“I don’t take this lightly,” Tom Brands recently said with an intense tone that sounded way more NCAA Championships-week than offseason. “I have to do a good job.”
Brands was talking about speaking at the June 4 “Gable’s Gold: A Celebration of Dan Gable’s Legacy” reception and banquet at the Coralville Marriott.
Wrestling/coaching icon Gable officially retired from the University of Iowa’s athletic department last Dec. 31. Wrestling luminaries and two of Gable’s athletic directors at Iowa will speak at the event. Among the other speakers is Brands, Iowa’s current head wrestling coach.
This won’t be an I-Club banquet circuit speech for Brands, something in which he has become skilled at getting laughs. He has a relationship with Gable that extends a quarter-century, and wants to hit all the right notes Saturday because “This is my coach.”
Brands is his own man and own coach. But he also is the keeper of the flame that Gable burned so brightly in his 21 years as the coach of Hawkeye wrestling.
When Brands was an 11-year-old in Sheldon, he started learning all he could about Gable. The first time they were in the same building, Brands was in the balcony of Hilton Coliseum, intently viewing an Iowa-Iowa State dual meet in Ames, watching how Gable talked to his wrestlers.
“The first time I was close to him was in 1986 when I went to the national tournament in Iowa City as a birthday present,” Brands said. “I was in the stands. I had my binoculars on him. He kept getting closer and closer and closer. He must have sensed this psycho was 10 feet away with 10-powered binoculars on him. He busted me, so to speak.”
Brands and his twin brother, Terry, signed with Iowa, and combined to win five individual NCAA titles to help Gable add to his dominance of college wrestling, which concluded with 15 national team titles.
“Watching on TV when the black-and-gold were wrestling other teams,” Brands said, “I sure as heck didn’t want to wrestle like the other guys wrestled. I wanted to be with the black-and-gold.”
Who is more qualified to discuss Gable, the coach, than Brands? Besides wrestling for Gable, he was his assistant coach for five years. He had Gable as his assistant for his first season as Iowa’s head coach after he moved back to Iowa from Virginia Tech in 2006 after being the head coach there for two seasons.
Gable then returned to his position as special assistant to the athletic director. “National wrestling ambassador” would have been the more accurate title. But when he coached Iowa, he was Iowa, Iowa, Iowa.
“I hear that Gable is softhearted and caring, and he’s probably more that way now,” Brands said. “But I think he was a very selfish coach, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s why he got guys to win for him. He knew how to win, and he was all about winning. That’s what I mean by selfish.
“He was extremely demanding. It wasn’t some magic where he nurtured you into a championship. One time I got beat at the UNI Open, by Alan Fried of Oklahoma State. He butchered me pretty good in the newspaper. Which is good. This is Division I athletics.
“I don’t think he blew his stack a whole lot, but he was not what you would call a nice guy. He wasn’t trying to be your friend. He was about winning and about winning championships. He had the idea that celebration is important, told us to love the idea of celebration if you do something worthy like winning a championship.”
But Gable may not have ever really celebrated himself. “He’d go on vacation after the season and decompress,” Brands said.
I’ve heard he would sometimes get sick on vacation, probably like the way some people get ill after getting home from a vacation. The adrenaline wears off, and you wear down.
None of those championships were automatic despite what any outsider thought. To use Brands’ word, there was no magic.
“He won nine in a row, a wonderful string,” Brands said. “Think of the battles he had. We won three in a row, and we had some battles. We had guys who could have gone from third in the nation to off the stand in the blink of an eye. Gable had the same battles. He worked hard every day on every person in the program.
“It was brutal. It was tough. But if you embraced it, you became the king of that room. How could you not want to walk into that room and whip every tail? How could you not go to class, not study, not live a socially responsible life, and not go out on the mat in front of 14,000 fans and try to run some son of a gun out of the arena. It was all related.
“It’s still an art getting guys to achieve more than they thought they could. In Gable’s wrestling room, after 80, 90, 300 days, holy cow. You were pretty darn tough. You were pretty darn good. And you battled.”
But the truth is, there are good athletes, there are very good athletes, and there are the elite. The elite have a mentality the rest can’t fully grasp, and the elite can’t fully grasp why everyone else doesn’t share their focus and passion for winning.
“I used to ride with Gable,” Brands said, “and I would ask how a guy can get his priorities skewed. How can they not get it, not just go hard, not win when it’s you against the other guy. He’d be like ‘That’s the battle.’ ”
I asked Brands how he would have fared in the sport and beyond had he gone to another school and wrestled for another coach.
“I was raised by a whiskey-drinking streetfighter,” he said. “I think I would have been OK. But that’s a big head talking.
“The reality is Gable had a profound effect on me and my career. It’s inside of me, in my head, in my heart, in my fiber.
“I still have experiences with him, and we battle sometimes. I don’t cow-tow, either. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still learning. There’s more respect and more learning.
“I don’t think he’s the same guy who coached me. I think he’s become less selfish. He wants to see wrestling flourish everywhere. We’ve probably battled over that point. I don’t care. I’m glad we have the kind of relationship where we can do that.”
Two moments from that relationship of two of the toughest competitors that have passed this way:
1. In 1996, Gable was so nervous before Brands’ semifinal match on the way to his gold-medal win at the Atlanta Olympics that he hyperventilated. To say Gable was emotionally invested is a whopper of an understatement.
2. Gable and Brands were at the 1998 World Championships in Tehran, Iran, where former Hawkeye Lincoln McIlravy was competing. Gable and Brands shared a room. There was one bed. Gable used it, and Brands slept on the floor. Briefly, anyhow.
“A cockroach crawled over me,” Brands said. “I squealed like a little girl. I jumped up into the bed and said ‘I hope you don’t mind.’ We shared that bed for four or five nights.”
Saturday night, Gable gets to celebrate if he lets himself. A ballroom full of people will certainly celebrate his life and career. He will also be the central figure of this year’s FRY Fest in Coralville on Sept. 2.
Brands, meanwhile, sweats out how to express his thoughts on his coach.
“I’ve got to do him justice,” he said. “I don’t know how to do that.”
He’ll do it. If he has to, he’ll battle.