Buena Vista University 1990 graduate Rick Caldwell is one of the most successful coaches in the history of Iowa high school wrestling. Nine state championships and the record in state tournament points will do that for a coach.
This fall, Caldwell takes his place in the BVU Athletics Hall of Fame for his accomplishments not only as a coach, but as a BVU student-athlete as well with his induction as part of homecoming activities Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
“Coming to BVU was the best decision I ever made,” said Caldwell, who was recruited by fellow BVU Hall of Fame coach Al Baxter in going from his hometown of Knoxville to the Beaver wrestling room in 1985.
“My dad died when I was eight years old,” Caldwell said. “But my dad had taught and coached at Morning Sun High School when Baxter was at Morning Sun wrestling under coach Bob Darrah.”
Both Baxter and Darrah, Caldwell said, served as father figures for him, as did other coaches. He also lauds his mother, Roxanne Caldwell-Fee, for raising him and his older sister, Shelley.
A varsity competitor at 190 pounds, Caldwell earned an Iowa Conference championship in 1990, All-American honors in 1989 and 1990, and was a key member of the Iowa Conference champions in 1987, 1988 and 1990. The Beaver teams he was on finished in the top 10 nationally every year he was on campus.
In truth, Caldwell wasn’t always sure he’d be a part of Beaver Nation. After missing a year (1985-86) due to a neck injury, Caldwell’s initial season on the mat didn’t live up to his expectations. While working on campus the following summer, he told Baxter he thought he’d transfer.
“Coach laid into me like I’d never heard,” Caldwell remembered. “He told me that he’d do everything he could in his power, that he’d stay until 10 o’clock at night working me until I dragged myself out of the wrestling room if that’s what it would take for me to realize how good I could be.”
Caldwell didn’t transfer. He worked and he improved. The honors on the mat would soon follow, including sixth and third-place finishes at the NCAA Division III national tournament in 1989 and 1990, respectively. His two losses in the semifinals during the national meet were by the narrowest of margins — one by a single point and one in overtime.
“I also had a lot of help from my teammates in the wrestling room,” Caldwell said. “Dan Dresser (1986) took me under his wing when I was a freshman. Keven Besch (1987) and Doyle Naig (1987) were guys I worked out against, both great leaders who went on to be coaches.”
Caldwell’s roommate, 1989 graduate and BVU’s first national champion, Dave Joran, also kept him encouraged. The two met one another for the first time as freshman in the fall of 1985. They remained roommates the following four years.
After his graduation from BVU, Caldwell taught elementary school and served as wrestling coach at BGM High School in Brooklyn. He taught and coached at Iowa Falls High School for three years, then at Ames High School for four years.
“At Ames High School, we won one or two matches my first year,” he said. “By the fourth year, we went 15-2 in dual meets and qualified eight or nine wrestlers for the state tournament. It was fun helping to build a program.”
And that’s what Caldwell did at his next stop, perhaps like few have ever seen in Iowa. He and his wife, Kristi, moved their family to Waverly, where he served as an assistant coach at Wartburg College for one year as he finished his master’s degree at Iowa State University.
Caldwell helped coach in the junior wrestling program and could see greatness taking shape. The following year, he was named head coach at Waverly-Shell Rock High School.
“It was in 1999 and I told some fellow coaches that if we did things right, that in 2008, we could have the greatest high school wrestling team the state of Iowa has ever seen,” he said.
His vision came to fruition in 2008 as the Go-Hawks crowed four state champions that season, qualified 13 for the state tournament, placed 12, and accumulated 225 team points, obliterating the old standard of 188. Caldwell’s son, Cody, was a freshman on that team. Cody earned state championships in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
The 2008 record-setting performance would be the first of nine state championships for Caldwell, five traditional titles and four dual meet crowns. The string of success put Waverly-Shell Rock consistently in the national rankings and ultimately earned the coach accolades in the hall of fame serving four wrestling organizations. The BVU Athletics induction marks his fifth such honor.
“Even though I’m included in four other halls, this one is truly near and dear to me,” he said. “I couldn’t picture a better place to spend my five years. I had all the support I ever wanted at BVU.”
Caldwell retired from coaching in 2011 as he and Kristi began following their children in college athletics. Cody wrestled at the University of Northern Iowa and now serves as assistant wrestling coach at South Dakota State University. Daughter Abby ran cross country and track at Iowa State University while daughter Kinsey played volleyball at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and UNI.
“Kristi played volleyball at Kansas,” Rick said with a laugh. “She is where our kids get their athleticism from.”
The two-time All-American certainly held up his end, both as a student-athlete and a coach. And now his career comes full circle, or stays within the circle — as the wrestling vernacular goes — as a BVU Athletics Hall of Famer.