Brown takes long road to PSU
It wasn’t too long after Matt Brown arrived at Penn State in 2011 off of a two-year Mormon Mission to Africa that coach Cael Sanderson and his teammates learned what he was capable of doing on the mat.
Actually, Sanderson, already had the inside scoop on him. Sanderson had coached him for a year at Iowa State, but a little bit after the time Sanderson landed the head coaching job at Penn State, Brown went on his mission.
It was during that mission that Brown and his dad, David, began the process of getting Matt to transfer to Penn State.
The Brown family had grown up “big” Penn State football and Joe Paterno fans. David grew up in the Juniata section of Altoona, graduated from Altoona in 1971 and from Penn State in 1975 and was a sports writer for the Centre Daily Times for many years before moving to Utah in 1987 to go to law school at Brigham Young and begin a private practice as an attorney.
“We’ve always talked to Cael about Penn State connections,” David Brown said. “When Cael took the job at Penn State, he joked with Matt ‘Well, I’m doing this for you, Matt.’ During the middle of Matt’s mission, Iowa State didn’t want to necessarily want to release him because they knew he was a pretty good kid. Coach Jackson wanted Matt, and we had to negotiate with him so they would even release Matt so we could even begin to go through the recruiting process.
“While Matt’s on his mission, Cael comes here once we got all of that paperwork done and recruits us again. I told Cael you don’t need to sell us on Penn State. My brothers went to Penn State. We know that it’s good academically. I know the wrestling tradition. It’s just incre-dible to live out west and have Matt end
up back at Penn State and continue to succeed.”
Indeed, he has succeeded. In his two years as a starter, Brown has been an All-American both years, finishing second at the NCAA Championships two years ago at 174, losing in the tiebreaker to Oklahoma State’s top-seeded Chris Perry in the finals, and taking fifth last season. He went 29-5 two years ago and 33-6 last season.
With NCAA champions David Taylor and Ed Ruth graduated and Sanderson redshirting returning All-Americans Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford, Brown is one of only two All-Americans still in the Penn State lineup. Morgan McIntosh, who took seventh last season, is the other returning All-American.
When Sanderson was asked in the preseason what he expected of Brown this season, he was quick to say “Everything. Every year, we have our team vote on the leaders, and who they feel are the leaders, and it seems like he’s won that award. He leads by example. Now, we just need him to step it up a notch and compete with the same mentality that he has had from the beginning.
“(We need him) to wrestle for the team, focus on the team. If he does that, he’s going to get the results he needs. He’s a guy we’re going to rely on very heavily this year just by example, mentality before matches and having confidence. He’s a two-time All-American and a guy who has been in the NCAA finals, so he knows what it takes.”
When asked in the preseason about Sanderson’s “everything” comment, Brown exhaled and said, “In years past, we had David and Ed, and they were almost automatic. With them gone, it really rests on our shoulders, so that is a new responsibility that I’m going to embrace this year. Those are big shoes to fill, for sure, but it’s exciting. I’m finally a senior, and I feel like this is my year to do it.”
As Sanderson said, Brown leads by example. He won’t be yelling at his teammates or be that loud in general. He doesn’t say much, and he certainly won’t boast about his accomplishments.
“I don’t think you’ll meet anyone more humble than Matt,” David Brown said. “He’s a very quiet leader. With his ROTC and military program, he knows how to lead. I think he follows Cael’s example. Cael, for probably being the greatest wrestler of all-time, you’re not going to meet an individual who is more humble.
“We saw Matt being interviewed after the Lehigh match, and the sideline reporter, asks him two questions, and he basically gives a nice one-sentence answer and that’s it. That’s just his style. He’s never going to talk about himself.”
Matt begin developing that leadership style and his wrestling style at an early age. The youngest of six children, Matt was born in May of 1990, right after his dad graduated from law school. David will quickly tell you that Matt’s talents didn’t come from him. David was cut from the wrestling team as a seventh-grader, so he began playing basketball.
“Many families have that tradition of father, sons, brothers (who wrestled),” David said. “Matt really had none of that. He had a knack for it. He played all sports growing up, but wrestling was his real talent. Once we found out he was talented, we found a really good wrestling club here in Utah. Once he joined the club, he got exposed to international-style of wrestling.
“He was one of those kids who loves to wrestle. He loves wrestling practice. From my limited background, , and I covered wrestling, I never knew anyone who loved wrestling practice. It takes a special breed for that. He’s got a work ethic that is kind of out of sight. He has mentality that he’s going to outwork everybody. You can’t do that at the level that he’s at, but that work ethic has taken him a long way.”
Brown went on to win three Utah state titles (at 119, 135 and 145) for Cyprus High School and was a two-time high school All-American before going to Iowa State.
After coming to Penn State, though, he found himself in a backup role in a lineup filled with rock-solid upperweights. As a 174-pounder, he was backing up Ruth. If he had moved up to 184, he had to deal with eventual two-time NCAA champion Quentin Wright. If he had one at 165, he would have to deal with Taylor.
He did go 27-2 in 2011-12 wrestling in mostly open tournaments, but he did move all the way up to 197 as a fill-in for the injured Morgan McIntosh for a couple dual meets. He surprised the home crowd at Rec Hall by beating 15th-ranked Max Huntley, 3-1, despite being outweighed.
But, even that early in his career, Brown had developed a reputation for being strong and being a grinder in the wrestling room, a wrestler who will just punish even the best from the top position.
So, that’s why the next season, in order to get him into the lineup, Ruth and Wright moved up a weight and he made the starting lineup at 174. That move certainly paid off for the Lions, who got even stronger in the upper weights. Brown won a Big Ten title and reached the NCAA finals by avenging a Southern Scuffle loss to Minnesota’s Logan Storley, 3-2, in the semifinals. He came up just short against Perry.
“He had a great NCAA tournament, he lost in double overtime to Perry, who was just an incredible talent,” David Brown said. “It was one of the greatest experiences of our lives, but it was also bittersweet because we knew it was Matt’s goal to be a national champion, and he was so close to it.”
Last season, in a loaded weight class, he took third at the Big Tens, getting upset by Iowa’s Mike Evans in the semis, and he lost to Evans and Storley at the NCAAs. Brown did avenge the loss to Evans in the fifth-place bout, though.
The 174-pound weight class in the Big Ten is loaded again this season, so winning a Big Ten and NCAA title is not going to be easy. The 24-year-old Brown was ranked third by Intermat behind the top-ranked Storley and Nebraska’s second-ranked Robert Kokesh before suffering his first loss to Virginia Tech’s ninth-ranked Zach Epperly, 8-6, in overtime Friday night. Evans, by the way, was ranked fourth.
“I don’t see the drudgery, but it is a competitive weight class,” said Matt Brown, who is now 7-1. “174 in the Big Ten is impressive. We’re all tough, but I think it’s exciting. Week in and week out, you have something to look forward to. It’s never boring.”
Further down the road, Brown will be challenged more, and there will be pressure to win those big bouts.
Asked if he feels the pressure this season to win it all, Brown said, “Not from outside sources, but that’s a goal I have, so I kind of put pressure on myself. I have that expectation to do that this year.”