By Seth Kinker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Steve Vlcek and Manchester Wrestling. You likely won’t hear one without the other.
Vlcek just finished his 29th year as head coach of the Manchester Wrestling program that sent a program record 12 wrestlers to individual states. But Vlcek never envisioned himself as a wrestling coach, much less for this long.
His passion was football when he attended Manchester High School, he was a part of the 1984 playoff team that went 9-1 his senior year. His freshman year he also joined the wrestling team with no football and his mother determined to have him do something to keep busy.
The more he was around wrestling, the more he enjoyed it. At the beginning of his career, Vlcek called himself a “throw dummy” for the upperclassmen-heavy team. In his words, it’s either a sport you like, or you don’t, and despite being the young guy and going through multiple coaching changes early in his high school career, he hung in.
He began to improve, finishing around .500 his junior year. In his senior year, he tore his shoulder in regionals ending his wrestling career as he hoped to make it to states.
“That was always a bit of a bad taste in my mouth,” said Vlcek. “It took me to that point to realize what I was capable of doing. I always wondered if I worked a little harder and put in a little more time to wrestling if I could have been better.”
After graduation, Vlcek went into construction and one day got a call from his former coach, Dan Jordan. Manchester had a talented freshman when Vlcek was a senior and Jordan was calling to ask if he could come back and work with him with no one in the wrestling room to push him. With it being winter, Vlcek had the extra time.
“One day turned into a week and a week turned into a month and it sort of led into showing up every day and enjoying it which I never would have thought of,” said Vlcek.
When the junior high coach retired Jordan asked Vlcek to take the position and despite not being sure, he took over the junior high program in 1988, coaching there for three years. After that, Jordan decided to step down and asked Vlcek to take over the program.
Vlcek struggled with that decision as well, not wanting to come in and undo Jordan’s work. But in his three years running the junior high program he saw his passion grow, enough to take the position in 1990. Despite this decision, coaching was never really on his radar after graduation.
“It never really crossed my mind to be a wrestling coach,” said Vlcek. “Something that I ’ve always enjoyed is the bond with the kids. It’s a new group of sons and daughters every year, I never put a time frame on it, but never thought I’d still be coaching.”
Someone else who has seen his effect on his kids are his opponents. Carl Bunker, head coach of the Napoleon Pirates Wrestling team for the past 26 years, met Vlcek for the first time a few years after they both started as assistant coaches.
Bunker saw Vlcek’s impact on the program. When Steve started, Bunker said they had talent but couldn’t fill a lineup. As the years went on, numbers began to climb and then the battles began. For Bunker, however, Vlcek stood out for another reason.
“One of the things I appreciate about Steve and what I think people lose sight of,” said Bunker. “We want to build great quality wrestlers and win lots of matches, one of the things always in the back of our mind is developing quality young men and women doing the right things. Not just in class. At home, with their family. I see that stuff with Steve, he always pushes them hard. It’s because were trying to get the best out of them everywhere, not just the wrestling mat. It’s of the things I really respect about Steve.”
Vlcek, who is most definitely a “players coach,” says his mentors from his playing career, Jordan as well as his two football coaches Jim and Dick Fielder, were big influences on the way he handles his teams today.
Despite not being on staff in the schools like many coaches, Vlcek never has a problem making it in when needed or not. At many Manchester sporting events, home or away, you can find Vlcek wearing a Manchester wrestling windbreaker somewhere in the stands.
“Non-staff coaches, it’s hard getting them to come in,” said Wes Gall, a former coach, co-worker, and boss of Vlcek. “Steve, if you asked him to stop in, he was stopping in. Steve being an off-staff coach was a dream. He’ll stop by a doubleheader after work to catch the last game. He’ll stop in and see a track meet, always supporting his kids.”
Gall said his long-lasting impact, from rolling around on the mat with the youth program to always supporting his kids, has helped endear him to the Manchester community.
On Feb. 13 at team regionals, Manchester defeated Springport 48-18 to secure a spot at team states. That win gave Vlcek career win number 600, which ranks among the top ten all-time amongst active coaches and top twenty all-time in Michigan High School Athletic Association
“Everyone asks me how long I’ll coach, I tell them when I don’t enjoy it, I won’t coach,” said Vlcek on Feb. 13. “Or when I’m not doing my job. I don’t want to be the coach that hangs on too long and everyone says, ‘it’s time for him to get out of here.’ It’s a nice milestone no doubt about it. A lot of that credit goes to our youth program, coaches underneath me who develop these kids to the level they’re at before I even get them, my assistant coaches, it takes a lot of people. I’m blessed to have that group of people around me and they keep our program strong.”
At the end of their 13th consecutive district title on Feb. 6, the PA announcer announced Vlcek as “the legendary Steve Vlcek” accepting the trophy for Manchester.
So far, Vlcek has amassed a career record of 601-214 with 12 league titles (including the last 11 in a row), 15 district titles (including the last 13 in a row), 9 regional championships, a team state runner up, 12 state champions, and 15 state runners-up.
After accepting the award, Vlcek said he was humbled but laughed it off. With those numbers, however, the announcer just might be right.