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Minnesota West wrestling: Randy Baker formally accepts head coaching job

New Minnesota West wrestling coach Randy Baker (right) shakes hands with well-wishers Thursday after he was officially installed as the new head wrestling coach at Minnesota West Community and Technical College Thursday. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON -- “This man is an ambassador to the sport of wrestling,” said Minnesota West men’s athletic director Bob Purcell Thursday upon introducing Randy Baker as the new head coach of the Bluejays.

Baker, 64, one of the most well-known and most decorated high school coaches in the state, formally accepted the position at West at a press conference in the school’s commons area. He will be taking over from Bryan Cowdin, who stepped down at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season.

The hire of Baker brings to Worthington a molder of state high school team and individual champions who now hopes to rejuvenate a local college program that has seen better days. On Thursday, Baker said his goal is to improve the West wrestling program by bringing in recruits who are willing to work hard to become everything they can be.

The new coach has a resume second to none. He is a 1973 Jackson High School graduate. After an outstanding prep wrestling career, he competed at Worthington Community College where he was a two-time NJCAA national qualifier, placing fifth in the nation as a sophomore. He continued his career at Augustana University where he qualified twice for the Division II national tournament.

He became a full-time high school coach in Lakefield and continued in positions at Heron Lake-Okabena, Heron Lake-Okabena-Lakefield and Jackson County Central, taking 14 teams to Minnesota state tournaments and winning state championships seven times. He coached 39 individual state champs.

Besides coaching high school teams, Baker has coached in the MN USA ranks for 25 years in both freestyle and Greco Olympic styles. He has coached Cadet and Junior elite wrestlers where he was also hugely successful.

His many awards include induction into the WCTC Hall of Fame, Augustana Hall of Fame, Jackson County Wrestling Hall of Fame and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, Minnesota chapter. He was Man of the Year for USA Wrestler Magazine, National Developmental Coach of the Year USA Wrestling, MN USA Coach of the Year and USA Region Coach of the Year.

At the conclusion of the 2017-18 wrestling season at JCC, he stepped down from the head coaching job, though he continued to work as an assistant.

“At first, I wasn’t very interested (in the MW position). I was really ingrained in the program at JCC. The thing that concerned me most was the possibility of losing the West program. That’s what really motivated me, to start with,” he said.

Baker said Thursday that he has about 10 recruits in tow now, and he also hopes to bring back a few who competed at West in the 2018-19 winter season. It’s a bit late in the recruiting season, he pointed out, but some potential Bluejays can still be reached.

The longtime JCC mentor is well known as an inspirational leader. He is a demanding coach -- a trait that took hold during his own high school and college wrestling career and was nurtured through years of practical experience.

When he started as a high school coach, he brought some college ideas with him, like morning practices added to after-school practice time. In his first day of practice at JCC he often sent kids on a three-mile run to gauge which of his matmen were legitimately motivated.

“If you’re teaching things that help ‘em get better, they’re going to buy in,” he said Thursday. “I’ve had kids that wanted to work because of that internal drive -- they wanted to get better. And I think sometimes in this world you get some who want it to be easy. They want a re-set button. But they never get a re-set button on their opportunities. Sometimes, too, a lot of people don’t know what they’re capable of doing until they’re committed to something.”

It was difficult, Baker admitted, to lessen his involvement at JCC for Minnesota West. But as a coach who loves the sport, he’s determined to build the Bluejays up from where they’d been.

“I haven’t been this excited in a while. The challenge is to get kids in here who you can work with,” he said. “I’ve learned some stuff over a long career.”