Wisconsin high school state champ. Big Ten titlewinner for the University of Michigan. Founding coach of the successful Vacaville High wrestling program for a third of century. Inductee into a half-dozen Halls of Fame.
All these accomplishments describe Larry Nelson, legendary high school wrestling coach at Vacaville, who passed away at home Friday morning, April 17, of natural causes at age 90.
A major force in California wrestling, Lawrence Nelson was born in Wisconsin, where he won the 125-pound state title for Milwaukee South High School in 1947. He then headed to University of Michigan, wrestling for long-time head coach Cliff Keen as a two-year starter. During the 1949-50 season, Nelson wrestled at 128 pounds, compiling an 8-3 record. The following year, Nelson tallied a perfect 12-0 record, earning the 1951 Big Ten title at 123 pounds.
It was as a high school coach in California where Nelson really made a name for himself. In 1961, Nelson launched the wrestling program at Vacaville, located between the San Francisco Bay area and Sacramento. Here's how Joe Davidson, sportswriter for the Sacramento Bee, described the incredible growth of the program under Nelson's leadership: "Nelsom's first Vacaville team in 1961 included one athlete. By the time Nelson was done as the Bulldogs head coach in 1994, the roster filled a school bus."
Over 35 seasons as head coach, Nelson's teams compiled a 533-73 dual-meet record, second-highest in state history. With Nelson at the helm, the Bulldogs won six Sac-Joaquin Section, 15 SJS Divisional and 26 league championships.
After 1994, Nelson continued his coaching career at Vacaville, working as an assistant to the Bulldogs wrestling program up until he was 86 years old. Nelson once said, "This is what I do. I coach."
Actually, Nelson was more than a coach. He recorded sports events at Vacaville as a photographer/videographer, and taught English classes. In multiple interviews with students and instructors, more than one person mentioned that John Irving's classic wrestling novel "The World According to Garp" was Nelson's favorite book to teach.
Larry Nelson was a multi-dimensional individual with a singular focus on giving his best in all endeavors.
"He was just an iconic guy, very quiet, singled-minded," former football coach and Nelson assistant Fred Jones told the Daily Republic. "He started a great wrestling program, he developed the program. Larry brought a toughness to a whole generation of kids, his style of wrestling, what he believed in, the discipline of it all. His wrestlers all loved him. They worked extra hard for him."