BY IAN SMITH, Courier sports writer
Start with a hefty supply of rabid fans. Add two of the top-ranked teams in the country and two Olympic gold medal athletes turned coaches. Mix in one bench-clearing brouhaha and work at a feverish pace for over a year.
The final product is one of the best rivalries in college sports.
No, I'm not talking about Saturday night’s snooze fest between Iowa State and Iowa on the hardwood. The state’s best rivalry takes place on Sunday afternoon when No. 3 Iowa travels to Ames to wrestle No. 1 Iowa State.
If last year’s 24-6 win by the Hawkeyes is any indication, this yearly event is a must-see for even the casual sports fan.
With a juiced-up crowd of 13,732 fans watching in Carver-Hawkeye Arena last December, the opening match between Iowa’s Mark Perry and Travis Paulson led to fireworks right from the start.
Perry — the eventual NCAA 165-pound Champion — trailed 4-1 at one point in the match but refused to lose to Paulson for the first time in his career. The lanky grappler staged a late comeback in regulation by scoring a takedown with only 13 seconds remaining in the third period to knot the score 4-4. Perry tweaked a gimpy knee executing the takedown and the brief time-out before overtime set the Iowa State coaches off.
As Perry was attended to on the mat, Cyclone head coach Cael Sanderson and Iowa assistant Dan Gable appeared to exchange words. Sanderson said Gable “flipped the bird” to Iowa State, but Gable denied that, saying he only gestured with his arms.
With 22 seconds remaining in the first sudden-death period, Perry used a neck-wrench to tally two points for the victory. A jubilant Iowa and an upset Iowa State bench exploded onto the mat, yelling and gesturing to each other under the deafening noise of the near-capacity crowd.
The hostility between the two squads continued long after the meet was in hand. In his post-meet press conference, Sanderson said his wrestlers were in better shape and “pushed Iowa around the mat.” He also noted that the outcome could of easily been different after the Hawkeyes won six matches by a total of nine points. That coupled with the comments about Gable making an obscene gesture compelled Tom Brands to fight fire with fire.
“We’ve only had Mark Perry for one year,” Brands said. “[Iowa State assistant and former Iowa coach] Tim Hartung had him for two, and we’re still trying to work the kinks out.”
Think you’d ever hear Kirk Ferentz or Gene Chizek say something similar?
Not in a million years.
That's what makes this rivalry so great. The coaches don’t seem to have extensive media training and instead speak from the heart – and thankfully it’s not the same rehearsed speech after every dual.
After covering Tom Brands for a season, I know he would like nothing more than to pound the Cyclones again. Brands isn’t satisfied with winning, he wants to dominate. Earlier this year, the second-year coach said he expects the Hawkeyes to have 10 NCAA Individual Champions, and if his wrestlers didn’t feel the same way, they should get out.
I don't think he was kidding.
It’s obvious that Cael Sanderson feels the same way. For a guy who never loses, it has to eat at him that Iowa State could have won the title last year but instead let it slip away to Minnesota. The Cyclones already exacted a bit of revenge on the Gophers, beating then No. 1 Minnesota in Minneapolis last Saturday.
Sunday, it could be Iowa’s turn to face Sanderson's wrath. Iowa State should be heavily favored to beat the Hawkeyes, especially after the announcement Tuesday that Perry will miss the dual after he was suspended one meet for a flagrant misconduct penalty he committed at the St. Edwards Duals.
The way I see it, Iowa only has the clear advantage at 125, 149 and 174 pounds. Perry’s absence at 165 pounds likely tilts that match towards Iowa State. The Cyclones should be favorites in five of the other six matches, with only heavyweight as a toss-up.
One thing about rivalries, though — you never know what's going to happen. Gable – after retiring from coaching this year – won’t be flipping Sanderson the bird, but any other antics wouldn’t be a shock. With Brands and Sanderson competing for national titles year in and year out, this matchup between hated schools is something everyone can enjoy for years to come.
Courier sports writer Ian Smith can be reached at email@example.com