When the last pieces of a giant logistical puzzle finally snapped into place in September, Tom Brands and Cael Sanderson went to their phones to deliver a trail of hints.
It made for terrific social media chatter that leaders of college wrestling superpower programs were volleying messages back and forth on Twitter and rekindling talks of a dual meet that seemingly died months before when Iowa and Penn State released their schedules.
But the Sept. 5 Twitter exchange is just a fraction of the story, a mere footnote in how the two programs came together to set up Saturday night’s showdown between Brands and the third-ranked Hawkeyes and Sanderson’s No. 1 Nittany Lions in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Putting college wrestling’s top two box office draws — the winners of the last six national titles — on the mat together was a months-long process that required the assistance of upper-level administrators, women’s basketball coaches, the Carver-Hawkeye Arena facilities staff and two persistent head wrestling coaches.
“There was a lot of cooperation with a lot of different people,” Brands said. “Sometimes for the better of the sport you have to put energy into things like this.”
Brands would rather talk about the product on the mat Saturday night than how the dual came together. He would rather get into the challenges Iowa faces when it takes on a Penn State squad with lineup led by NCAA champions Ed Ruth and David Taylor and two more returning national finalists.
“We better be ready to go,” he said, “or we’re going to get blown out of our own arena.”
But the eighth-year Iowa coach also recognizes what an arena with more than 14,000 seats filled and a national television audience means for the health of the sport.
“A motivated Tom Brands is going to get things done,” Sanderson said. “He wanted the dual, so it happened.”
Iowa has wrestled Penn State every year since 1982. But when Nebraska joined the Big Ten and the conference expanded to 12 teams, it meant three schools would miss the Hawkeyes every season on the mat. The Nittany Lions rotated off the schedule this season.
Brands and Sanderson chatted at various times throughout the offseason in an attempt to work out a non-conference dual between the two programs. They talked in April at the U.S. Open and again two months later at the World Team Trials, but their discussions didn’t gain traction until August when Brands and Sanderson — both coaches on U.S. freestyle team for the 2013 World Championships — spent days together at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
“It’s good that the coaches worked together to (fix) something that the Big Ten screwed up,” Iowa’s top-ranked 133-pounder Tony Ramos said.
“You just couldn’t have a season without it happening. For a while there, there was talk about it. And for a while there, there was talk we just couldn’t get it done, that they weren’t going to let it happen. But they figured it out and they made it work.”
Constrained by two schedules that had already been released, Brands and Sanderson found a few dates on the calendar that might work. They considered a time around Thanksgiving and another just before Christmas before agreeing on Dec. 21.
But it was far more complex than just finding a time. They needed a place, too. Sanderson agreed to bring the Nittany Lions back to Iowa City for the second time in 10 months as a payback for Iowa’s consecutive trips to Penn State in 2011 and 2012.
One problem: Carver-Hawkeye Arena was already booked on Dec. 21 with graduation ceremonies in the morning and Iowa’s women’s basketball game against Drake at night.
School administrators, women’s basketball coaches Lisa Bluder and Jennie Baranczyk — an Iowa graduate — and the Carver-Hawkeye Arena facilities staff arranged to make the pieces fit.
Bluder and Baranczyk agreed to move their tipoff up to 4 p.m.. That gives the facilities crew enough time to set up the arena for basketball after the 9 a.m. graduation ceremony and then put the hoops away and roll out the mats before the 8 p.m. dual.
“It’s going to be a physical challenge, but we already embraced that,” Iowa associate athletic director for external relations Rick Klatt said. “We embraced that in the summer when we decided to pull the trigger and do this – because it’s too great for the sport.”
Even better news for wrestling: The series will continue in the future. Iowa and Penn State were paired together as protected Big Ten rivals when the schedule changes again next year to accommodate the arrival of Maryland and Rutgers.
Brands said he wanted to keep multiple protected rivals to ensure the Hawkeyes would wrestle Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin each year, as well. But he said wrestling Penn State is a no-brainer given the stature of both programs.
“If one of us starts to suck, then it probably doesn’t make sense,” he said. “But as long as both programs are where they are now it makes sense.”