In 2007 the University of Iowa handed over the keys to their blue blood program to one of their star alumni to rejuvenate the program which had taken a tumble from the days of Dan Gable. Tom Brands has now been at the helm for 13 seasons in Iowa City and during that time he has produced three NCAA team titles and helped lead a multitude of individual performances worthy of all-time status. As Tom enters season number 14 and is in search of the first team title in a decade we wanted to reflect back on the top wrestlers at each weight in the Tom Brands Era… The Best of Brands.
*Obligatory note we are only considering college accomplishments, during the NCAA season, for this list. All post-collegiate honors, or freestyle accolades do not apply.
The Best: Matt McDonough (2010-2013)
For once, time is currently on our side for making this debate much easier. There is no questioning that current Hawkeye junior Spencer Lee is a phenomenal talent, perhaps one of the best to ever come through the program, which is saying something. For the time being it’s hard to argue against the accomplishments of Matt McDonough and his justification for the top spot.
As a competitor he was a three-time All-American, competing in three NCAA finals, and winning two of those matches. As a freshman he helped his team win a NCAA title, the last title won by the Hawkeyes in 2010. While McDonough was a blue chip prospect in high school, there weren’t many pundits projecting the career this Iowa native ended with. After winning a national title as a freshman McDonough cemented himself at the top of his weight class, and had it not been for an untimely injury during his senior year, he could have been the first four-time All-American under Brands.
Runner-up: Spencer Lee (2018-Present)
In one year’s time this debate could get very interesting between McDonough and Lee. Right now McDonough can hang his hat on the fact that he has three NCAA finals appearances to Spencer’s two. McDonough also won a team title, but that doesn’t necessarily factor into comparing two wrestlers careers except maybe as a ultimate tie breaker.
However, what Spencer has in his corner is the fact that he was able to win his second NCAA title by his sophomore season, and that obviously means his ability to win four titles overall remains very much on the table as we head into the second half of his career. In 2020 we could see Lee jump to the top spot without question, and Lee will be very much in control of that happening.
If Lee goes on to win his third NCAA title he probably has the justification right there to overtake McDonough, but with Iowa positioned as a team title contender in 2020 he could also match the current leader’s accomplishments in that department as well.
Missed the cut: Thomas Gilman (2015-2017)
What is crazy to think is that Thomas Gilman, one of the biggest faces of the Iowa program the past five years is going to miss the cut for Best of Brands. In his time as a Hawkeye he put together three podium finishes a fourth, second, and third place finish. I know I already limited the inclusion of post-college accolades, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the year Gilman took third in the country was the same year he took second in the WORLD competing for Team USA at the Freestyle World Championships. Gilman came close on several occasions on winning a NCAA title and due to the strength in the room he didn’t have the luxury of being a four year starter, despite the fact he would have likely earned All-American status as a freshman had it not been for his teammate, who we will discuss next.
The Best: Cory Clark (2014-2017)
Bringing home the top spot at 133 pounds is fairly recent graduate Cory Clark, who was a four year starter for Tom Brands, with three of those seasons at 133 pounds. There was much said about Iowa’s 2011 recruiting class bringing in both Gilman and Clark, who looked to be slotted at 125 in their future. Eventually Clark made the move to 133 and really benefited from not having to battle his weight in addition to the wrestler across from him.
Clark’s first season was a fifth place finish at 125, followed by three straight finals appearances at 133 pounds. As a senior he managed to capture a national title, with one shoulder and half a hand. Combined with this weight’s runner-up, the Hawkeyes had a finalist at this weight for five years running thanks to Clark and Ramos.
Runner-up: Tony Ramos (2011-2014)
Just behind his former teammate and roommate is Tony Ramos, who was a four year starter at this weight. After just missing the podium as a freshman, Ramos counted down from three to one in sequential order, taking third, second, before eventually winning his NCAA title in 2014.
Ramos was a big fan favorite during his time in a Hawkeye singlet, and many reflect back on the big moments of his career as one of their all-time favorite moments as a Hawkeye fan. His pin against Penn State’s Jordan Conaway was an instant iconic moment for both his career and Hawkeye history.
Missed the cut: Dan Dennis (2006-2010)
For years Dan Dennis was remembered by Hawkeye fans as the epitome of coming so close to achieving a lifelong goal only to have it snatched away at the last moment. Of all the wrestlers on this last there is little doubt that Dennis has the most unique story of wrestlers to compete for Tom Brands. From never winning a state title in high school to NCAA finalist, from living out of his truck to wrestling for the USA at the 2016 Olympics there is no denying Dennis has indeed lived a very interesting life.
We first saw Dennis out of necessity as a true freshman at 133 pounds. He then redshirted in his second season and sat behind NCAA runner-up Joey Slaton as a sophomore. As a junior he had his coming out party taking seventh in the nation at 133 pounds and a year later he would wrestle for a NCAA title. With the match nearly in hand Dennis gave up a last second takedown to Minnesota’s Jayson Ness in a moment that lives on in Hawkeye infamy to this day.
In the end Dennis did not let that loss define him and he would later make an even bigger dream, wrestling at the Olympics, come true.
Let us know if you agree with our picks for the ‘Best of Brands’ team.