IOWA CITY — You can tell people about other states what this is like. But they’ll never get it unless they see it, hear it, feel it.
It was 11:30 on Friday night, and Iowa wrestling coach Tom Brands was wrapping up a post-match address to about 200 members of Hawkeye Area Wrestling Klub (H.A.W.K) at the University Athletic Club.
“These are the die-hards of the die-hard fans,” Brands said.
Ninety minutes earlier, his third-ranked Hawkeyes had defeated No. 1 Penn State, 22-16, before a sellout crowd of 15,077 in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Brands drops by to meet with the club after all home meets.
“Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don’t,” he said, but he always does. “Sometimes you talk specifics, sometimes you don’t. Most of the time you keep it light.”
H.A.W.K. was formed in 1978 by Hawkeye fans Morrie Adams and Abe Waters as a fan-support organization, a connection between fans and the Iowa team.
“A great thing to keep us big and strong,” said Brands. The club has over 1,000 members.
That would be a lot of fans at a home meet for a lot of college wrestling teams. Things are different here, where the coach gives what amounts to his second post-match press conference, walking around a big room with a microphone while his fans sat at tables and listened intently to every word.
Iowa’s next meet is this Friday at Illinois. Brands relayed to the fans something he told his wrestlers after they had vanquished Penn State.
“Are you going to go into a cold, enemy arena where there’s a thousand people?”
The H.A.W.K. people laughed at that, perhaps unable to fathom how you could have Big Ten wrestling before so few fans. But Brands wasn’t joking.
“It’ll be full, like a little volleyball gym.” That only produced more laughs.
“You guys are laughing, but I’m real serious. That’s the difference between you and me.
“If you’re going in there and be off a little bit because you don’t have 15,000 of your best friends behind you, then let me know and we’ll get somebody in there that’s just excited to compete every time.”
No one laughed at that. You could tell they liked hearing it, though.
What they really enjoyed was what had transpired earlier that evening. The Hawkeyes beat the current king. Penn State is the new big dog of college wrestling, which sits well with no one in Iowa City. It has what Iowa wants, the phrase “two-time defending national-champion.” Iowa was No. 1 under Brands in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Cael Sanderson is an icon of his sport as a competitor. As a coach, some wondered what he was talking about in April 2009 when he left the head coaching job at Iowa State. He spoke of “the limitless potential” of wrestling at Penn State, a school that had won just one NCAA title, in 1953.
Four years later, Sanderson’s Nittany Lions look like as good a bet as any team to finish at the top when the NCAAs are held in Des Moines next month. Even after the loss here.
This was a much-bigger win for Iowa than it was a loss for Penn State. The Hawkeyes felt they needed to do some proving Friday night, in front of those 15,000 “best friends.”
The crowd-noise was loud, but there is loud and then there’s special. The latter is when people are participating in the event, not just reacting to it.
This wasn’t two solid hours of screaming. As a H.A.W.K. member told me after Brands departed their get-together, Iowa fans know when to cheer. They let matches unfold, know when it’s time to push their wrestlers.
When booming “Let’s go, Hawks!” chants came in matches Friday, they were at moments the fans knew were key, when momentum was there for the taking. It wasn’t just during Iowa’s six wins, either. In a couple of their four losses, Hawkeye wrestlers finished strong and were grabbing something for themselves to build upon, and those fans knew that.
Where else do wrestling people truly care this much? Nowhere, and everyone in the sport knows it.
“Carver-Hawkeye is a lot of fun,” said Sanderson. “You’ve got to really appreciate that if you’re a coach or a wrestler or a wrestling fan.”
Des Moines’ Wells Fargo Arena will be Carver West during the NCAAs on March 21-23.
“We will improve this year like we always have, and we’ll be very tough to beat in March,” Sanderson said.
No one remembers the duals along the way once the NCAAs are decided. But Brands, a man with tunnel vision if ever one existed, still found this perspective:
“This was a big dual meet. We pointed toward this. This was one that’s on the calendar that we highlighted.
“Sometimes you feel good. Most times you don’t. We’ve got to enjoy it sometimes.
Fifteen thousand fans and one head coach enjoyed it Friday night. But on Saturday morning, the win was in the rearview mirror. March is coming.