Master of the Mats : He’s the Reason Wrestling Is Grand at Canyon : Coach Gary Bowden Has a Dynasty on His Hands
By STEVE LOWERY
FEB. 5, 1989 12 AM PT
TIMES STAFF WRITER
On the banks of the Riverside Freeway, underneath the mega-dwellings that dot Anaheim Hills, stands Canyon High School. And in the Canyon High gym, in its cavernous wrestling room, is a partially bald, barrel-chested man who failed at virtually every sport he tried, including a two-day, eighth-grade stint as a tackling dummy.
This is Gary Bowden, The Bear to his 100-plus kids, Master Manipulator to those who have seen him operate and architect/coach of the best wrestling team in Orange County this decade.
His Canyon teams have won three Southern Section 4-A championships (1984, 1987 and 1988) and are ranked No. 1 in that division this season. Overall--that’s varsity, junior varsity and frosh-soph--Canyon has a combined dual-meet record of 399-30-2 in the 1980s, a winning percentage of .928.
In the past nine years, the varsity has finished seasons ranked No. 1 in Orange County four times, No. 2 four times and No. 3 once. It has won nine consecutive Century League championships, and Tuesday, against Santa Ana Valley, it will very likely win its 50th consecutive league dual meet.
“Canyon (wrestling) is the envy of the county,” said Terry Lorentzen, Edison coach.
And it’s all because there is always some part of Gary Bowden, body and/or soul, in the gym.
“He is Canyon wrestling,” said Harris Oishi, a Canyon assistant for 10 years.
During the season, Bowden puts in 40 hours a week coaching and when he’s not coaching, he’s thinking about coaching--a fact that has aggravated his chronic insomnia to the point that he has to take sleeping pills the night before a match.
Bowden says he’s learning to relax but that’s news to his wife, Judy.
“He’ll be working in the yard but I’ll know what’s going through his mind is who’s going to wrestle at 119 (pounds) next season,” she said.
Added assistant coach Mike Gayer: “The man is a stress monster.”
Bowden, 41, is the only wrestling coach Canyon has had. In 15 years, the man who never considered coaching as a career in high school or college has learned to do some things very well, but none as proficiently as recruiting non-athletes and transforming them into very good wrestlers.
Here’s typical Bowden:
“Pardon me, are you a wrestler? You’re not? You look like a wrestler, did you know that? You’re an athlete, I can tell that by the way you walk, but you also walk like a wrestler. I’ve been around wrestling 20 years and I know a wrestler when I see one. If you’re not a wrestler, you should be one.”
So maybe you’ve heard better lines at office parties, but the bottom line is this: Bowden got 110 kids to come out for wrestling this season.
“It’s incredible,” Gayer said. “He gets kids who have no business being out for a sport or kids who are much better at basketball or soccer to come out and he makes them good wrestlers. He’s to wrestling what Ronald Reagan is to politics.”
The fact is Bowden has turned numerous kids who had little background in sports into champions of one kind or another.
Take Matt Shaff, whose most conspicuous physical feature was three scoops of brown hair piled on top of a 90-pound body when he caught Bowden’s eye four years ago. Shaff was weak--"If you had asked me to drop and give you one push-up, I couldn’t have done it."--and had little experience in organized sports. Still, Bowden promised that he would one day be a 190-pound “stud” if he came out for wrestling.
The result? Shaff is a senior wrestling on the junior varsity, nothing to be ashamed of since Canyon’s junior varsity is better than a good portion of the county’s varsity squads. In 1984, the Canyon junior varsity went to a varsity wrestling tournament at Brea-Olinda High and won the championship.
Shaff can now bench-press 160 pounds and is willing, bordering on frantic, to drop and give you 25 push-ups.
His body, however, fell 70 pounds short of the 190-pound goal.
“That doesn’t matter, I feel like I’m 190 pounds,” he said. “And I don’t feel bad about not making the varsity. Our whole program is so strong, just to be a part of it makes you feel great. Anyway, I look up on the wall and I see the pictures of those wrestlers and a lot of them never made it to varsity and look where they are.”
Where they are is on the walls surrounding the wrestling room, Canyon’s wrestling hall of fame. Now 80 members strong, it’s a collection of young men frozen in awkward wrestling poses--elbows drawn close to their bodies, fingers extended--which makes it appear they are really into tickling.
There is Rocky Flint, Canyon’s only state champion, and Tim O’Neil, a state runner-up revered as the school’s greatest wrestler because of his work ethic. There are the nine Southern Sections champions, as well as numerous league champions.
But there are also the likes of Darrin Louder, another kid who never made it to the varsity, but who “had absolute integrity,” according to Bowden. And there is Charlie Armendarez, a so-so varsity wrestler who was “trustworthy.”
“We’ve had a lot of very good wrestlers who never got on the wall,” Bowden said. “Winning isn’t what it’s all about.”
No, joss is. Webster’s dictionary defines joss as a Chinese god or idol. Bowden has added that it is the great ethical balance of the cosmos. If one is asked to do 10 push-ups and only does nine, joss will eventually get him.
“He tells you, ‘Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in the last 30 seconds of an overtime match, joss will get you,’ ” said wrestler Brad Mugar. “He makes you scared to ever cheat.”
Once Bowden set off on a six-mile run, only to have his ankle quickly throb with pain. Bowden, in agony, finished the run, nearly collapsing at the end.
“That’s joss , too,” he said. “Once you’ve set a goal, you have a moral responsibility to yourself to try and achieve it. That’s what I’m trying to teach.
“You look at the kids who come out for high school sports and very few of them are really championship athletic material. Most kids are average. The key is to get average kids to work like champions. If you work like a champion, you go up on the wall.”
Bowden knows a thing or two about being average since, growing up, it was something he could shoot for.
Bad at sports? He quit football in eighth grade after a two-day pounding. He tried basketball. “I had no clue what I was doing; it was a joke,” he said.
So he quit.
He tried baseball. “I might have liked it if I could ever have hit the ball,” he said.
So he quit.
Then, he tried wrestling. He liked it, he worked hard at it and as a 115-pound freshman attending high school in Loveland, Colo., he went 0-5 and was pinned all five times.
The family moved to Long Island, N.Y., during his sophomore year, where he went a nifty 4-6-2, followed by a break-even, 6-4-2, his junior year.
By the time his family moved to Fullerton, where he attended Sunny Hills High, Bowden had progressed to become a good 157-pound wrestler, finishing with a 12-4-1 record.
But the memory of those first three years seems to push him and will not allow him to cut a wrestler from the program, no matter how large the turnout.
“If they want to come out, we’ll always work to find them people and places to wrestle,” he said.
It’s also why one of his fondest memories is of a wrestler winning his first match after going winless for two years.
“I was jumping and yelling and whistling,” Bowden said. “I picked him up when he came off the mat and ran around with this kid, whose record is now 1-29, but that was one of the most thrilling moments I’ve ever had. To see that smile on his face, I projected myself into that. I remember what it was like to be a loser.”
Remembering is important to Bowden, a history teacher, who puts together copious accounts of each season in book form.
“It takes me four hours a day for at least a month to do it,” he said.
The year in review contains team records, inspirational poems and newspaper clippings. It has pictures of the girls who belong to the wrestling service organization Bowden created and dubbed the “Mat Maids.” The “Mat Maids” are so popular at Canyon that more girls (75) tried out for the group than boys (70) tried out for the football program.
The book chronicling the 1987-88 season contains more than 60 pages and its highlight, as with the other books, is the year-by-year recounting of the most memorable matches in Canyon history.
One can relive O’Neil defeating Lakewood’s Ray Gullmatico, a state champion who had beaten him 10 times, in the 1980 Masters’ Tournament. Or Flint, in his first varsity match filling in for an injured teammate, defeat a Southern Section champion. Who will ever forget when Art Bone made his legendary throw of El Modena’s Fernando Santiago in 1985 or when Dan Tisone pinned an opponent after being down, 11-0?
When members of the hall of fame return, practice is stopped and they are introduced along with their legend. Most of the kids already know the stories. Wrestlers are quizzed before each season about the highlights and stars that have come through the program. Those who fail “pay with some serious physical work,” according to Bowden.
History and tradition are important. So how long before Bowden himself is history? He says he’s made a commitment of five years beyond this season. After that, “Who knows?” he says.
Such is the feeling most involved with the program have when they try to think about Canyon wrestling without Bowden.
Gayer, who has been mentioned as a possible successor, said: “How could anyone replace Gary Bowden?”