ST. LOUIS, Mo. — First-year University of Northern Iowa director of athletics David Harris had a busy agenda this past weekend.
Friday, Harris watched the Panther women’s basketball team play a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Starkville, Miss. Then he rounded up his family and made a 7 1/2-hour trip to attend a UNI wrestling gathering at the NCAA wrestling championships in St. Louis.
Saturday, Harris got to see Max Thomsen and Drew Foster earn fifth- and third-place finishes at the tournament and was beaming with pride afterward.
Harris already held head coach Doug Schwab’s program in high regard from his initial encounter with it last winter. After going through a semifinal interview for the UNI job in Des Moines, Harris drove up to Cedar Falls to witness the Panthers’ dual with Iowa State, where he was serving as an assistant director of athletics.
“I wanted to be there to support the Cyclones, but at the same time thought it would be a really nice opportunity to be able to see it from a Panther athletic standpoint,” Harris said. “I was by myself and I was just really impressed with the atmosphere.
“I also walked away just being impressed with what I saw and the way people supported the team and the passion they brought. So for me as I was waiting to hear if I was going to be a finalist or not, it really gave me a good feeling if this opportunity works out I’m coming to a place that really could be special and supports their teams.
“I also remember being hot and sweating quite a bit (in the West Gym).”
A little more than a year later, Harris believes the wrestling program is positioned to keep growing, especially with six returning national qualifiers, two returning All-Americans and Schwab’s staff leading the way.
“I think we are in a really good position when you look at the guys we have in the room, the solid coaching staff that is doing a great job. I think our future is bright,” Harris said. “As we continue to have success, more guys will find UNI as an attractive option and that can only help us.”
Harris wants to help the program continue to grow.
“There is not anything we are targeting right now,” Harris said. “Although I want to be in constant communication with Doug to make sure any needs he sees from a facilities standpoint that we are able to address so we are able to make the West Gym an attractive place to compete and train.
“If we need to make things better, we want to do everything we can to address them.”
One immediate issue is whether UNI will continue as a wrestling member of the Mid-American Conference or look elsewhere. The university’s initial five-year contract with the MAC has expired.
There have been rumors UNI will try to join the expanded Big 12 Conference. A year ago, the Big 12 added affiliate members Air Force, Northern Colorado, North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Utah Valley and Wyoming, all members of the old Western Wrestling Conference the Panthers used to belong to.
“We haven’t gotten any other invitations from other conferences,” Harris said. “Right now we are going to look at all of our options.”