Benefield: Petaluma High’s Denny Plyler stepping off the mat (w/video)

Petaluma wrestling coach Denny Plyler cheers on his team as they face off against Healdsburg, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. Plyler has been coaching at Petaluma for 40 years. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Petaluma wrestling coach Denny Plyler cheers on his team as they face off against Healdsburg, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. Plyler has been coaching at Petaluma for 40 years. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

By KERRY BENEFIELD

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

It had to happen sometime. Forty years is a long stretch.

Turns out, “sometime” was very nearly last year.

Denny Plyler, Petaluma High School’s wrestling coach since Richard Nixon was president, had a letter of resignation written last year. He just had to scoot out of wrestling practice a little early and drop the envelope off at the district office by 4:30 p.m. and the deal was sealed.

Then Plyler got to teaching — teaching athletes wrestling, teaching kids discipline and habit forming and a work ethic. Just teaching — with the letter of resignation still in his pocket.

“I got so busy working with the kids, I looked up and it was 10 to 5,” he said. “So I wadded it up and threw it in the garbage can and said, ‘Well, it’ll be another year.’ ”

So this year is the year. The guy who started with the Trojans as an assistant in 1974 and took over the program in 1975 is handing over his whistle. Oh, wait. He doesn’t use a whistle. Doesn’t even shout much. He might be the quietest guy in the workout room.

Petaluma wrestling coach Denny Plyler talks to Michelle Larsen before she took the mat against Healdsburg, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

Petaluma wrestling coach Denny Plyler talks to Michelle Larsen before she took the mat against Healdsburg, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

“He is not a very loud man,” said longtime assistant Mike Butts, whose younger brother and two sons have wrestled for Plyler at both Petaluma Junior High and Petaluma High.

“When he does bark, he’ll make it be known that you are not working hard enough,” he said.

Plyler knows something about hard work.

In addition to 40 years at the helm of the Petaluma High wrestling program, he has coached wrestling at Petaluma Junior High for 35 years, as well as long coaching stints in the football and track programs at the high school.

“I was eager to sign up for it,” he said. “That was the problem.”

It also didn’t hurt that as a former collegiate wrestler at both Santa Rosa Junior College and Long Beach State, he was good. That in the words of the guys he faced off against year in and year out, he was the guy you draw up when you are putting together the ideal prep coach: Decent, fair, hard-working, skilled, calm, competitive, kind, patient.

“He is exactly what a high school coach should be,” said longtime Healdsburg wrestling coach Scott Weidemier.

“He certainly wants to win, but he will not trade ethics for winning,” he said. “He absolutely values ethics above all. He understands he’s there, one, to teach them about a sport, but you are also there to teach young men and women about the values of life, ethics and being a good person.”

But make no mistake, Plyler’s Trojans racked up some wins.

They won the Sonoma County League title in 1991 and collected five league titles in a row — among stiff competition — from 1998 to 2002. They won league and the North Coast Section in 2007.

But Plyler’s squads were built on fundamentals and work ethic, more than stars. Sure, he had some kids along the way he calls the “red hots,” the kind of athletes who are good at whatever they try. But he also had the kids who didn’t know a cradle hold from cradle cap. He taught them all.

“He is one of the most just men I have ever met,” Butts said. “He is fair, he plays by the rules. . . . He has a set of morals that life has presented him and he puts it out there for the kids.”

And the kids generally reflect their coach, said Santa Rosa JC wrestling coach Jake Fitzpatrick.

“What you get from Denny is a good, even-keeled man,” he said. “He is the kind of coach who breeds good, tough competitors on the mat, but they are good, nice kids off the mat.”

When team captain Eric Machado was asked this week what Plyler has taught him, there was no pause.

“Everything,” he said.

“He cares for all of us. You just know. The way he talks to you, he’ll pull you over if there is something wrong.”

As much as he’s doled it out over the years, Plyler has received patience and care in a time of need and he knows a team can do more than pull you through a brutal practice or a tough loss.

In 1975, when Plyler was a young math teacher and a multi-sport coach with the fullest of plates, he and his wife, Tina, lost their first baby at birth. Doctors suspected they knew the cause, but the Plylers approved an autopsy — a painful decision credited with helping others better understand birthing complications.

“It was a tragedy, but in the long run they learned a lot from our experience,” he said.

Plyler’s coaching peers brought flowers for Tina and steady shoulders for Denny.

“In a loving way, they got me back on the course,” he said.

“I’ve been blessed to have wonderful assistant coaches,” he said.

And it is largely to those coaches that Plyler will pass the baton.

Butts will continue on, as will others. And Paul Schloesser, a first-year teacher at Petaluma who is an assistant this season after stints at Windsor and Redwood High in Larkspur, is expected to take the head coach’s job.

“It’s intimidating,” Schloesser said.

When Schloesser was still in Marin County, he knew Coach Plyler long before Coach Plyler knew him.

“Everyone always talked about the guy up in Petaluma,” he said. “He walks into the gym and you can feel his presence.

In other gyms, other coaches — everyone loves being around Denny. He knows what he is doing, he knows what it’s about.”

So that wooden board up on the wall in the wrestling room that shows the name of all of the varsity and junior varsity wrestlers, as well as the coaches, is coming down after the season. Some adjustments will be made. After 40 years, “D. PLYLER” will be removed. And everyone will just have to get used to it.

“I think they got their money’s worth out of me,” Plyler said.

He’s going to keep coaching the junior high athletes, teach them the basics and move them on to the Trojans program.

But he’ll no longer have the high school kids, he will no longer teach math. He might ref some. He might surf some. And he has three grandkids to chase around.

It is time. He didn’t miss the deadline to drop off the letter this year.

“My wife of 42 years — we dated two and were engaged for one. She has been pretty patient with me,” he said.

Weidemier, the Healdsburg coach who has had some pitched battles with the Trojans over the years, struggled to put into context Plyler’s impact on not just the Trojans’ program but wrestling across the county. The guy was an advocate for all teams, for all kids, no matter who they suited up for, Weidemier said.

And he paused, trying to find the right words to convey what kind of guy Plyler is.

And then he nailed it.

“He really is just a good, kind man.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.