Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
BAYFIELD – In his last match as the head wrestling coach for Bayfield High School, Herb Stinson watched Aaron Velasquez win a state championship before a standing room only crowd at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Nice retirement present.
But Velasquez had yet another retirement gift for Stinson, who this season ended his 12-year tenure with the Wolverines: Velasquez recently signed to wrestle at the University of Northern Colorado.
“It’s an exciting time for me,” Stinson said. “I’ve had Division I wrestlers before, but they’ve had to go the back-door route ... through junior college. Now, he’s one who’s coming in the front door.”
Stinson’s final high school state champion, the 65th in his storied 30-year coaching career, is his first NCAA Division I wrestling signee.
Stinson will take his latest champion and a lifetime of memories into retirement in his native New Mexico.
That’s where Stinson’s wrestling story began.
Stinson, who was born in Farmington, was a standout prep wrestler at nearby Aztec. He qualified for the New Mexico state championships three times and twice placed at state.
He went on to win the Nevada AAU state championship before wrestling in college.
First, it was Dixie College in St. George, Utah, then a junior college.
Stinson finished his college wrestling career at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.
He started coaching at Dixie High School before helping at Southern Utah for a season.
He was the wrestling coach at Bloomfield High School for one year before becoming an assistant coach at his alma mater Aztec in 1976. He took over as the head coach at Aztec High School in 1978.
Stinson this year finished his head coaching career after 34 seasons, and his New Mexico prep wrestling teams remain the stuff of legends.
Stinson’s Aztec wrestlers won the New Mexico state championship 12 times.
Three times, the Tigers were state runners-up.
Three times, Aztec finished third in the state meet.
His teams won 17 district championships, including one during his tenure at Bayfield.
Stinson’s 1998 Aztec team still is considered one of the best in New Mexico history.
“We had 10 in the finals and ended up with eight (state) champions,” Stinson said. “But you know what, the 2000 team was really better than that ’98 team. We had five undefeated kids on the 2000 team.”
From those state champions, Stinson ended up coaching 18 high school All-Americans, including Velasquez.
Six times, Stinson was honored as the coach of the year in his division in New Mexico. Twice Stinson was named the high school wrestling coach of the year (1995, 2000).
At his retirement, Stinson ranked No. 3 nationally with 139 wrestling tournament titles.
Stinson credited his success in New Mexico to aggressive scheduling and experience.
“We did things differently back then in Aztec,” Stinson said. “We’d go where there was competition. We’d go to California to wrestle; we’d go to Florida to wrestle; we’d go to Hawaii ... that was a big recruiting thing,” said Stinson, who added New Mexico is more lenient on out-of-state sports travel than states such as Colorado.
“And we wrestled at Alamosa a ton,” Stinson said. “That made the whole difference ... the level of competition.”
From Alamosa coach Gary Ramstetter, Stinson learned what would become the foundation of his program in Aztec and later in Bayfield – the tilt.
“We learned the tilt after he beat us with it one year,” Stinson said of the wrestling move.
“Now, we have a really good tilt system,” he said of the hold that has produced piles of points for the Wolverines in recent years.
After building the powerhouse at Aztec, Stinson opted for a change of pace in 2000. He took a teaching and coaching job at Bayfield High School, leaving behind a cadre of top New Mexico wrestlers.
“I could have stayed in Aztec, and we had the pieces in place to win three more state championships,” Stinson said. “But I was getting a little stale. I needed a new challenge ... that’s what I was looking for.”
With a total of eight Bayfield wrestlers out his first season, Stinson immediately built one of the bigger programs in the Four Corners.
“I’ve always been kind of a used-car salesman when it comes to recruiting kids to wrestle,” Stinson said.
He sold it, and the Wolverines bought it.
His last Colorado state champion before Velasquez, Jordan Larsen, just finished his distinguished collegiate wrestling career at the Colorado School of Mines.
But there’s more than college wrestling at the end of the high school road for Stinson and his thousands of prep wrestlers.
“That’s one of the challenges of wrestling. You have to have a variety of kids,” Stinson said.
Plus, he said, there are no shortcuts in the sport of wrestling.
“That’s what high school athletics are all about,” Stinson said. “This (college signing) is great, and I love it. When you sign a young man to a college scholarship ... that’s fantastic,” Stinson said.
“But that’s not why I do this,” said Stinson, who also coached baseball and football at the high school level.
“I do this to help kids grow up,” Stinson said.
“Later on, I get to see them with their families ... they become doctors, lawyers, engineers,” Stinson said. “You go to their weddings ... you, unfortunately, go to their funerals. But it’s all part of the cycle.”
And they all are wrestlers at heart – still.
And they still call Herb Stinson by a beloved title earned over years and years; they still call him “coach.”
It’s a title he’ll forever embrace, even as he starts another new chapter as a new assistant wrestling coach at Aztec High School, back at his alma mater.
“I’ll still be around. You’ll still see me,” Stinson said.