The 430 miles between Minneapolis and the Nebraska campus were supposed to provide Doug Schwab with clarity about his future.
That drive six years ago was supposed to give him time to ponder his options — stay and continue to train at Minnesota, return to Iowa where he became an NCAA wrestling champion for the Hawkeyes, take an assistant job with the Huskers or move halfway across the country and reunite with Tom Brands at Virginia Tech.
Schwab made it to the outskirts of Minneapolis before he pulled off the road and turned around.
“I was like, ‘I’m not going to waste my time, I know what I want to do,’” Schwab said. “I believed in what Tom was doing. I believed in what he was going to build and I knew what I was going to get from him on a daily basis whether it was building me as a coach, building me as a person or building me as an athlete.
“I knew what I was going to get with him. A lot of places you don’t know, but that was never a question in my mind. I really felt like it was the best place, the best fit for me. It worked out pretty good for me.”
From where he sits now at 33, Schwab is a husband and a father of two, an Olympian and a rookie head coach at Northern Iowa. He can trace a lot of those titles back to his decision to follow Brands to Virginia Tech and back again to Iowa.
“I had a great mentor,” Schwab said. “I was with him for six years. I think I did everything he asked me to the best of my ability and I think he knew where my heart was at and how much I cared about the guys and how much I was willing to put out for the team. I think that’s probably why he kept me around and wanted me.
“I learned a lot of valuable lessons from him about how to coach and how to try to get a team to excel, to get individuals to excel and get the most out of their potential and how to do it the right way and not compromising your standards for anything.”
But now Schwab is the opposing corner and his Panthers (4-3) take on Brands and the seventh-ranked Hawkeyes (6-0) at 7 p.m. inside the West Gym in Cedar Falls. It’s the first meeting between the two programs since Schwab left Iowa in May to take over a program that finished 40th at the NCAA Championships and went 10-12 in duals last year, including a 48-3 loss to the Hawkeyes.
“He’s motivated to be a head coach and he’s motivated to be a good head coach,” Brands said. “We saw that right away when he came to Virginia Tech. He’s definitely passionate about the sport of wrestling. … He’s motivated, and if you’re motivated and you work hard and you’re smart, things will happen. He’s got all of those qualities.”
Those were qualities that made Schwab a state high school champion at Osage, an NCAA champion with the Hawkeyes and positioned him to represent the U.S. twice at the highest level of international competition. They were qualities that led Brands to target him for an assistant position at Virginia Tech in 2004 and keep him on his staff two years later when he became the head coach at Iowa.
“When I went to Virginia Tech, I knew that’s who I wanted to hire,” Brands said. “I left him a 45-minute message on the phone.”
Schwab worked for six seasons as an assistant to Brands. They reeled in a top recruiting class at Virginia Tech and had a floundering program headed for new heights before the Hawkeyes came calling and brought both of the Iowa grads home to restore order.
But the short stay at Virginia Tech was a life-changing move for Schwab. From a professional standpoint, it taught him program-building lessons that he carried with him to Northern Iowa.
“I can tell you it’s helped me in this process a ton,” he said. “I was at Iowa and I was up at Minnesota where they had a couple championship teams during that time, and you start to think everybody thinks and trains and puts the same amount of effort and importance into wrestling as you did. Then you go someplace where it’s not as important and you try to figure out how to get guys to make it important.”
But joining Brands at Virginia Tech left a greater imprint on Schwab’s personal life. He met his wife, Allyson, there. They have two boys. Hayden is 2 and Hendrix is 1. Brands is Hayden’s godfather.
There’s a bond between the two coaches that extends beyond wrestling. But make no mistake, they’re highly competitive and their professional relationship changed when Schwab went from ally to adversary.
“I know how they coach and how they treat it, too, and they treat it the same,” Schwab said. “You think they’re going to take it easy on my team because I coached there last year? If anything, it’s going to make them want to beat our guys’ heads in even more.”
Schwab bristles whenever somebody asks him if he has any mixed emotions going into tonight’s dual. He sounds dumbfounded when people mention those two words together and his attitude toward the subject is simple: “I’m the UNI head coach, I’m not a Hawkeye anymore.”
“I’m not going to speak for Tom, but I can guarantee you he has no mixed emotions about trying to whip my team’s ass,” Schwab said. “We’re in-state now. I’m not saying we’re going to take (anything) away from them, but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
There’s a long drive ahead for Schwab to take Northern Iowa to the level he wants. He has no intention of pulling over and turning around this time.