Morgan closes out Hall of Fame coaching career after decade at Columbus High
By DAVID MITCHELL
Larry Morgan sat on a bench in the empty Columbus High weight room.
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It's a familiar location for the man, who had spent the past 10 years as the Blue Devils wrestling coach. He held the same position at Brookstone for the 14 years before that. For 41 years, he turned what he described as "an accident" into a Hall of Fame career. This summer, he is finally calling it quits.
For more than an hour, the coach sat, smiled and laughed, eagerly recounting his career from a self-proclaimed sub-par wrestler in high school to arguably the face of high school wrestling in the Bi-City area.
He talked about his own success, but, mostly, he told stories about the people that had gotten him here. It was a clear representation of a man who genuinely enjoyed the accomplishments of others above his own.
An unexpected career
Morgan's time in wrestling began in high school. He jokingly mocks his own ability in athletics back then by recounting how he fell into the sport.
He was a player on the basketball team his freshman year, though "player" may be a generous term.
"I was the 15th man on a 14-man team," he said with a laugh. "It was the rest of the players, the manager and then me. We were losing games, a couple by a lot, and I didn't get in then. I could see the writing on the wall, so I tried wrestling because they were always looking for people."
At the time, Morgan figured he was a good enough athlete and there wasn't much to it.
"I wrestled a kid who probably could barely bench the bar and he killed me in about 10 seconds," Morgan joked. "I thought, 'Wow, there must be a little more to this.'"
When he finished wrestling after two years in high school, he thought that was the end of it. He studied math and science at Kent State and was going to become a teacher. Shortly into his first job at a middle school in Ohio, the principal tried to start a middle school wrestling team.
"They asked the faculty if anyone had wrestled, and I said I had a little bit," Morgan said. "Obviously, I became the coach."
The middle school job turned into an assistant coaching job in high school, which, eventually, became a head coaching job when he took over at Armwood High (Fla.). He coached at Brookstone from 1989-2003 and Columbus from 2004-13.
"I wasn't looking for a coaching job," he said. "It just sort of happened. I always loved watching the sport, but wrestling really just kind of came about."
It may not have lasted, Morgan stated, if not for the guidance from a number of people along the way.
Learning on the fly
Morgan's first year as a head coach in middle school, his team wasn't very good. He decided early on that he'd have to devote a lot of time to learning so that he could pass along more information to the athletes.
"I started going to the varsity practices, camps, taking the kids to tournaments," he said. His eyes lit up as he recalled the memory. "I'd run these little rugrats all over the state of Ohio. Me and 14 middle schoolers --
"But we learned and improved. Seven of the 14 we started with became state champions in high school. They got full rides to college. Those kids were real successful. It was a win-win for the school and for me."
Morgan continued to meet and coach under a number of successful coaches over the years, including Hall of Famer Russ Kozar in Florida.
He coached with three other Hall of Famers over the years, whom he credits for his success.
"A lot of people say I've been successful," Morgan said.
"My success is because we as a wrestling community have worked at it. I got mentored by good coaches, and I've had great assistant coaches."
He's also had great wrestlers.
He coached Glenn Goodman in Florida, who became the state's first four-time individual state champion. John Adams, now a surgeon at St. Francis in Columbus, accomplished the same feat in Georgia.
Gaddy Soffer, who was born without fibula bones in his legs, wrestled without prosthetics and won three state championships. Dorian Henderson won three state championships and is the most decorated wrestler in Columbus history.
And there are plenty more.
"I was lucky to have coached those guys," Morgan said.
The feeling for many was mutual.
Making an impact
While Morgan insisted that the people he was surrounded by made his career, many of those people said the coach was just as influential to them.
Matt Hall, who wrestled for Morgan at Brookstone, has spent the past five years as a community coach and technician at Shaw, essentially running the program. Going into high school, he didn't have much wrestling experience. He also, admittedly, didn't have the maturity he needed to succeed at the school.
"When I was at Brookstone, I wasn't prepared to be there," Hall said. "There was a point where I wasn't doing well in math, and Coach wouldn't let me come down to practice until I had 30 minutes of tutoring."
Other former wrestlers shared similar sentiments about their coach.
"He could see who the natural leaders were and helped develop those skills," said Reynolds Bickerstaff, one of five Bickerstaffs who wrestled for Morgan.
"He worked really hard to give you the confidence you needed."
"I can't give just one instance," Adams said. "He was great at encouraging everyone. We understood that we'd only get out what we put in."
Current Smiths Station and former Hardaway coach Tommy Sanders praised Morgan for his willingness to help everyone, whether they were a potential opponent or not.
"No one else ever wants to answer questions, but Larry was always in it, I think, to improve wrestling as a whole, and for the boys," Sanders said.
"He didn't mind helping me to become a better coach, because that meant my kids became better wrestlers."
Morgan has a number of career highlights he marks off: A team state championship, 54 individual state championships, 40 college scholarships and an induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2006.
Speaking of his retirement, he looked back on what he accomplished, but, as he has for years, would not take the credit for himself.
"To me, I'm just commencing on to the rest of my life," Morgan said. "I have never planned my life. Life is a series of accidents. It was very accidental that I became a wrestler, that I became a wrestling coach. No one else wanted it. I was in the right place at the right time. You learn on the fly. The coaching that I learned was from four great people, and you hope you can continue to influence all those people around you."
David Mitchell, 706-571-8571; Follow David on Twitter @leprepsports.