Clint Birch was a sophomore at Vacaville High School in 1986 when he learned all he would ever need to know about wrestling coach Larry Nelson. Birch and his teammates were two miles into a training run when Birch was passed by Nelson, who took advantage of the opportunity to give Birch a hard time.
“‘Don’t be a puss, Birch,’” recalled Birch, who has been co-head coach of the program Nelson built since 2006. “I thought there was no way I was going to make it. Larry passed me and I thought he was 90 years old. When you’re 15, everybody over 30 is old. I think that was the only thing he said to me all year. Larry’s a man of few words. That’s something that’s lost in today’s society. You don’t have to talk to be heard.”
The 48-year-old Birch is nothing like the 89-year-old Nelson because “someone once told me whatever your personality is, coach to 150 percent of it. I’m a bit more demonstrative.” What Birch gleaned from his mentor is that it takes far more than words to be one of the top programs in the state.
“There’s a lot of killer in (Nelson), “ Birch said. “He’s not wrestling for second place.”
Former Vacaville principal Ed Santopadre shared the tale of Nelson making a case for Vacaville to be the No. 1 seed in Division I at the Sac-Joaquin Section dual championships. Two other coaches also felt their teams were worthy of the top spot. Nelson eventually had enough of the squabbling and conceded.
“‘You can be No. 1 and we’ll be No. 8,’” Nelson said. That meant whichever team got the top seed would have to face Vacaville in the first round. Vacaville was not the eighth seed, but Nelson proved his point – as usual.
“I don’t know how you can be a man of such few words and have such a big impact,” Santopadre said in respect.
Fred Jones was Nelson’s assistant from 1974 to 1986, so he can speak to Nelson’s understated coaching style. “Larry was never loud. He coached with a quiet tenacity,” Jones said. “He never talked about winning. Everything was about preparation. He taught mental toughness. To Larry, wrestling was a war of wills.”
Where there is a will, the Bulldogs have found a way from Nelson to now. The 2018-19 season was more of the same. Vacaville won another Monticello Empire League championship and swept the 14 weight classes at the MEL tournament for the first time. The Bulldogs won another section dual title, another section Division I crown and another section Masters championship. Eleven Bulldogs qualified for the state tournament. Among that contingent was Birch’s son Ethan, who is just a freshman.
About all that was missing this past season was Nelson, who has been battling health issues that prevented him from making it to matches. That his absence was noticed is a testament to how much he is respected.
It came as no surprise in 2015 when Nelson was among 11 inductees in Vacaville’s inaugural Hall of Fame class. The surprise was Nelson being on hand when the 11 were introduced at a football game. Nelson has never been one for the spotlight. He runs from it as he did from Birch in 1986.
Nelson’s legacy is so sacred that Birch had cause for concern when he and Adam Wight became co-head coaches in 2006. Wight did not go to Vacaville High, so he was immune from the talk of upholding a tradition. Birch had to confront it and not allow it to consume him. Fortunately for Birch, there was no need to worry. His toes were safe. Nelson did not step on them.
“Larry would send an email and (write) that we’re not in good enough shape or we’re not working hard enough, but he never told me what to do or how to do it,” said Birch, who teaches at Jepson Middle School. “That’s a testament to Larry because he could have been a great, big, huge shadow.”
Nelson was welcome to stop by practice to work with wrestlers. When Nelson did so in the 2007-08 season, Johnny Schupp would immediately look for a trash can. Hundreds of stand-ups often caused the senior to lose his lunch. And even then, Nelson continued to asking more of his pupil.
“I’d be throwing up and he’d come over and say, ‘We’ve still got work to do,” recalled Schupp, who parlayed all those stand-ups into becoming a state champion in 2008. “Everyone knows who Larry is. Vaca High wrestling is like a Snickers bar. It’s a brand. You know exactly what you’re going to get when you bite into it.”
Steve Hilas, a state champion for the Bulldogs in 1992, took a bite when he was 8 years old and standing outside his mother’s house waiting for Nelson to give him a ride to wrestling club practice. Once the coach arrived in his Volkswagen Vanagan, Hilas would have to listen to Bob Dylan tunes.
“‘Lay Lady Lay,” Hilas quipped.
George Vasquez will never forget the look on Nelson’s face when Vasquez decided not to wrestle in the league tournament as a senior in 1972. He was a good bet to qualify for the Northern California tournament, which at the time was as far as a wrestler could go. The state tournament began in 1973.
Vasquez’s season ended abruptly because his grandmother had died and he chose to be with his family. No coach can hold that against an athlete, but Vasquez still felt as if he had failed Nelson And he still does.
“It haunts me.I didn’t want him to think I was a quitter,” Vasquez said. “We were always trying to impress him.”
No one wants to let down a legend.