Like many kids who grow up in Minnesota with a passion for wrestling, Ben Berhow was inspired by the goal to become a Minnesota Gopher.
He wanted to wrestle for his home-state school and for coach J Robinson, who had built the Minnesota program into a national power.
Berhow achieved his dream as a Gopher heavyweight from 2007-10 and then spent the next two years as an administrative assistant at his alma mater. He cherished his time as a Gopher and the thrills that came with it, including the intense border rivalry with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The rivalry will resume on Saturday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena with Berhow playing another key role, but under much different circumstances.
He’s now a Hawkeye, in his first season as a volunteer assistant coach, and has the responsibility to prepare heavyweight Bobby Telford for battle.
“Every day when you wrestle a guy like Telford, you’re going to be in for a battle,” Berhow said. “He’s a very physical guy. But at the same time, I’ve been in a similar program for a long time. I know what it’s like, so my body is used to it.”
Berhow had mixed emotions about leaving his Minnesota, but he saw it as a chance to advance his coaching career at another elite program.
“It was the right time and an opportunity to go to a historic program and advance my coaching career,” said Berhow, who had a 78-48 record as a Gopher heavyweight.
Minnesota rose to power under J Robinson, a former Iowa assistant, by using many of the same methods and beliefs that have fueled Iowa’s prolonged dominance in wrestling. Both programs take pride in being the aggressor on the mat and being tougher than the competition.
Berhow thinks toughness ultimately could decide Saturday’s dual.
“I think it has a lot to do with that,” Berhow said. “I think it comes down a lot to who’s going to be ready to go. I know Minnesota will be, and I know we will be. It’s just a matter of who’s going to fight for every position? Who’s going to fight to win every position?
Berhow’s toughness helped him land his current job.
Iowa coach Tom Brands needed somebody who could challenge his heavyweights in practice with more than just words and advice. He needed somebody who was willing and able to sacrifice his body on a daily basis for the good of team.
Part of Berhow’s job description is to wrestle with Telford in practice.
“Berhow is very durable,” Brands said. “Whatever Telford needs on a certain day, he’s game. That doesn’t mean they go every day. But it means he’s ready to go every day. That’s really, really important with a heavyweight.”
Telford will face one of his biggest challenges this season against two-time defending national champion Tony Nelson, who figures to be on a mission after losing to Michigan’s Adam Coon on Sunday. Nelson’s upset loss proved to be the difference in Michigan’s 19-14 victory over the Gophers.
“Telford is going to be ready to rock,” Berhow said. “He’s going to be ready for battle. It’s going to be an exciting match. I think we have a good chance of coming out on top. We just have to be ready to battle at all the weights, not just with Bobby.”
Telford will bring a 16-1 record and a No. 3 ranking into his showdown with the second-ranked Nelson. Five of Telford’s 16 career losses have come against Nelson, but none by more than two points.
Telford declined to speak with the media this week. But Tom Brands was very outspoken about how Telford has benefitted from Berhow’s presence.
“Ben Berhow is a heavyweight’s heavyweight,” Brands said. “And that’s good. I think we have enough that can attack legs and hit knee pulls and grab legs and pick them up in the air and finish. Now we need guys that can wrestle like a heavyweight and give some heavyweight-specific tips.
“Not to say that we can’t, but it’s good to feel it as a coach. It’s hard to feel Telford because he puts his thumb on you and you wilt when you’re a guy like me. And he can’t make Berhow wilt like that. He has to work hard.”
Iowa will bring an 11-1 overall record, a 4-0 Big Ten mark and a No. 2 ranking into Saturday’s dual. Minnesota is 7-1 overall and ranked fourth.
Derek St. John will try to bounce back from his first loss of the season at 157 pounds, but it won’t be easy against Minnesota’s eighth-ranked Dylan Ness for the first time. St. John lost to Nebraska’s third-ranked James Green 9-7 in last Saturday’s dual in which Iowa prevailed 22-9 in Lincoln, Neb. St. John, the defending NCAA champion at 157 pounds and a graduate of West High, has a career record of 96-12 and is 12-0 following losses.
Iowa senior Tony Ramos will look to stay perfect at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where the 133-pounder has a 32-0 record, including 8-0 this season.
“It’s a big statement to say you never lost at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, or that you were always able to protect your home turf,” Ramos said. “So that’s something I’m working towards. But you have to take it one match at a time.”