In the late 1990s, the Gophers wrestling team was on the verge of a major breakthrough.
Minnesota’s hardnosed squad allowed the team to contend with nearly every program in the nation, but Iowa was a conundrum it could not solve on the big stage.
Then in 1999, wrestler Brandon Eggum and his team busted down the door and took a seat among the Big Ten’s best.
“We beat Iowa in the Big Ten finals,” said Eggum, who is now an assistant coach for the Gophers. “It was a big step for us as a program. That was the breakthrough.”
The Hawkeyes had won 25 consecutive Big Ten titles to that point. They were the most dominant team in the nation until Eggum and his squad unseated them.
Eggum said even with the win, Minnesota didn’t get the type of respect it felt it deserved.
“Iowa always got all the hype … and that was the one thing that bothered us the most,” he said. “We felt we deserved some of that recognition.”
That same season — amid the loss in the Big Ten finals — the Hawkeyes still walked away NCAA national champions. They repeated as national champions in 2000 as well.
Eggum said that frustrated the team but also led way to a new era of Gophers dominance.
Minnesota won three straight Big Ten titles from 2001 to 2003. It won the NCAA title in 2001 and 2002 as well.
Eggum graduated in 2000 and never experienced the success as a wrestler on the squad.
Luke Becker did.
Becker, who also coaches the current Gophers team, was also a part of the team that defeated Iowa in 1999. He was a main cog in the Gophers’ dominance in the early 2000s.
“We were the one team in the nation that wouldn’t back down from Iowa,” he said. “We stood in there, and we battled with them … and that’s when we kind of started our era.”
That’s when the rivalry between Minnesota and Iowa really took off.
Eggum and Becker joined the Gophers coaching staff in 2001 and 2009, respectively, and both said the rivalry has intensified.
Eggum spewed with emotion this week talking about the rivalry and the Gophers’ upcoming dual with the Hawkeyes.
Sophomore Logan Storley, the starter for the Gophers at 174 pounds, was about 8 years old when the rivalry started to heat up.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “We don’t like them. They don’t like us. It’s definitely going to be an exciting match.”
Storley said he was immersed in the thick of the battle last year. He said it was a challenge to enter Carver-Hawkeye Arena as a true freshman, but he said he learned a lot in that match.
Minnesota lost last year’s regular-season dual with Iowa, but it beat the Hawkeyes at the National Duals. The Gophers have lost six of their last seven meetings against Iowa.
Junior Kevin Steinhaus said the crowd will play a role because it can help dictate momentum in a dual of this caliber.
“It’s an added effect because if I’m down in the tunnel warming up and the crowd is going crazy, that gets me amped up,” he said. “If the crowd is on our side, it’s definitely in our favor.”
The Gophers may need Storley, Steinhaus, Scott Schiller and Tony Nelson to lead them against the Hawkeyes, just as they’ve done all season.
“We match up better against Iowa with our upper weights, and that’s the area we’re going to count on some wins,” Becker said, “but our lower weights have to come out and be ready to wrestle as well.”
Robinson continues to recover
Minnesota practiced without head coach J Robinson for the second week in a row in preparation for its meet with Iowa.
Robinson didn’t travel with the team to Ohio State or Indiana during winter break due to a knee infection.
He has since received surgery and is recovering away from the team.
“We’ve never experienced this, so it’s different,” Eggum said of Robinson’s absence. “We’re staying in good contact with him, though.”
Eggum said Robinson has still had input among the team in preparation for Iowa.
“I think the big thing for him is he needs to take care of himself,” Eggum said.
“He’d like to come in and do more, but that would just slow him down,” Eggum said, “so he’s just doing what he can to get back with the team as soon as he can.”