Leaving a legacy: VHS wrestling coach Tom Torres retires after 37 years
Calling Tom Torres the godfather of Valencia County wrestling is not an exaggeration.
Just look at the resume: Five state titles, four in Class 3A and one in Class 4A; 12 state runner-up trophies; two third-place finishes; 16 district titles; 91 individual state championship finalists coached, six of them going on to be All-Americans.
But even a legend must eventually leave his post, which is what the Belen-native is doing, retiring this summer after 37 years of coaching, first at Los Lunas High School for 30 years and then at Valencia High for the past seven.
Torres said he began thinking about retirement after the last state tournament, where he led Valencia High to a ninth-place finish.
“I kind of thought about it, and just feel it’s about time,” said Torres, who turns 61 soon. “I just looked around (at state) and I just said, ‘Wow, it’s time.’”
Torres’ influence on Valencia County wrestling isn’t figurative. Two of his former students, Belen High coach Lee Chaves and Los Lunas High coach Steve Chavez, wrestled for him at LLHS then became assistants under him before becoming head coaches in their own right.
Chaves said the state is losing one of its greatest coaches with Torres’ retirement.
“It’s a loss for the wrestling community,” Chaves said. “He’s a tremendous coach who made a big difference in people’s lives. He’s been very influential. He’s in the (New Mexico) Wrestling Hall of Fame already. He been very successful and he’s done it the right way.”
Chavez, who took over the Tigers wrestling program when Torres stepped down in 2006, was equally emotional talking about the decision, saying it was “not surprising but still shocking.”
“My God (his career), it’s unmatched,” Chavez said. “Really what he’s done with state champs and state placers. He’s done a lot for the county. What he’s passed on to myself and Coach Lee (Chaves), it’s been incredible.”
Torres began his career at Los Lunas High in 1975, taking over a program that had never won a state title in wrestling. Within two years, the school was a contender, finishing second three years running — 1977, 78 and 79 — before Torres’ Tigers broke through for his first state Class 3A title in 1980. Los Lunas High repeated for the 3A title in 1981, then won back-to-back 3A titles again in 1985 and 86.
Torres’ final state title came in 1998 when LLHS won the Class 4A title, then the state’s top classification before Class 5A was created for the 2000-2001 season.
Along with his four brothers, Chavez wrestled under Torres’ tutelage. He said developing the relationship from student to assistant coach to opposing coach was satisfying.
“In high school, we all just looked up to him,” said Chavez. “As as a coach, it was more of a brother-brother relationship. When you look at the three coaches from Valencia County, two of them being his two assistants and all coaching state champions, it’s pretty incredible.
“As a coach, you didn’t want to let him down,” said Chaves of his days as a wrestler for Torres. “When you lost, you felt like you let him down. You wanted to win for him so bad.”
Coaching with Torres was equally rewarding, Chaves said.
“He’s the reason I got into coaching,” he said. “(Out of college) I realized I wanted to be coach and teacher and he influenced that decision. Coach made me want to do that and to succeed.”
Chavez had similar thoughts.
“As a wrestler, he taught discipline,” he said. “He always instilled that into everyone, no shortcuts to anything. As a coach, again same thing: Discipline. He always had a no-nonsense approach.”
For his part, Torres said his focus as a coach was not the state championship or awards.
“It was the kids, always the kids,” he said. “I just always tried to improve their lives. Wrestling is important, but school’s important for their life. I’ve had kids win state titles. But what’s important, like in any sport, is discipline in your life.”
While he’s retired from coaching, Torres has not retired from teaching — something he never did even after stepping down at Los Lunas High. He will continue to serve as a physical education teacher at Valencia High next school year.
Torres said he was thankful to many, including his wife Paulette, with whom he celebrates 40 years of marriage on June 30. Torres emphasized that he could not have done it alone.
“I’ve got so many people around who’ve helped,” he said. “There’s assistants, other coaches, people in Los Lunas working their own businesses and being supportive, I respect them. There’s been a lot of good people in Los Lunas. I’m real happy. They’ve all been so helpful to me.”