James Burns: Livingston legend gets nod from state

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

Bud Powell lives in Border Town, USA, miles and years removed from the musky Livingston High wrestling room he once stalked.

Welcome to Blaine, Wash. -- the last American stop in the Pacific Northwest.

Powell and his bonny wife left the surf and sun of California in 2003 to be near their two sons and grandchildren.

You see, for Powell, a retired teacher and former wrestling coach, it's all about the kids.

His or someone else's.

"How's the weather down there?" Powell asked, laughing as if he already knew the answer.

"It's 40 degrees up here. We're struggling to stay warm."

And yet the sun continues to shine on Powell, a member of the California Wrestling Hall of Fame's 2009 class.

Powell will take his place among the state's all-time great wrestling names on May 16 during a banquet in Sacramento.

"He was pretty taken aback by it," said former pupil and Merced High wrestling coach Rick McKinney, who nominated Powell for the honor.

"Everything he did for the sport of wrestling was done unselfishly and for the kids.

"He recognized what the sport had to offer. It became for many, especially those in Livingston, a stepping-stone to college or making it in life."

My only question: What took so long? Powell's got more highlights than a high school cheer squad.

Powell coached for 10 years at Livingston High, turning the small, rural town into a wrestling hotbed during the 1970s.

He finished with a 124-67-3 record and twice had the state's No. 1-ranked dual meet team.

In 1974, at the height of a 21-0 season, Livingston knocked off Clovis High, the eventual state champs.

Three of his wrestlers went on to earn state medals -- the only three in Livingston's history.

Ron McKinney was the first. And Rick, the second.

Powell finished his career as an official and an evaluator, and even helped spark the California USA Wrestling organization.

"The things he instilled in me -- work ethic, accountability and being positive -- not only helped me after I was through with wrestling," McKinney said, "but it gave me the impetus to become a coach myself.

"When I talked to Bud about coaching, he said, 'Rick, make sure you give it your all. Those kids deserve it.' "

It was always about the kids with Bud, which is sort of how he fell into wrestling in the first place.

In a room full of wrestling coaches -- the diehard types -- Powell is the anomaly. The one-in-a-million.

He was never a wrestler, much less an avid fan.

The 71-year-old didn't grow up wearing singlets. He didn't hang out in musky wrestling rooms. Or fret about cauliflower ear or making weight.

His mat career began as an assistant, charged with keeping then-Livingston head coach Henry Stone organized.

Nothing technical.

Just make sure everything was in order.

After two years of mostly aide work, Powell settled into the skipper's seat.

For the kids.

Not for the glory.

"When he started coaching in 1967, I can remember him teaching us moves out of a book," McKinney said. "Still, I knew as a 9-year-old that Bud was a special person."

And, clearly, stubborn.

Powell wouldn't let himself fail, though it would have been easy.

He started a youth system at the surrounding elementary schools, the first of its kind in the Central Valley.

"I knew if I were going to survive, I'd need a competitive edge," Powell said. "When I took over as varsity coach, I started to get some of those kids in.

"We were averaging anywhere from 60 to 80 wrestlers. It made a huge difference."

He studied film, tapped other coaches for information and, yes, he did coach with his nose in a book.

Wrestling for Dummies -- except Powell was no dummy.

"I had to use every resource available to me," Powell said. "I wasn't proud. My pride never got in the way, that's for sure."

Though he's retired now, miles and years removed from his wrestling roots, Powell is humbled by this latest bit of news.

Bud Powell, a Hall of Famer?

"I don't know what I've ever done to deserve such an honor," Powell said. "I just did what I was supposed to do as a coach and an official.

"The best reward was to be with the kids."

James Burns is sports editor of the Sun-Star. He can be reached at