ALBANY -- Wrestling coaches are a breed apart, with a devotion to their sport often unmatched in other sports. But even in that unique circle, Albany High School's Kermit Bankson is a rare breed.
Bankson, the elder statesman among wrestling coaches in the North Coast Section, is retiring after 43 years. Instead of wrestling with teenagers, it's time to chase around after his two grandchildren, he said last month on the eve of his final Albany Invitational tournament.
"It's a job; it's what you did," Bankson said about spending his entire career with one sport at one school.
"People have no idea how hard he works and how dedicated he is to the sport," said Tyrone Rose, an assistant coach at Albany for the last 25 years. "He wants to provide the best experience for these kids. He asks for 100 percent and he makes sure he gives 100 percent."
Bankson came to Albany in a hurry and with little fanfare. After he mustered out of the Army in 1970, he talked to his college wrestling coach at San Francisco State University and was told Albany High needed a wrestling coach. The next day, Bankson said, he was hired as the coach.
That was 43 years and 23 league championships ago, with thousands of practices and hundreds of tournaments behind him.
"My body wore out," Bankson said with a laugh. "After all those years of kids trying to pull my arms and legs off and putting them back in the wrong places, it was just time."
Bankson is one of a handful of old-timers in the NCS. For example, Greg Chappell at Liberty has been running his program for more than three decades.
"Wrestling is unique," Bankson said. "There is a lot of give-back from people who wrestled before. It's really, really hard; you suffer through practice, then you go home and not eat a lot because you have to make weight.
"It's something we've all done."
One of the first wrestlers Bankson had in the room was Rose, who in 1974 finished second at 127 pounds in the California Interscholastic Federation State tournament and won a school-record 59 matches.
It was another 36 years before another Albany wrestler, 189-pounder Andrew Reggi, made it to the medal platform at the state tournament, taking eighth in 2010.
"But it's more than just winning and losing," Bankson said. "It's how the kids react, what they do after they get out of high school, what they've learned about what life is really like. Sometimes losing a match and seeing how (the wrestler) reacts to it is more important than winning matches."
Bankson is the second era-spanning coach to retire recently in the East Bay, though his announcement made none of the splash of Bob Ladouceur when he stepped down after 34 years as De La Salle's football coach. Though Bankson entered this season with more dual-match victories (464) than Ladouceur had football victories, the Albany coach would not put himself in the same class.
"He's in a world of his own," he said of Ladouceur. "He's the best coach there has ever been in the East Bay in any sport."
What Bankson has built is a solid, well-respected wrestling program which is competitive year in and year out within the NCS.
"The main thing for me is about maintaining the integrity of the program," Rose said. "He's leaving it in really good shape; there are certain things that we've done throughout the years that will never change. The character and morality of the program will always be intact."
It was a different generation in sports when Bankson began coaching at Albany. Football still favored the running game; basketball had no 3-point shots or dunks; and baseball players hit with wooden bats. But even though wrestling is fundamentally unchanged, the sport has embraced change at the high school level, Bankson said.
He is especially proud of the rise of girls wrestling in high school.
"We have a really good girls program," he said. "We've had girls place in state, in nationals, and win the NCS team title."
Student-athletes have changed with the times, too, but mainly their environment forces them to grow up faster, Bankson said.
"They're just kids," he said. "They do what kids do. It's become more dangerous nowadays and it's harder to grow up. They just want to be someplace where they can be safe."