JACKSON -- Drifting through Jackson County Central High School after class can be dangerous.
Randy Baker sat on a corridor bench one afternoon this week as winter sports practices began. An unsuspecting underclassman ran up on his left, began climbing the stairs, but stopped short when Baker spotted him.
“When are you going out for wrestling again. Next year?” the longtime JCC coach called out to him.
The young man tried to continue on his way, glancing at the coach with a forced smile. But Baker persisted. The teenager eventually made it up the stairs, but not without something to think about.
Moments later, a seventh-grade wrestler passed through that same hallway. Baker called out to that one, too, asking him where he was going.
“To the weight room,” he said.
Baker said he should return, instead, to the wrestling room. “That’s where champions are built,” he told him.
The veteran coach turned to the reporter. “Guys that are looking to get out of work go to the weight room,” he explained, smiling knowingly.
If Randy Baker seems like more than just a wrestling coach, it’s because he’s also a father figure to many of the athletes who have gone through the high school system. He’s brutally honest. He’s tough. He knows exactly what it takes for a young man to succeed, and he doesn’t mince words.
How can a wrestling coach get away with being so tough, so honest, so personal, with them?
It’s easy. Baker has earned that right.
He has coached 38 individual high school champions, which ranks him No. 2 on the all-time Minnesota list. He has led teams to seven state championships. Among his numerous awards are 1993 Minnesota State High School Coach of the Year, 1997 Minnesota Wrestling Man of the Year, and 2001 USA Wrestling Development Coach of the Year. InterMat Wrestling has called him “one of the brightest wrestling minds around.”
At some point during the 2016-17 Jackson County Central season, Baker achieved his 500th career wrestling victory. The exact number is elusive. Baker thinks it might be 502.
And when you ask the coaching legend how he comes by his boldness in an age where kids, parents and school administrators have grown hypersensitive to perceived slights and indignities, the corners of Baker’s mouth lift ever so slightly. It is a look as old as Baker himself -- the look your father, uncle or grandfather might have given you when he was about to reveal an important life lesson.
“I coach real honest,” he replies. “It’s hard for me to lie to kids. I’m not one to put up a smokescreen to a kid. And I think a lot of them appreciate it.
“It’s kind of like when their dad talks to them. When my dad said something to me, I listened to him. Back then, I wasn’t so afraid of the school staff as much as when I got home.”Caring enough to push
High school athletics today isn’t what it used to be. In wrestling, too, Baker remembers years when teams had A, B and C squads and programs filled their weight classes with “the next guy up.” Today, it’s not all that uncommon for some of the best high school programs to struggle from time to time filling all the weights. It happened at JCC this year, in fact.
In spite of this being a “down” year for the Huskies -- at least in terms of team strength -- the squad possesses two or three wrestlers capable of placing at state. Baker is there for all of them. Pushing, encouraging, listening, explaining, showing.
“I care about you, or I wouldn’t spend so much time on you,” he says.
A two-time state qualifier during his own high school career in Jackson, Baker continued on to success at Worthington Community College and Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. For five years after competing in the national tournament and serving as senior captain at Augie (and for two years as a graduate assistant), he tried unsuccessfully to land a coaching job in southwest Minnesota.
Coaching jobs were scarce. He bided his time doing construction work before his first position opened up in the Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield district in 1984. Lakefield melded with Jackson in 1994, and Baker more-or-less seamlessly made the adjustment.
In the early years, he spent a lot of time showing moves to his wrestlers. Now, he says, he spends a great deal of time “doing the mental stuff” -- talking about grades, getting them to practice. He has worked with several students suffering from broken homes, which may partially explain the father figure side of him.Never too old to learn
Even after more than 30 years as a coach, he still tries to learn new things. He loves to learn. He has spent countless hours watching tournaments and going to clinics. He likes to pick up what he can from other successful coaches.
He has a lot of stories to share about one-on-one encounters with athletes, and their parents, too.
He remembers one time thinking about one of his best wrestlers who needed motivation. So between seasons, he publicly announced who his captains would be for the next year, purposely leaving out the name of his lackadaisical would-be star. The call came the next day from the wrestler’s mother, father, and also the wrestler himself.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to handle this, because I’ve got ‘em right where I want ‘em?’” Baker recalled years later.
Baker knew that his subject needed to work harder. And eventually, he did. The next year he won a state championship.
Baker has created other “catastrophes.” He once threatened to cut a kid for not working hard enough. The kid’s parents came to talk with the coach, got the story, and promised their son would always get to practice on time and work hard in the wrestling room.
It’s hard to have success, Baker says, unless an athlete is willing to listen.
“Kids need to be pushed to their potential. Most kids are lazy or they don’t know what it takes to achieve,” says the celebrated coach.
Perhaps it goes back to Baker’s own wrestling years. Once while wrestling at Augustana, he won a big match and bounded off the mat feeling very proud of himself and expecting a warm reception from his coach. Instead, his coach yelled at him. It made Baker angry, but it also made him work harder than ever before.
People are individuals. Some need a kind word and an arm around the shoulder. Others need a kick in the pants. And sometimes the matter is out of a coach’s hands.
He recalls that in the early 1990s one of his top wrestlers quit, only to return later and place third in the state. In 1998 another wrestler lost a wrestle-off after the Christmas break, left the wrestling room in anger and never came back.
Baker has seen how some kids dig in their heels, and the more you pressure them to reconsider, the more stubborn they become.
“When a kid quits now, I just tell (the other coaches), ‘Don’t even talk to him. … We don’t even go after him any more,” Baker says.
Sitting on the corridor bench moments before returning to the wrestling room, Baker said he hasn’t yet decided how many years he wants to continue being a head coach. He longs to see more of his four grandchildren who live in North Carolina.
Wrestling takes a lot of time, he points out. And still … although he’d like the freedom to do more things, he still wants to be around the sport.
“It’s kind of a way of life. It was kind of like that when I was wrestling in high school,” he admits.
So it’s not surprising then, that the longtime wrestling coach -- with all the lines and creases on his face from years and years of sweating along with his kids in steamy wrestling rooms -- says he still gets a big kick walking into the Xcel Energy Center in March, or wherever the state tournament meets.
“... when you’ve got a kid who’s ready to do some real damage.”