published online: 2/9/2010
Branded For Life
Iowa wrestling coach is enjoying life to the fullest.
By MATT LEVINS
IOWA CITY -- University of Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands sits on the edge of his chair at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, eyes focused squarely on the mat.
Brands' steely blue eyes could burn a hole through his subject, intensity radiating from every pore in his body. He wears his emotions on his sleeve.
Brands no longer competes, but it's almost like he is out on the mat for every match the Hawkeyes compete in.
Brands, a former national champion for Iowa who went on to win world championships and an Olympic gold medal, has an unbridled passion for wrestling.
He has an even greater zeal for life.
Brands is now 41 years old, but you wouldn't know it to look at him. He still has every bit as much energy, drive, intensity and passion for wrestling as he did back in the days when he and his twin brother -- Iowa assistant coach Terry Brands -- did when they were growing up in Sheldon.
Only these days, that passion is for the wrestlers he coaches, the young men he spends hours with every day, trying to help them reach their maximum potential, both as wrestlers and citizens.
"I know where I'm going. I am very confident in my ability. I'm very confident in my athletes, I'm very confident in my program," said Brands, who has coached his alma mater to two national championships in his four years since coming back to Iowa from Virginia Tech. "I have unbelievable support here. I was coached by Dan Gable. I worked for Dan Gable for four years. It's a combination of all the best things. It's the lifestyle that's important. That's what I put my energy into. We have some very passionate people who support this program. I want to honor these people with our performance. What these young men are going through right now is the most important thing."
Brands got his start in wrestling when he was in fifth grade back in Sheldon, a town of about 5,000 people tucked away in the northwest corner of the state. Like many youngsters, Brands learned a lot by wrestling with his brother, whether it be in the family's basement, the backyard or at school.
"I used to scrap around with my brother a lot. It was a great thing," Tom Brands said. "I would beat Terry and then he would do something about it. Then Terry would beat me and I would do something about it. We would go back and forth all the time."
Brands began to develop a passion for wrestling at an early age. He would often dream about being a champion wrestler, about standing on the top of the podium at the Olympic Games, gold medal draped around his neck, the national anthem playing in the background.
"I got into a fight in fifth grade because I told someone my goal was to go to the Olympics," Brands said. "Someone doubted me and that hurt my feelings."
It wasn't long before Brands met up with someone who would have a profound impact on his wrestling. Randy Feekes gave the Brandses the push they needed to get them to the next level. It was Feekes who taught Tom Brands the chicken wing,
Brands credits Feekes for having an early influence on his wrestling career, and his life.
"He followed through on his commitment all the way through high school and college and right on through the international level. What a great way to get started," Brands said. "We would go work out with him three, four times a week. He gave me the foundation for commitment and my work ethic."
In fact, it was through Feekes that Brands was first introduced to Gable.
"The first time I really remember meeting Gable was at the national tournament in Iowa City," Brands recalled. "We were up in the upper level and Rick took Terry and I down on the floor. I was carrying my binoculars. I remember watching Gable through my binoculars, just staring at him. Before I knew it, he was right on top of me, about 12 feet away. He saw me looking at him, so I put the binoculars away and looked away real quick. It was like, 'You caught me man. I was in a trance."
It wouldn't be long before Brands would be seeing much more of Gable. After winning a state title at 112 pounds in 1986, Tom Brands joined his brother in the Iowa wrestling room.
Under Gable's watchful eye, Tom Brands became a four-time All-American at Iowa, winning three Big Ten Conference and national championships. He finished his career at Iowa with a 158-7 record, including 45-0 his junior year.
"It was an incredible, incredible experience," Brands said. "We were held in the highest regard because of the drive and discipline (Gable) instilled in his wrestlers, what we were about and what was inside of us. We had incredible intensity."
Brands took his lumps early on, especially in the training room, but kept coming back for more. It paid off in the end.
"I got beat up a lot, but I never stopped fighting," Brands said. "I never, ever contemplated going anywhere else. I loved it. It taught me that when things aren't going your way, there was almost like a wall of frustration. But when you knocked that wall down, it was awesome. You got better without knowing you were getting better."
"He came in and would take his lumps, but he would bounce back the next day and be ready to administer something. He might get taken again, but he would come back the next day ready to go again," Gable said. "He didn't shy away from tough guys. He learned a lot and he progressed. But he kept coming back, whether he was doing well or he wasn't doing well. He would just come back with a fiery attitude. He spent a lot of hours in that room, especially when he was young. That gave him a chance to go from one level to another. Once he got to that other higher level he just was a really strong guy who developed great scoring situations and he was a fierce competitor. That's probably what separated him from the rest as an athlete. He took it to all the levels he went to. Beyond high school he went to college national championships to world championships to Olympic gold medals."
After three years of winning world championships, Brands realized his lifelong dream in 1996, winning the Olympic freestyle gold medal at 136.5 pounds in Atlanta.
"I trained my whole life for it. I expected to win it," Brands said. "I remember (Mark) Ironside was balling, my wife was fired-up, Terry got out of the arena and was slapping everyone's hands and Gable was hyperventilating before the semifinal match."
Brands credits his wife, Jeni, and his faith in Jesus Christ with helping him pull through the toughest of times in life. When all looks bleak around him, Brands is always able to see the light at the end of the tunnel through his incredible faith.
"My wife has always been a huge, huge supporter," Brands said. "My brother was already off the team then, so it was a family pride thing. I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. I give all the glory to Him."
Brands was an assistant coach at Iowa for 12 years after graduating. He also coached in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens before taking over the helm at Virginia Tech.
Since returning to his alma mater four years ago, Brands has helped Iowa win two straight national championships and 57 straight duals. He is trying to instill that same intensity, that same passion he has for wrestling into his young athletes.
More importantly, he is trying to mold them into productive citizens off the mat.
"As a coach he uses that same kind of attitude. He pushes it on his athletes. But he realizes it's not him and it's somebody else who's got to do it," Gable said. "The thing that amazes me about him so far is that he's developing not only individuals, he's developing a total team. Like for example if somebody goes down, he has another athlete that is able to step up and help the team. That's why they got this streak going. Not because he has 10 starters in there every time, but because he gets kids to step up and perform. Even ones that aren't in the lineup. To me that's pretty impressive."
These days, Brands is a busy man. The Big Ten Conference Championships are on the horizon, with the NCAA Championships looming just a month away.
Even a man with Brands' intensity and passion for wrestling -- and everything he sets his mind to -- has to wind down sometime. He finds the most relaxation with his children -- Madigan, Kinsee and Tommy.
"My one daughter loves to wrestle. I don't push it on her. At her tournaments, I'll do down and hold her shirt and Gatorade. I don't yell and scream and I don't coach her. People want a piece of her because of who she is, but she loves it," Brands said. "My other daughter loves football and my son is a tennis player.
"Wrestling consumes my life 24 hours a day during the season. I am always trying to do something to make this program better. But sometimes I come home and my son or one of my daughters wants to tell me about something they built with their Legos. I pay attention to what they want. I love it. Life is good."