San José City College Centennial: Sam Huerta

SJCC Coach Sam Huerta

When Sam Huerta first started as the football and wrestling coach at San José City College in 1968, he lived across the street from the college and could run home for lunch. Once the 280 freeway was built, he knew it was time to move to another house. Much has changed over the 52 years Sam has worked at City College. The City of San José has grown exponentially, changing from orchards to computer technology. And at City College, Sam went from coaching men’s football and wrestling to women’s softball and volleyball, thanks to Title IX, a federal law protecting people from discrimination based on sex which started many women’s collegiate sports teams.

Sam retired from full-time coaching and teaching in 2004, but he still teaches kinesiology classes at City, such as cardio kickboxing, and is as active as ever.

Thanks to City College’s centennial celebration, we had the chance to talk with Sam about his time coaching and witnessing many of the amazing moments in City College’s athletic history.

What got you into sports and coaching?

I am from Hayward. I was brought up in the country. I joined in whatever sport was being played. I was always the littlest and youngest guy, but I always participated with the bigger, older guys. In high school, I played football. After I didn’t make the basketball team, my friend said I should try wrestling. The wrestling coach was my football coach. He needed someone in my weight class and threw me into a match the next day, knowing nothing more than three moves I learned the day before. I didn’t win, but that didn’t discourage me.

That was the middle of my sophomore year. By my senior year, since they didn’t have a state championship at that time, I went to the highest level you could go in California. I won the Northern California Championships at UC Berkeley.

“Every year for the past 10 years, there have been wrestlers I’ve coached who are coaching wrestlers going to the national championships. That’s kind of neat. The Jaguar roots extend a long way.”

Sam Huerta on coaching Wrestling at San José City College

I got recruited to go to Modesto Junior College and Cal Berkeley. I walked on Berkeley’s campus and said, “no, a country boy does not go to Berkeley!” I was at Modesto for two years and transferred to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to follow my old high school wrestling coach there. I loved it. Tuition was only $60 a year to attend. Now, it’s almost $10,000 a year, and you need a 1400 on the SAT and a 4.2 or 4.3 GPA. I couldn’t get in now.

I chose to be a business major. After one week with accounting and business machines, I asked my coach how he got to where he was, because I decided I wanted to do what he was doing. He helped me choose the right major and classes.

After college, I coached high school football. San José City College at the time had a graduate night class with Jim Whelahan and City College’s football coach, ex-San Francisco 49er, Harley Dow, where you would listen and learn from outstanding college and professional football coaches. A group of us from Hayward and Castro Valley would drive in for the classes and discuss them on the way back. We thought we were that much better as coaches for going to these.

One day, Harley Dow said, “we’re going to have a position open next year for a football / wrestling guy. If you know anybody, pass the word around.” Since I wanted to apply, I didn’t want the extra competition by telling anyone.

Larry Arnrich, the athletic director from City College, called me to come for an interview. It was a whirlwind interview in one day. I meet President Dr. Otto Roemmick, as well as the vice president, and Larry Arnrich who introduced me to the coaches. By the end of the interview, Dr. Roemmick said, “Sam, you want the job?”

That was how I started! I wasn’t looking for a new job. I enjoyed coaching high school football and wrestling. I didn’t think I wanted to move, until I started going to those night classes and being exposed to that aspect of coaching.

What was it like when you first got to City College?

When I first came to City College, the energy was just unbelievable. Silicon Valley wasn’t a thing then. It was the Valley of the Heart’s Delight supplying the world with all kinds of fruit and produce. On Bascom from Moorpark to McDonalds, it was all orchards. The city’s population was just over 230,000. Within a few years it became the fastest growing city in the United States. City College was also expanding to meet the demands of local start-ups for computer technicians by adding different electronics and computer courses. It cost $6 a unit back then.

As a coach in the 60’s, I was also an athlete’s counselor. I would make sure students had the proper courses to transfer to a four-year school within two years, because there was no reason for them to hang around wasting time. We recruited players every Thursday. We would meet the coaches of the different sports, introduce ourselves, and ask them about their student athletes. We would meet the parents, go to their homes, and invite them to campus.

I coached both football and wrestling for seven years until they were able to hire another coach. They gave me a choice between the two. I chose wrestling since there were more football coaches around. I coached wrestling for a few more years before Title IX came in, giving me other programs to run.

Our wrestling program was very successful. Within a couple of years, we had our first All-American wrestler and ended up with 42 All-Americans and five state champions. We missed the state championship by only a couple points.

“I thank my wife who once said she thought she sat in every bleacher in the state watching and supporting our teams.”

Sam Huerta

What happened?

That year, the state championship was at Fullerton College in southern California. Our best wrestler, Richard Calderon, was undefeated at that time, as well as a wrestler from southern California. Back then, we didn’t have a way then to watch competitor wrestlers beforehand, so I watched him in a match during the tournament. I then told Richard how he should wrestle this guy in order to beat him.

After Richard got into the semifinals, he came up to me saying, “you don’t have to worry, coach.” I asked him what he meant. He said, “I told my friend from Chabot College how to beat him.” That day, Chabot College and San José City College were within one point of each other to win the state championship. Whoever went to the finals would get seven points while the one who didn’t make the finals would only get three. If his friend didn’t make it to the finals, Richard and City College would have been that much more ahead.

I explained what could happen. Sure enough, his friend from Chabot beat the southern California guy, giving Chabot four additional points. We lost by just two or three points.

At the beginning of a wrestling tournament, a coach determines whether to enter as a small or large college. I always wanted to go with the big boys. As far as our enrollment was concerned, we were a small college. Chabot was a big college. Harley Dow said to me, “Sam, go small college and you can win the state championship. After you finished coaching in 10 or 20 years, nobody’s gonna remember whether it was a small college or a big college, just that you were state champion!” I’m just too stubborn, I guess.

Watch Sam Huerta’s induction speech into the California Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2011

Richard went on to the University of Washington and was a two-time All-American. He was ranked second in the nation his senior year in college. He was injured during the season. He still placed as an All-American. After graduation he became a San José police captain and then Chief of Police in Gustine.

Many of our wrestlers transferred to four-year colleges and placed nationally. Many became wrestling coaches. The benefits of coaching and getting to my age are that you get to see your former wrestlers coach and follow their success. Every year for the past 10 years, there have been wrestlers I’ve coached who are coaching wrestlers going to the national championships. That’s kind of neat. The Jaguar roots extend a long way.

It’s great fun to get together from time to time with former students and catch up on events that occurred.  That’s the part of coaching you enjoy.

What other sports did you coach at City?

When Title IX came in, they had to drop my wrestling program, which was difficult for me because we were so successful – we were second or third in the state at the time with All-Americans every year. My friend Bob Jones had his swimming and water polo programs dropped and was given women’s cross country and track.

I was given women’s volleyball and softball. After I got the news, I asked myself, what am I going to do? I had been coaching wrestling for 16 to 17 years. Bob put his arm around me, because he’s a little bit older, and said, “Sam, just look at this as a career change.” All of a sudden, it clicked for me, and I started coaching and recruiting.

By this time, several other local colleges had already established outstanding programs, so it was difficult to recruit players. In wrestling, we always had wrestling tournaments. I would bring in teams from all over the state to compete on our campus. That way, we wouldn’t have to spend money traveling and we could compete. I did the same thing with volleyball. We had a large volleyball tournament every year. I also reached out to high schools and set up a high school tournament. It was a good way for me to recruit and see the high school kids play at our campus.

We ended up having one of the largest two-day high school tournaments in the state. Kids loved it. Teams participated from all over the state, even Nevada. We started clinics for the coaches so they could gain exposure and have better success, since volleyball wasn’t most coaches’ first strength. We started recruiting really well after that.

“We ended up having one of the largest two-day high school (volleyball) tournaments in the state. Kids loved it. Teams participated from all over the state, even Nevada.”

Sam Huerta

I want to thank all the high school coaches that contributed to our success at City College, because without them, we wouldn’t have gotten to where we were. They sent kids into all our programs. If it wasn’t for those kids, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. I thank all the families I met over the years. And I thank my wife who once said she thought she sat in every bleacher in the state watching and supporting our teams.

I think what also helped was our group of coaches were so cohesive. We knew each other’s families and would celebrate wins and losses together. You can’t think lightly about that, because those friendships last a long, long time. Those are just fun memories that always stick in the back of my mind. It was great. The time was right when I got the job. I look back, and I’m thankful God opened up the door, and said, “you got the job, let’s see what you can do with it!”