To Dan Ricker, life is a simple game.
Good things happen to good people, he preaches. Those who take on challenges and work the hardest become the toughest, and the toughest are winners in the end, he says.
The thought of winning a draining battle still excites Ricker theway it did in his days as a star wrestler, football and lacrosse player at Glenelg High School.
"I would let you cut off one of my fingers to play one more year of high school football or wrestling," said Ricker, who is winding up his fourth season as the wrestling coach at Oakland Mills. "What a life I had in high school. To be 18 again."
At 18, Ricker was a brash, mischievous student who wore his emotions on his sleeve and drove himself on the playing field. Eight yearslater, those same qualities endure. Only now, Ricker is trying to pass his hunger on to his players.
In bottom-line terms -- which Ricker prefers -- his record is impressive. Three years ago, he replacedSteve Carnahan, who coached the Scorpions for 14 terrific years and had attained living-legend status in wrestling circles. Several candidates shied away from the job, cognizant of the shoes they would be required to fill.
Not Ricker, who commenced his own winning tradition. Until Hammond edged the Scorpions last month, Oakland Mills underRicker had not lost to any county team. The Scorpions had won three straight dual-meet titles and three consecutive county tournaments. They will take a 27-1 county record (41-12-1 overall) under Ricker into this weekend's county tournament.
The victories have brought Ricker much praise. But his style, particularly his temper and shoot-from-the-lip honesty, have become as well known as his success. And those traits have some people questioning of his methods.
Ricker won'thesitate to berate his or other wrestlers openly. He has taunted opposing teams directly and through the press. He has been known to respond to gym hecklers by challenging them to a fight in the parking lot. Earlier in his coaching career, Ricker's hotheaded protests on the mat cost the Scorpions a slew of penalty points.
Dave Bruzga, the first-year principal at Oakland Mills, got a recent taste of Ricker'sinvective, after the Scorpions blew a late lead and tied Francis Scott Key last month. Ricker angrily declared, "We basically have an attitude problem. I call it 'the Centennial syndrome -- let's just have fun, and if we lose, so what?' "
"Dan is very strong-willed, very opinionated, very forceful," said Bruzga, who discussed the Centennial comment with Ricker. "You need a certain amount of that to be a successful coach. He says what's on his mind. But there's a way to be diplomatic."
Diplomacy is not Ricker's strong suit.
"I don't run my mouth unless I intend to back it up. I do have a temper, but I'm getting better," said Ricker, who has not cost the Scorpions a single penalty point this season. "I've never gone off (physically) on a kid. What bothers people is they don't like hearing the truth."
Ricker's stamp is evident in the Scorpions' program. Beside their record, the Scorpions bring an intimidating presence to the mat. While Carnahan was more of a technician, Ricker -- who, as a two-time county champ at Glenelg, knew a few moves himself -- worships superior conditioning, aggressiveness and work ethic.
"When he was an athlete, he fought you tooth-and-nail. He's tried to instill that same, take-no-prisoners attitude in his kids," said Wilde Lake wrestling coach Rich Jackson. "He doesn't want to show any mercy to his opponent. That gets him into trouble sometimes. Unfortunately, his reputation is self-inflicted."
Ricker's practices can be long and brutal. He sometimes will single out a wrestler and hound him until he breaks down in tears.
Several dozen wrestlers, unable to bear Ricker's whip-cracking, have quit on him during his four years, a fact Ricker's critics oftenmention. Ricker counters by claiming he has modified his approach, and is losing fewer wrestlers each year.
Carnahan, who still attends nearly all of the Scorpions' matches, said of Ricker, "Danny hates losing more than he loves winning. I respect him for hanging onto a set of principles -- the tough guy preaching conditioning and hard work, simplifying the world. He's like a throwback to the 1950s, the last of the breed.
"Some kids show remarkable character in spite of you," he added. "Some you're just not going to reach. Some can go either way, and they are the ones Danny loses sometimes. His expectationsare sometimes too high. Kids sometimes get the wrong message."
Ricker's boys see it a different way.
"We get defensive about him (Ricker), because he's not as bad as people say he is. Without him, I wouldn't be as good," said heavyweight Monte Spencer, a defending state champion.
"He pushes you to that point where you want to quit. But it really brought us closer together," added Spencer, who had sucha run-in with Ricker early this season.
Ricker's coaching philosophy has a military flavor, an image he has fostered. An avid deer hunter, Ricker has shown up at practices wearing military boots and fatigues stained with deer's blood. He enjoys taking his wrestlers on hunting and fishing trips.
"I like to break a kid down, then build him back up. I kind of strip them of their identity for two hours in that room," Ricker said. "I push them to the breaking point, and I lovethem a little bit. I've had a cry session with every kid in that room."
Lowell Maughan, the father of 125-pound senior Mike Maughan, admitted he isn't always thrilled with Ricker's tactics.
"There is ambivalence, no question about it. But there are a number of things Ricker contributes," Maughan said. "He really mentors these boys. He really pulls it out of them."
That's much the way Ricker was as an athlete. The product of a strict, Christian upbringing, Ricker was anAll-County lacrosse player and made All-Metro teams in wrestling andfootball at Glenelg. Football was his first love, and Ricker had an incredible senior season in 1982. In nine games, he rushed for 1,039 yards and 16 touchdowns, while making 145 tackles from his inside linebacker. Both were school records.
Ricker also had some notable disappointments. His wrestling career included two one-point losses in the state finals. In his junior year, he lost the county, regional and state finals to Oakland Mills' Mike Bennett, each by one point.
At the end of his senior year, he failed to achieve his dream of winning the school's Athlete of the Year award. Several coaches, unimpressed with Ricker's average grades and less-than-meritorious conduct inthe classroom, felt he should not be rewarded. That same sentiment has worked against Ricker with the school's Athlete Hall of Fame committee. Nearly nine years after graduating, Ricker, arguably the finestathlete in the school's history, has yet to be inducted.
"It would be difficult for me to say a lot of positive things about Dan Ricker, based on his days at Glenelg High School," said Glenelg boys basketball coach Terry Coleman, who chairs the school's Athlete Hall of Fame committee.
"It was mostly nickel-and-dime stuff, nothing serious," former Glenelg football coach Dennis Cole said of Ricker's disruptive antics, which often landed him in detention or the principal's office. "He was one of those wild stallions that needed to be harnessed. But he was also the best captain I ever had. No one ever worked harder."
There would be more greatness for Ricker, followed by more disappointment. He made the football team at Towson State as a walk-on, then proceeded to set 16 rushing records over three seasons. As a stout, 5-foot-11, 215-pound fullback with 4.7-second speed in the 40-yard --, Ricker entered his senior season with a legitimate shot at being drafted by the NFL. That dream ended when his knee blew out on the first play of the 1987 season.
"His (Ricker's) life has been one 'so-close' after another. All his dreams are pretty much summed up in everything we are. That's not pressure, that's an honor," said JoeSalinas, the Scorpions' 140-pound senior.
"He tells us besides God and his family, we're all he can count on. If I ever got in troubleof any kind, I have no doubt he's the guy I could count on before anyone else."
"I don't want to sound cocky, but I have the ability to affect people and to lead people," Ricker said. "And I'm not half the coach I'm going to be. I haven't even touched on what I want to be."