In 1986, Geoff Harben received word that Floyd Dryden Middle School was searching for someone to be its wrestling coach.
Twenty four years later, the rest ishistory.
The tournament previously known as the Floyd Dryden Invitational is now the Coach Harben Invitational in honor of the school's long-time coach who will be retiring from the sport following Floyd Dryden's final match of the season.
Harben said he was pleasantly surprised by the honor as he suspectednothing.
"When I drove up to the school yesterday and saw it out on the billboard out there, it was a neat surprise," Harben said. "It's really nice after 24 years of coaching these kids."
Harben, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y., wrestled for four years at Mepham High School, a prominent area high school, where his team lost only one dual meet his entire career and was state champion his senior season. He said at the time, more kids would come watch the wrestling matches than football games.
He then went on to wrestle at the Coast Guard Academy for four more years before the Coast Guard eventually brought him to Juneau.
"At that time, my daughter was in eighth grade at Floyd Dryden, and she was passing by the office," Harben said. "She overheard the vice principal talking to the principal saying that they needed a new wrestling coach. So she called me at work, and I came down that afternoon and have been coaching ever since."
When asked to talk about his favorite memory of the last 24 years, Harben stared into space, filing through the memory banks for that one moment. His speechlessness was understandable as he finally said that, after all the years, it is too difficult to pin-point his favorite memory of coaching at FDMS.
"We've won championships and I've had champions, but I think when you see a kid that's behind or down, then all of a sudden digs deep and reverses that match and wins, that's what means a lot to me," he said. "I've seen several of those, and that's what makes you come back every year.
"You know, it's that one kid that really did something outstanding."
Harben's influence has reached not only the kids he has coached, but those he has coached alongside and against as well.
"With all the experience and his wrestling career, he just brings a wealth of knowledge on how to run a team," said Floyd Dryden assistant wrestling coach Kris Mercer. "I've stolen probably half of my best speeches from listening to him give speeches.
"We joke about it, but the way he talks to kids and the way he inspires them is something I've learned from him over the past few years."
Mercer, who previously coached at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School for 15 years as Harben's archrival, said the two have become the best of friends over the past three years coaching together at Floyd Dryden.
"He (Harben) is a leader of men. He's turned hundreds of boys into the men they are today," he said. "We have great fun, the kids learn a ton and I think they had fun while doing it. He's just a great role model."
When asked to describe Harben in only a few words, Mercer was succinct and complimentary:
"Tough, fair, committed."
Following the season, Harben will have a little more free time on his hands that he plans to spend with loved ones.
"I'm still working, but I'll probably be leaving this summer to head down south. I have two daughters, one in Portland and one in Seattle, and I have two grandchildren now. So I'm going to be with the family a little bit more and just kind of sit back," he said. "I'm definitely going to miss wrestling and all of this. But I have an idea I'll be keeping an eye on it and coming back from time to time, just to see."
Harben said wrestling is an individual sport, though team scores are kept, that instills confidence in the kids that take part, and helps develop them into the people they will be later in life.
"The self-confidence that it gives kids that maybe can't throw a ball through a hoop or throw a pass, but they can wrestle just gives them a lot of experience and confidence that they can succeed," he said. "We saved kids that maybe have not done well in school - that have to keep their grades up during the season - so that has turned them around. If they do keep their grades up, they are rewarded by participating in this sport."
If you ask the people that know him well, just being around coach Harben has been a reward enough in itself.
Matthew Tynan can be reached at ph.# 523-2267 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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