Iowa-Minnesota wrestling rivalry is one for the ages

Since 1991, the Gophers and Hawkeyes have combined for 11 NCAA championships.

Aaron Blake

It’s been a while since the top five teams in college wrestling didn’t include both Minnesota and Iowa – much less either team.

But much like the 12th-ranked Gophers, the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes haven’t had the type of season to which their program is accustomed. Losses to rival Iowa State, upstart Michigan and No. 1 Oklahoma State have left Iowa with just one win over a top-10 team. That victory came Jan. 30 over No. 9 Penn State.

But when Iowa travels to Williams Arena for Sunday’s 2 p.m. dual with Minnesota, the rivalry, which has made this matchup classic since 1997, should be easy to rekindle.

“Within the last seven years, any time Minnesota and Iowa wrestled, no matter where they are, people are going to come watch,” Gophers coach J Robinson said. “They know it’s going to be a battle, and both teams want to win and try very hard to win. The intensity level of such a match moves up.”

Robinson said the thing that makes both team’s special year in and year out is their commitment to not only being good but being the best. Because only one team can be the best at year’s end, Robinson said a great deal of competitiveness and admiration is protocol whenever the teams match up.

For 25 years between 1974 and 1998, nobody could pry the distinction of best in the Big Ten away from the Hawkeyes. In fact, a whole page of the Big Ten wrestling record book is devoted to Iowa’s quarter-century of conference supremacy.

In addition, the Hawkeyes have racked up 20 national titles, including nine of 10 between 1991 and 2000.

But Minnesota began chipping away at their dominance beginning in 1997. Since then, the teams have split 12 duals at six apiece.

In 1999, the Gophers ended the Hawkeyes’ conference stranglehold, and Minnesota has won four of the last five titles. In addition, the Gophers took the national title from Iowa in 2001 and repeated the feat in 2002.

But neither team has looked particularly poised to win a national, or even conference, championship this season, as No. 4 Illinois and the fifth-ranked Wolverines are step-for-step with the conference’s usual contenders.

But things are starting to head in the right direction for both teams.

“Last week, we had some really good practices,” Minnesota 174-pounder Jon Duncombe said. “We started picking things up and going harder.

“We did some different things, because what we were doing wasn’t working.”

A big win over the Illini last Friday in Champaign, Ill., has the Gophers moving in the right direction and feeling closer to their earlier-21st century selves.

In addition, a bye week last weekend should do some good for a Hawkeyes team, which has seen its lumps as well, but is still competing with the best in college wrestling.

Sunday’s match shapes up to be important, even if not as interesting as the 2002 dual at Target Center. On Feb. 1 that year, an NCAA-record 15,646 fans saw the Gophers beat Iowa 22-15.

Whatever the case, as the season draws nearer to the Big Ten championships March 6-7 in Columbus, Ohio, and the NCAA championships March 18-20 in St. Louis, both teams want to recapture what dominance they have tasted in recent years.

“We’ve got a head of steam built up now,” Minnesota 184-pounder Josh McLay said. “After last weekend, we all feel pretty good about ourselves, and our confidence is back up to where it should be.”

Duncombe honored

The Gophers’ 174-pounder was named Big Ten wrestler of the week for his upset pin of Illinois’ seventh-ranked Pete Friedl and his 8-4 decision over Indiana’s 14th-ranked Brady Richardson on Sunday in Bloomington, Ind.