Tim Berrier made his Tucson wrestling debut on Dec. 2, 1979. He wrestled for Iowa State, which had won five of the last 10 NCAA championships, and was to college wrestling what Alabama is to college football.
The Cyclones beat Arizona 37-5 on that long-forgotten day, but it was the beginning of one of the most compelling sports stories in Tucson history.
The son of a milkman from Urbandale, Iowa, Berrier is a self-made American success story. It’s not just that his Ironwood Ridge wrestling teams have won three state championships — and could win No. 4 this weekend — or that his son, Paul Vasquez, won two state titles himself.
It’s not that Berrier coached at Catalina, Salpointe Catholic, Pueblo, Amphi and Pima College before arriving at Ironwood Ridge. It’s not that he transferred from Iowa State to Arizona, blew out his knee and cracked the lineup just as the UA eliminated wrestling from the athletic department.
And it’s not that Berrier was a Fulbright Scholar and taught English in Puebla, Mexico, or worked 3½ years for Hughes Aircraft, or was an accountant in a factory in Nogales, Sonora, or that he has lived in Baja California, or spent a year studying in Spain, or that now he teaches yoga classes.
It’s all of those things.
In 1978, Berrier won an Iowa state wrestling championship for the Urbandale J-Hawks, as his brother, Chuck, had done a few years earlier. In the land of wrestling immortal Dan Gable, winning a state wrestling title was a stamp of manhood and success.
“It was front-page news,” Berrier recalls. “You had to get your ticket to the state tournament a year in advance.”
But after Berrier returned from that 1979 meet in Tucson, he separated his shoulder and couldn’t wrestle. Two of his siblings lived in Southern Arizona. It was freezing times 10 in Ames, Iowa, and so Berrier called Arizona wrestling coach Bill Nelson.
Given his credentials, Berrier was given a scholarship with one phone call. It was both good and bad timing. Arizona eliminated wrestling a year later, and Berrier pursued a business degree.
To feed his wrestling appetite, he volunteered to coach at Catalina High School. In the movies, they call this “the hook.” Berrier met an aspiring young coach, Mike Schmeider, who is now the wrestling coach at Flagstaff Coconino High School.
“You dummy, you should go back to school and get certified to be a teacher and a coach,” Schmeider told him. “That’s what you’re good at.”
How’d it work out? A few weeks ago, Berrier was named the National Wrestling Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“It’s funny I get all the credit for this, because my son, Paul, has been running the show for the last four or five years,” he says, modestly. “I just kinda guide the ship and let him do it.”
Here’s what Paul says: “I’m proud to call this guy my dad. He never coaches just the sport; he teaches life lessons.”
If you check Berrier’s Facebook page, it is full of testimonials.
“He’s a very humble, honest, selfless and respectful coach. I’m honored for our son to be coached by him.”
“What you taught me in high school was invaluable.”
Tim Berrier is a lot like his father, Bill Berrier, who grew up near Des Moines, Iowa, in a broken family. When he was 12, Bill lived alone in the YMCA. As a young adult, he delivered milk in the morning and drove a taxi later in the day. He died at 58, but not before making a do-the-right-thing impression on his four children.
“My dad drove my brother and I all over the country to wrestling tournaments,” Tim says. “He’d haul our teammates anywhere and everywhere. We had all kinds of titles for my dad: doctor, coach, trainer, psychologist, friend.”
Like father, like son. When Berrier became a coach and his two sons, Paul and Erik, absorbed wrestling, they would pile into the family car and drive all over the map. To Idaho. To Iowa.
A career highlight? It might’ve been the night in 2012 when Ironwood Ridge broke Sunnyside’s 30-year home winning streak. Or maybe the threepeat, those IRHS state championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
But that’s not what Berrier lists as his career highlight.
“I coached my son Paul for four years at Pueblo and then for two more at Pima College,” he says. “He’s been with me as an assistant for nine years at Ironwood Ridge. So for the last 15 years, we’ve been together in the wrestling room about every afternoon. That’s a highlight.”
High school wrestling isn’t a gotta-watch, gotta-participate sport. Most days, the Nighthawks have 22 wrestlers in the gym. Talk about getting the most out of what you’ve got. Berrier doesn’t talk about their on-the-mat prowess, or this week’s state finals. He talks about their GPAs, the 4.0s and the scholar-athletes that this season have been honored everywhere from Minnesota to the Flowing Wells Invitational and to the AIA office in Phoenix.
When Ironwood Ridge broke that 30-year winning streak at Sunnyside, Berrier knew the Nighthawks had moved to the highest level of high school wrestling. It had taken him about 30 years himself, from one career path to another. He was no longer the schoolboy wrestling from Urbandale, but rather a man who has worked his way to the top.
“There is this aura about wearing the Sunnyside singlet,” he says. “Automatically you think you’re good and your opponent thinks you’re good, too. You embrace that. We, as a group, have worked to get that same feeling here.”
It has become front-page news.