one for himself, too, only to be left unfulfilled with the manner in which he won. Irritated he surrendered two early takedowns on the mat's edge in the process of rolling up a 14-8 win in the finals against Penn State's Bubba Jenkins, Metcalf was easily the tournament's least satisfied champ on a night when he was also voted the event's most outstanding wrestler at the Scottrade Center.

"I'm happy with the win, but not so much the performance," he said minutes after expressionlessly leaving the mat. "I don't like giving up points right off the beginning. I don't care what people say that that kicks you in the butt and boosts you. That's not how you want to wrestle and that's not how I want to wrestle. Those two takedowns were both on the edge. The philosophy of Brent Metcalf and the philosophy of Iowa wrestling is to wrestle on that edge, and that's where I failed."

But Metcalf was in better spirits by the time the Hawkeyes arrived at their downtown hotel, where hundreds of Iowa fans crammed into a ballroom and celebrated the program's return to glory into Sunday morning.

"We did a good job, we had a great season, and the important thing to remember is we're not stopping here," Metcalf said to loud cheers of his adoring fans when handed the microphone. "We've got more work to do and we're never satisfied."

The Hawkeyes picked up individual gold from Metcalf and repeat champion Mark Perry Jr. at 165 pounds, and had five others earn All-America honors, culminating a three-day tournament Iowa led from start to finish en route to the program's 21st NCAA title and first since 2000. The Hawkeyes piled up 117.5 points, theoretically locking up the championship Friday night and deflecting all suspense in the team race to the chase for second.

Surprise runner-up Ohio State used championship wins from J Jaggers at 141 pounds and Mike Pucillo at 184 pounds to vault into second with 79 points. The Buckeyes were a nice story during their charge up the standings, but Iowa was the story in college wrestling this season.

[+] EnlargeBrent Metcalf
AP Photo/Tom GannamBrent Metcalf had little trouble with Penn State's Bubba Jenkins.

The Hawkeyes cranked out 20 titles during a 26-year stretch when legendary coach Dan Gable's teams ruled the sport. But other programs steadily gained on them, and eventually passed, after Gable's retirement in 1997. The Hawkeyes finished 87 points behind champion Oklahoma State in 2005 and 52.5 back of the Cowboys the following season. Ultimately, coach Tom Brands, a Gable disciple, was brought in after two years at Virginia Tech to restore Iowa's dominance.

Brands returned to the Hawkeyes with five of the wrestlers he recruited to Blacksburg. They believed in the 1996 Olympic champion enough to give up a year of eligibility to follow him to Iowa. Three of the transfers -- Metcalf, 133-pound runner-up Joey Slaton and Jay Borschel, who placed third at 174 pounds-- were instrumental in Iowa's national tournament performance.

"We've been working on it for a couple years and waiting for everyone to get on board with his mentality and his attitude where every guy at his weight class is thinking he's going to win the championship and he's the toughest S.O.B. out there on the mat," Borschel said. "Finally, guys are starting to believe 'I'm the best at my weight class and I'm competing for the championship.'"

Nobody seemed happier about Iowa's turnaround than Perry. The No. 1 recruit in the country five years ago, wrestled on national championship teams at prep powerhouse Blair Academy in New Jersey and turned down offers from the top collegiate programs -- including the opportunity to wrestle for his uncle John Smith at Oklahoma State -- for a chance to win titles with the Hawkeyes.

Perry knew Iowa was headed back to the top under Brands, but he wondered whether his time with the Hawkeyes would run out before they got there.

"The way it developed so quickly really shocked me and the older guys and pretty much everybody," he said. "It just all fell together so quickly. When the season started, I really had no clue how tough we were going to be."

Iowa finished eighth last year in the first season under Brands, 41 points behind tournament-champion Minnesota. But the Hawkeyes quickly asserted themselves as a title threat at the beginning of this season and continued to strengthen their grip on the No. 1 ranking throughout the year.

[+] EnlargeJ Jaggers
AP Photo/Tom GannamOhio State's J Jaggers, left, led the Buckeyes to a surprise second-place finish.

Wrestling with the aggressive brand brought to the program by Gable and preached by Brands, Iowa won 28 of its 36 matches during the tournament's first two days to end its title drought. The 38.5-point gap between the Hawkeyes and Ohio State matched the 10th-largest margin of victory in tournament history.

"That's a tribute to our guys and how they approached it," Brands said. "They came in here to win and not only win and squeak by, but to dominate."

The title had a Gable feel to it, with Iowa owning the tournament and its awards ceremony.

Brands was voted the national coach of the year by his peers, Metcalf walked away with the tournament's outstanding wrestler award and the Hawkeyes left with two individual championships and seven medalists for the first time since 2001.

"That's taking some hardware home, that's what Gable used to say -- let's go in there and steal all the hardware," Brands said. "That's fun and kind of cocky to say and everybody here will use it against me, so I'm not going to give them any firepower."

With Metcalf leading the charge and four other All-Americans coming back, Iowa is set to make another run next year.

"It's trouble for the country," Perry said. "They're building a machine. The kids are so close and that's so big -- the unity we developed in one year. We didn't have any for as long as I've been here. But it was awesome to be part of this team."

But nobody standing on that platform of champions at the Iowa victory celebration was satisfied -- especially not Metcalf.

"The Iowa program is building, and it's working toward dominance," he said. "[Winning by] 30 points isn't enough. We want to set the record. I don't know what it is, but we want 300 points -- if that's possible -- that's the direction we're heading. We're enjoying our win, but we've still got work to do."

Andy Hamilton covers wrestling for the Iowa City Press-Citizen.

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