You saw the excitement on Iowa men’s wrestling coach Tom Brands’ face and heard it in his voice. So much so he had to slow himself down several times during the press conference announcing the addition of a women’s wrestling program to Iowa’s athletic department.
“Women’s wrestling is awesome,” Brands said. “It’s great for the women. There is little girls all across the country and the planet that are going to see this. It’s that impactful.”
Excited because it’s something he wanted years ago, and it started with a few, persistent words to athletic director Gary Barta.
“Tom was in my ear three, four, five years ago saying, ‘C’mon, boss, let’s go. Let’s get women’s wrestling added’,” Barta said.
It’s a day Barta calls “historic”. With the announcement, they became the first power five institution to add women’s wrestling. But it wasn’t always a sure thing. The program had been in the plans for a while. Then came the pandemic.
“We halted all conversations about adding women’s wrestling,” Barta said. “We went into crisis mode”
The athletics department’s financial troubles were well documented. They were staring a $50 million budget deficit in the face. Not only could they not add sports, they actually had to cut some.
Then in the fall of 2020 came another blow to the athletics department; a Title IX lawsuit. But those dark times actually ended up being what the school needed to get the momentum going again.
“As part of the Title IX lawsuit settlement, we agreed to add a women’s sport,” Barta said “Our decision was to add the sport of women’s wrestling.”
It was the only decision that made sense.
“If you think about it, men’s basketball and women’s basketball complement each other, baseball and softball complement each other,” Barta said. “At the University of Iowa, men’s and women’s wrestling are going to complement each other.”
Complement and also enhance an already incredible wrestling program in more ways than one.
“It makes the men’s program stronger,” Brands said. “Women’s wrestling from its inception has always made men’s wrestling better, it always has. There is a correlation there, and that’s documented.”
They’ll start competing in 2023 and will offer 10 scholarships. It was made it clear too, that there will be no influence from the men’s program.
“The women will run their program as they see fit,” Brands said.
That doesn’t mean the expectations will be any different though.
“We will hire a coach, it will be the best coach in America,” Brands said. “The stakes are high for the new coach. We’re going to wrestle the best competition in the United States.”
On top of that, they’ll have a brand new wrestling facility to call home. $20 million has already been raised for that.
They’ll start a nationwide search for that coach this fall. Brands will be involved, as will Barta and Deputy Director of Athletics and Senior Women’s Administrator Barbara Burke. Though she didn’t speak, Brands gave Burke tons of credit for her part in making this happen.
“What a catalyst and what a boss,” he said. “I’ve had some great bosses in my career. She tops them all.”
The future is uncertain for the rest of the sport. There’s no other teams in the Big Ten yet, but coach Brands says he thinks other are “close.”
The biggest factor, however, may be that women’s wrestling isn’t yet sanctioned as a high school sport by the state of Iowa. Something Brands hopes to see change soon, to help the sport continue to grow.
“I think in the state of Iowa, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “Let’s not skirt the issue. There’s a little squabble going on in who’s going to own it, which organization. Get over that squabble. You know what, partner up, let’s get some common sense here and get a high school tournament for these girls. They’ve earned it enough, and they need it.”
As for Iowa’s program? The future is bright and this is only the beginning.
It’s exciting now, but look out because I’m telling you, the next steps are really exciting,” Brands said. “This is actually dull for me. This is exciting, but the next steps are more exciting.”