Remember how I said that Dan Dennis' win over Tony Ramos in the Best-of-3 finals at the Olympic Team Trials last night was "bittersweet"? Well, this would be the bitter part. In his interview after the match, Ramos unloaded his frustrations -- less with the two Best-of-3 losses themselves and more with the overall situation that led to two Hawkeye Wrestling Club wrestlers, Dan Dennis and Tony Ramos, competing against one another for the 57 KG spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
Ramos' comments were certainly incendiary, as documented by K.J. Pilcher at The Gazette:
"I was lied to a couple times. I feel like I was stabbed in the back. I feel like I was loyal to a fault to coaches and athletes from things that I've seen and right now the first thing I'm thinking is I need to move on and get out of this program."
And by Andy Hamilton at Hawk Central:
Ramos said he "felt stabbed in the back" by how the coaching situation was handled in-house by the Iowa staff and felt the coaches shouldn't have welcomed Dennis back to the program last spring.
"The first thing I'm thinking is I need to move on and I need to get out of this program," he said. "I don't think there was one person inside this program, other than Terry Brands, who wanted to see me win."
Tom Brands held a press conference later in the evening, in which he discussed some of Ramos' comments:
(H/T to Friend of the Pants @JordyHansen for uploading the press conferences to YouTube. Thanks, Jordan!)
As Hamilton documented:
"When you corner a guy, you're not in his corner for his matches, you're in his corner for his life," Tom Brands said. "I've been in that guy's corner since the day he walked on campus. Have been and always will be."
Tom Brands said the happiness he felt for Dennis equaled the heartache he felt for Ramos. He said it would've been the other way around if the outcome had been reversed.
"I see two guys after the same thing," he said. "They're both Hawkeyes, they're both vital to our program. Because of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, they've had opportunities to pursue something that's the pinnacle of the sport, and when you're talking about things that maybe unravel a little bit, maybe it's easy to go the sour-grape route.
"When you're accusing someone of lying and things that are not true, I have a hard time believing that's true when the bottom line is since Day 1 when that guy walked on campus, he's been my guy. Just like every other guy upstairs in that wrestling room â eligibility or members of that Hawkeye Wrestling Club. We give our soul to those guys equally.
It was an explosive finale to a night that already felt surreal after seeing two former Hawkeyes face off against one another. That match-up guaranteed that one former Iowa star would get a tremendous win and grab that coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic team... but it also guaranteed that another former Iowa star would endure tremendous heartbreak. And that Iowa fans -- and coaches -- would find themselves divided by the situation, making things incredibly awkward for everyone involved.
Ramos expresses anger about the cornering situation -- that Tom Brands promised him that he and Terry Brands would corner Ramos, while in the finals Terry physically stood in Ramos' corner while USA Wrestling coach Mike Duroe stood in Dennis' corner; Tom Brands and Ryan Morningstar sat behind the officials bench, halfway between both corners. Whatever the case with the cornering situation -- whether Brands did or did not promise Ramos something and whether he did or did not break that promise -- it's hard to see it as anything but emblematic of the greater angst that Ramos was (and is) feeling about the situation.
The bulk of that angst seems to center around the fact that Dan Dennis returned from a long absence to resume a freestyle career -- and the that he did so at the Hawkeye Wrestling Club, alongside Tony Ramos. Ramos expresses anger at the notion that Brands would go out of his way to court another wrestler, knowing that he already had a 57 KG wrestler who was the top guy in America at that weight (Ramos won the World Team Trials in 2014 and 2015 and had never been defeated by another U.S. wrestler until his losses to Dennis last night). Dennis initially returned to Iowa to compete at 61 KG at the 2015 US Open tournament (he finished in fourth place). But 61 KG is not an Olympic weight (one of the conditions of wrestling returning to the Olympics after it was dropped following the 2012 Summer Games was that there would be more gender equity, so two weights -- 61 KG and 70 KG -- were removed from Olympic competition on the men's side so that men's and women's freestyle would each contest six different weight classes at the Olympics), meaning that if Dennis harbored any aspirations of competing for the Olympics that he would need to drop down to 57 KG (Ramos' weight) in order to contend. (Moving up to 65 KG would be a less viable option for the smaller Dennis.)
Should Brands have consulted with Ramos before imploring Dennis to return to the Hawkeye Wrestling Club? Perhaps. Did it make sense to bring in in-house competition for the same spot that Ramos was already vying for? Perhaps not, although that's where things get complicated. Iowa already had another former Hawkeye in the Hawkeye Wrestling Club competing at 57 KG alongside Ramos -- Matt McDonough. McDonough may have also been in contention at yesterday's Olympic Team Trials if not for a serious knee injury that he sustained in training last fall. Ramos says that he wasn't bothered by McDonough's presence because "he never left," whereas it was more hurtful to actively recruit someone who had left the program to return and compete for the same goal.
I can understand that mindset from Ramos to a degree... but I don't think Tom Brands was even considering that mindset at all and that his approach was not intentionally malicious to Ramos or his chances of making the Olympic Team. I believe Brands wanted Dennis back because he wants to help and assist any and all former Hawkeyes who wish to pursue freestyle (or Greco-Roman) success after college -- having more Iowa grads succeeding and thriving under the banner of the Hawkeye Wrestling Club is good for the HWC and good for the Iowa program as a whole. It could be awkward to have a former Iowa wrestler competing -- and succeeding -- under a different banner.
I think Brands is also a firm believer in collecting talent, having it compete, and then letting the chips fall where they may to determine the winner. We've seen this is in the past on the Iowa team where multiple talented wrestlers have competed for the same spot (for instance, Tyler Clark and Ramos himself for the 133 spot years ago, or Brody Grothus and Brandon Sorensen at 149 more recently). In this case, Brands was content to have as many good wrestlers as he could competing for the 57 KG spot and trusting that the cream would rise to the top and (hopefully) give Iowa a wrestler on the Olympic Team. Well, that's exact what did happen... only with considerably more angst than anticipated from the wrestler who wasn't able to rise to the top. Was Brands' approach bad or wrong?
Honestly, I don't know. In some ways, it seems more problematic in the context of the college wrestling team because it can create situations where resources aren't allocated evenly, creating lineups with too many good wrestlers at one weight and too few good wrestlers at another weight. On the other hand, this "problem" -- such as it is -- happens at pretty much every program. In the freestyle context, you're limited by which wrestlers decide to pursue post-college careers. Right now, Iowa has a bevy of post-graduates competing at the lighter weights. They don't have a lot at other weights. If Iowa has multiple wrestlers who want to compete at the World Championship and Olympic level, but they all happen to be at the same weight, should Brands pick and choose which former wrestlers to support? I don't know.
(The fact that before returning to Iowa and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club Dennis was apparently strongly considering an offer to join Virginia Tech's program to train is also worth some discussion. That detail was mentioned during the NBC Sports broadcast yesterday and Ramos noted it himself during his press conference. The relationship between the Iowa and Virginia Tech programs is fairly... conflicted. Tom Brands, of course, was the head coach at Virginia Tech for two seasons before returning to Iowa City to replace Jim Zalesky when he was fired as Iowa head coach in 2006. When Brands returned to Iowa so did several members of his highly-regarded 2006 recruiting class, including Brent Metcalf and Jay Borschel; Virginia Tech's decision to not release those wrestlers from their scholarships cost them all a year of eligibility at Iowa, which created a lot of bad blood and anger on both sides. Since then, two former Iowa wrestlers, Mike Zadick and Derek St. John, have taken assistant coaching positions at Virginia Tech, which stirred a little controversy because Zadick was previously on staff at Iowa before leaving in somewhat controversial fashion. There was also an incident between the programs at this past season's National Duals when VT head coach Kevin Dresser accused Iowa of putting pressure on the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) to not match up Iowa and Virginia Tech in the Duals, allegedly because Iowa didn't want to risk suffering an embarrassing loss to Virginia Tech. Long story short, there isn't a lot of goodwill between the Iowa and Virginia Tech programs, so did Brands push so hard to get Dennis to pass on Virginia Tech to return to Iowa out of spite for the Tech program? I don't know, but given the history there, it's a possibility that probably can't be dismissed out of hand.)
So what now?
Unfortunately, there's no denying the fact that Ramos' comments cast a cloud over Dennis' tremendous accomplishment and the Iowa program as a whole. What should have been a largely celebratory moment for Dennis and Iowa wrestling has instead taken on a different tone. Granted, there was always going to be some disappointment mixed in with the celebration when two Iowa guys were competing for the same spot -- by definition, one of them would have to lose, which would suck -- but the tenor of Ramos' comments certainly inflames the situation.
Has Ramos irreparably burned his bridges with Brands and the Iowa program? I hope not. Brands expressed a great deal of support for Ramos in his comments last night and indicated that he would always support Ramos and that the door would be open for him at Iowa. Mind you, that was also before he had had a chance to hear Ramos' exact comments or speak with Ramos himself, so it's hard to say if that might have changed his perception or not. It's hard to see a reconciliation happening anytime soon, though, based on Ramos' comments. While some of the hurt may have stemmed from his disappointment at coming up short in the Best-of-3 finals to Dennis, his comments also seem to indicate a deeper issue that had been causing problems for a while.
I find myself conflicted in the same way that Tom Brands expressed earlier -- as good as I feel for Dennis about his win, I feel just as bad for Ramos about his loss. He was a great Hawkeye, one who brought no small amount of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm to the program. He produced some of Iowa wrestling's standout moments over the last half-decade or so -- the stunning upset win over Oklahoma State's top-ranked Jordan Oliver in an Iowa-Oklahoma State dual at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, the multiple pins over different Penn State opponents, the redemptive (and long-awaited) Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament wins as a senior -- and I'll forever be grateful to him for those moments.
I can understand the anger and disappointment and frustration that he was no doubt feeling in the aftermath of those two losses to Dennis in the 57 KG finals. He was on the cusp of achieving a huge goal -- making the Olympic Team -- and had that ripped away from him in an instant. The fact that he lost to a teammate and the coaching situation only piled awkwardness on top of the situation. I hope that given some time to cool off and let the pain subside that Ramos and Brands are able to repair their relationship. Ramos was a great Hawkeye and I am thankful to him for his contributions to the program -- this would be a terrible way for his relationship with Iowa to end.