Change the names, places and dates, and you’ll find a story of lives inside parallel football worlds.
Gary Swenson and Tom Wilson grew up in central Iowa. They both played at Buena Vista. Each man constructed a powerhouse program in his third head coaching job and parlayed state championship appearances into next-door residency in Iowa high school football’s upscale neighborhood.
With coaching paths that are so uniquely alike, it’s no surprise they’ll both wind up calling shots tonight inside Drake Stadium as two highly ranked squads — Swenson’s sixth-ranked Valley Tigers and Wilson’s No. 3 Dowling Catholic Maroons — square off in one of the state’s most publicized rivalries.
Want more similarities? Both have guided undefeated state championship teams during the past three seasons. Swenson owns an .822 winning percentage in 19 seasons at Valley. Wilson has won 82.1 percent of his games in nine years at Dowling.
In the battle for regular-season neighborhood supremacy, Swenson is 9-9 against Dowling and Wilson is 4-4 versus Valley.
“They are always your measuring stick because they’re always a top program,” Swenson said.
When Wilson ponders adding a new scheme or a different page to his playbook, he contemplates whether it’s something that’s capable of working against the Tigers.
“We know it’s going to have to be very sound,” he said, “because if it’s not, Valley will make you look like a fool in a hurry.”
Swenson and Wilson share a mutual admiration for each other and how they run their programs. Perhaps it’s fortified by accomplishments and the understanding of how much work goes into keeping pace with each other.
Maybe some of it, too, stems from the road they’ve shared to get to this point.
Swenson grew up in Radcliffe and played receiver at Buena Vista. He made coaching stops at Manning and West Marshall before guiding Spencer to the playoffs in eight consecutive years, including three championship appearances.
He applied for the Valley job after the 1993 season and didn’t get an interview. The position opened again the next year and with a state championship freshly printed on his resume, Swenson surfaced as the top candidate.
Before he left for Valley, though, Swenson regularly returned to Buena Vista during the summer to work as an instructor at the Jim Hershberger Football Camp at Buena Vista. It was there that he met a teenage quarterback from Monroe named Tom Wilson — the start of a three-decade football relationship.
Wilson played two seasons at Buena Vista before making a finances-driven decision to quit playing and focus on coaching. He transferred to Grand View and volunteered as an assistant at Monroe.
His journey to Dowling Catholic included coaching stints at English Valleys and Wilton before he served for two years as a graduate assistant at Ball State. He returned to the high school level in 1997 at Dike-New Hartford.
Wilson’s program reached the state finals in his second season and made three championship appearances in eight years before a Dowling parent called to gauge his interest after the 2004 season.
“At first I said I wasn’t looking to leave,” Wilson said. “Then I got another phone call and I kind of thought these jobs don’t come around every day. I felt the 4-A position at Dowling would be as good as there could be in the state of Iowa if you made it that way.”
It also meant moving into Swenson’s backyard.
For years, they exchanged information on schemes and strategy. Swenson took the Tigers to Dike-New Hartford during the summers to participate in Wilson’s 7-on-7 tournament and Wilson came to West Des Moines to talk X’s and O’s at Valley.
“That’s how you learn,” Swenson said. “We’ve never pretended to have any big secrets that we were afraid to share with people and I’ve never been shy about asking other coaches for help and I think Tom takes that same stance.”
Tonight, though, they’ll line up on opposite sidelines and plot how to one-up each other.
“We’ve always gotten along very well, we have a great deal of respect for each other and I think this rivalry has only made that respect stronger,” Wilson said. “I love how he runs his program. His kids play hard, I think they play the right way and I think that’s why I respect it as much as I do.”