Derek St. John was perfectly content being an assistant wrestling coach at North Dakota State.
St. John, a former national champion for Iowa, was learning the ropes on Roger Kish’s staff when he went on a recruiting trip to Montana two years ago.
St. John attended a camp in Montana and happened to run into an old friend — former Iowa assistant coach Mike Zadick. One thing led to another and before St. John left Montana, he had an offer to move to Virginia Tech and join Kevin Dresser’s staff as an assistant coach with Zadick.
It was an offer too good to pass up. So last year, St. John joined the Virginia Tech staff as a volunteer assistant coach.
St. John, Zadick and head coach Kevin Dresser, a former Hawkeye, have the Hokies ranked fifth in the nation and poised to make a run at the school’s first national wrestling championship.
St. John is having the time of his life.
“We are all Iowa guys. We all come from Iowa wrestling background, so that makes it a lot of fun,” St. John said. “I help with morning lifts, do a lot of the one-on-one training stuff with a lot of our guys, develop guys in the room and help with the strength and conditioning. I basically do a little bot of everything except recruiting.”
St. John was a two-time state champion for Iowa City West High School, where he compiled a 182-9 career record. He went on to become one of the most decorated wrestlers in Iowa history, becoming the 18th four-time All-American for the Hawkeyes. He won a national title at 157 pounds in 2013 and was part of the Hawkeyes’ 2010 national championship team. He left Iowa with a 106-17 career record.
It was those lessons he learned at Iowa that he is passing along to the Hokies today, trying to help them achieve the same things he did as a Hawkeye.
“It’s really interesting, especially last year ending up the way it did,” St. John said of the Hokies’ fourth-place finish at nationals in New York City. “We had some really, really talented kids last year. You never know how things will shake out. There are a lot more eyes on us now and people are expecting us to do well. I compare this team to our teams we had at Iowa. This team is very tight-knit. Everybody gets along well. Everyone hangs out with each other. At Iowa it was more cliquey. Everybody got along, but you just had certain guys would hang around with certain guys. Here, everyone hangs out with everyone. Everybody is on board with what we’re trying to do. We’re heading in the right direction.”
After graduating from Iowa, St. John planned to compete on the international stage. But he got an offer to join Kish’s staff at North Dakota State, and St. John found the offer too good to pass up. So he hung up his singlet and embarked on his coaching career.
“I wanted a little break from wrestling and I got the offer to go to North Dakota State and coach,” St. John said. “I thought it could be a good idea to explore the coaching side of things and the ball just kind of got rolling on that side to it.
“There are times when I am watching guys work out that I used to compete against that I want to get back out there. It’s tough. That fire still burns in me. But I made my choice to coach and I’m sticking with it.”
Virginia Tech is currently ranked fifth in the nation. The Hokies’ goal is to win the national championship. They are getting close and St. John wants to help them get over the top, one step at a time.
“It’s really, really promising to see all the hard work the guys are putting into it. They are doing the right things,” St. John said. “Is it always going to end up that way? Probably not. But it’s a starting point. It’s very rewarding to see the guys you spend so much time with doing really, really well. It’s very promising from a confidence standpoint. But we still have a lot of work left to do to get to where we want to go.”