A 'living legend' on local campus
After 26 seasons, 376 wins, eight conference titles, a dozen top 10 national finishes, 71 All-Americans and six national champions, there's only one thing Al Baxter and his Beavers could wrestle to a standstill.
In an emotional press conference Monday night, with many of his athletes standing by, Baxter announced his retirement from coaching Buena Vista University wrestling, after he finishes seeing three of his 2004 wrestlers through the Division III National Championships, where they qualified this past week.
Baxter and his wife Vicki will relocate to Chesapeake, Virginia, to be close to family. "It will be about 45 second from our front door to the golf course," Baxter joked. "Of course, they will kick me off as soon as they learn that I leave divots you could drive a Volkswagen through."
The gregarious Baxter, giver of powerful backslaps and bearhugs, has set a standard in collegiate coaching that BVU President Fred Moore described as "astonishing."
Baxter was hired out of Lisbon High School, where he started a program that won five state titles in his nine years, earning his Iowa High School Wrestling Coach of the Year and later, Iowa High School Wrestling Hall of Fame honors.
He arrived at BVU in July, with not a wrestler is hand.
"I went to the dorm and literally started knocking on doors. 'Hey, have you ever rassled before?' (Baxter never uses the term "wrestling" - for him one "rassles.") You did once in P.E. class? Well, that's good enough."
That undermanned team finished dead last in the Iowa Conference. The next year, Baxter's Beavers went 15-1 and won the conference championship.
Moore said that Baxter has proven to be a "living legend" at BVU.
"Coach Baxter's name has become synonymous with Buena Vista Wrestling, but he will be sorely missed all over campus, not just in the wrestling room."
He has also contributed to the Admissions, Student Services and Institutional Advancement areas.
Baxter came out of little Morning Sun High School with 12 athletic letters for wrestling, football and track, compiling a 25-0 record for his school's first state wrestling championship in his senior year, as a svelte 165-pounder in 1965. He went on to Morningside College as an All-American wrestler and football player, and was later named Alumni Coach of the Year.
At BVU, he pinned down a meet record of 376-119-5, for a winning percentage over 75 percent in what is regarded as the toughest Division III conference in the nation.
His teams have beat the likes of Oregon State, and wrestled heads-up with the big boys such as Dan Gable's Iowa Hawkeyes, Iowa State and Michigan. His trophy case includes the prestigious Lifetime Service to Wrestling Award, and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame award (Iowa chapter) from 2000. He has been the Iowa Conference Coach of the Year five times and was the National Coach of the Year in 1990.
Along the way, he produced 37 Academic All-Americans, and 70 athletes who have gone on to be educators and coaches in nine states.
"Far more important than his record is the kind of person he is," Moore said. "To his guys, his wrestlers, he has been the very best mentor a young person could want," Moore said. "He has the ability that makes every person feel like they are the most important person in the world when they are talking to him, and I can see the smiles around the room, because all of you who know him know exactly what I'm talking about."
Baxter said that it is "hard to put into words" what BVU and Storm Lake have meant to him. "Getting to know the student athletes has been a pure pleasure, and it's wonderful to see the Christmas cards come in with my former wrestlers in pictures that now have one, two or three children in them also."
It won't be all the records and honors he will remember, Baxter said. "It's more important to know the success the students have had after graduation. If I've had a tiny bit - 1 percent - to do with any of it, I feel proud and very fortunate."
No drug could match the highs the sport has given over his career, he said. "I couldn't pick another profession that could give this kind of thrills and highs... I recommend it highly."
He insists that his competitive coaching career ends with the 2004 Nationals in a matter of days, but said that he hopes to find other ways to give something back to the sport, and said he wouldn't mind finding a niche in Virginia to work with children just getting started in wrestling.
The announcement brings a bittersweet reaction from far beyond the campus.
"I can personally say Al Baxter has been one of the most influential people in my life. I've always aspired to be like him because he has accomplished what he has done for the sport of wrestling with class and dignity," said Simpson College wrestling coach Ron Peterson, a former Baxter wrestler.
"Al Baxter has defined wrestling in the Iowa Conference for more than 25 years," agreed Iowa Conference Commissioner John Cochrane. "The work spent developing the sport nationally and regionally can be linked back to Coach Baxter."
"He's always been a class act," adds former Cornell College wrestling coach Steve Devries. "His great strength as a coach is his loyalty to his athletes.
"He's totally committed to his student-athletes, and that's what a Division III coach is. He's a joy to compete with - you love the guy for his integrity and great sense of humor. I consider him to be my best friend in coaching - and I spent two decades at Cornell trying to beat him!"
One more thing, says Baxter, a grin cracking through the emotion on his square face. Three of his boys in the BVU blue are still alive for Nationals in Dubuque, and if you have any spare prayers, send them that way, he asks.
There's just a bit more "rasslin" to be done.