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Benefield: After nearly four decades, SRJC’s Jake Fitzpatrick calling time on coaching career

Jake Fitzpatrick used to lunge at his younger sisters with a knife.

Don’t worry. He wasn’t wielding what could be considered a real knife. And it wasn’t even a real fight.

Turns out that the Fitzpatrick family, six kids strong, were deep into judo when Jake, the longtime wrestling coach at Santa Rosa Junior College, was young.

The entire brood all got so good at judo that they would do exhibitions of sorts — for Rotary clubs, luncheon meetings and the like.

And in every skit and every fake scenario that would unfold as local business leaders ate their baked chicken, Jake Fitzpatrick was tapped as the bad guy, the one creeping up on an his unsuspecting sisters.

And ultimately, he’d always get dropped.

“I was the throwing dummy,” he said. “The sensei would do a demonstration and I was the one with the stick or knife or gun and they would throw me.”

I asked if he got the gig because he was the youngest of the brood.

“No. I’m the oldest,” he said.

Those setups were Fitzpatrick’s first foray into “controlled fighting,” a term he later used to describe wrestling — a sport to which he would dedicate his life.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow’

It was partially that judo background that gave Fitzpatrick a leg up when he walked into a wrestling room at his high school in Ypsilanti, Mich.

He was a new kid on campus. He wasn’t part of the team — yet — but a team leader heard he was strong and had a background in judo.

“It was ‘So and so wants to meet you.’ They heard about judo and he wanted to try me out,” Fitzpatrick, 71, said.

Fitzpatrick, then a sophomore, didn’t have much by way of a wrestling background, but he hung in well enough against a veteran from the team to earn an invitation to come back.

“We went at it for awhile and he said, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’” he said.

That tomorrow turned into thousands of tomorrows. It turned into weight room sessions, van rides, weekend tournaments, long runs and practices. And tens of thousands of practice hours.

Fitzpatrick, who turned in his letter of retirement from SRJC earlier this month, has spent nearly four decades with that program alone.

‘I was competitive’

A somewhat itinerant high school and junior college career landed Fitzpatrick at Sonoma State where he earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and was a solid college wrestler.

Solid, but not outstanding, he said.

“I was never great at anything really, but I was competitive,” he said.

As his college career wound down, his coach connected him with someone in the athletic department at Santa Rosa Junior High. The thinking was that he might make a good coach.

He was handed a key to the wrestling room, and he’s never looked back.

He had stints at Santa Rosa High and a Hall of Fame-worthy run at Piner High School before being hired in 1984 to take over the junior college program.

Actually he was hired in 1983, but the program was promptly scrapped because of budget woes. Fitzpatrick waited, and a year later when the team was put back together, he was the coach.

Under his tutelage, the Bear Cubs have been conference champs six times. He’s been conference coach of the year five times. He’s coached four individual state champs, 11 state finalists, 32 All-Americans and 65 academic All-Americans.

And he’s done that while, for the bulk of his career, teaching science next door at Santa Rosa High. He’s never been what is considered a full-time coach at the JC.

“Jake has been running an exceptional program for 37 years with limited resources and limited space,” college athletic director Matt Markovich said.

And he’s become one of the heaviest hitters in the state when it comes to wrestling expertise, Markovich said.

“Jake is the guy,” he said. “It’s always ‘Let’s talk to Jake in Santa Rosa about how to do it,’ or ‘How to run regionals? Let’s talk to Jake,’ and ‘Hey, let’s talk to Jake about the state meet.’ ”

“It’s invaluable,” he said.

For his work as a coach, official and general authority on the sport, Fitzpatrick was inducted into the California Wrestling Hall of Fame with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019.

He is in Piner High’s athletic Hall of Fame, too.

‘He’s got a little bit of everything’

But Fitzpatrick’s gifts go beyond athletics, said one of his former wrestlers and coaching colleague.

Kevin Guinn was a key piece, an All-Conference guy and state placer, on what was, arguably, Fitzpatrick’s best team back in 2001.

The stats and the awards are not what Guinn counts as the key takeaways from those seasons spent in the JC wrestling room.

Guinn, now the junior varsity coach at Windsor High, recalls other aspects of his Bear Cubs experience under Fitzpatrick.

He remembers the bond that the team forged in a short time together. Rivals just months before, once they hit the JC campus, they were teammates.

And the coaches built that.

And Fitzpatrick had a unique understanding of what drove athletes. And he knew it wasn’t the same thing for every kid.

“He’s got a little bit of everything,” Guinn said. “(Fitzpatrick) was good at reading the person. You can’t treat every kid the same. You find out what motivates them. He’d find out what drove you and use that.”

But Fitzpatrick’s investment in athletes extended beyond the wrestling room, Guinn said.

“It seemed like (he) cared about you as a person,” he said. “Even if life was going well, (he) would want to talk to you and see how life was going and how you were doing as a person.

“Being a good coach is being a good person,” he said.

After wrestling at Waldorf College in Iowa, Guinn returned to the JC and worked alongside Fitzpatrick as an assistant for years before heading to Windsor.

But they were never equals, he’s quick to point out.

“It’s not Jake, it’s not this or that. It’s Coach,” he said. “For me we were never equal, he was the coach.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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