Former Cal State Bakersfield wrestling coach T.J. Kerr was found dead in his Northwest Bakersfield home on Thursday.
Kerr, who reportedly was having health issues, was 64.
During his 26 years at the helm of CSUB, Kerr led the Roadrunners though a number of transitions -- stepping up from Division II to Division I in 1988, keeping the program afloat when threatened by the ramifications of Title IX (gender equity) in the 1990s and, ultimately, playing a critical role in helping the program survive when it was earmarked to be eliminated due to budget constraints.
Kerr resigned following the 2010 season after the university decided to drop wrestling and three other sports unless those sports could raise the money to pay for their costs.
To reduce the money needed to retain the wrestling program, Kerr announced his retirement, thereby allowing assistant coach Mike Mendoza to take over at a lesser salary.
The program has been self sufficient since that time.
"He meant a lot to me," Mendoza said of his mentor. "I wrestled for him for five years and coached with him for another 10 years. What was most important to him was the wrestling program. He committed most of his life to it.
"He was real demanding. Pointed and blunt. He wasn't shy about telling you how it was. He stood up for what he believed in. He fought for what he believed in."
During his tenure, Kerr did it his way, and in doing so produced some remarkable results.
"He was old school," said three-time All-American Darryl Pope, who was NCAA runner-up at 177 pounds in 1987. "If you want anything in life you gotta pay a price, you gotta sacrifice, commit yourself and work for it. That was T.J. Kerr.
"There was no such thing as entitlement. If you wanted something in life you worked your butt off for it."
Kerr coached at San Jose State for a dozen years before taking over for Joe Seay at CSUB in 1985, bringing Pope with him.
Led by Pope's runner-up finish at 177 pounds, the Roadrunners won a Division II national title in 1987.
Pope, now the principal at Thompson Junior High, said Kerr gave him the opportunity to be successful on and off the mat.
"When I graduated from high school he was the only coach in the country to offer me anything to come wrestle for him," Pope said. "Had it not been for him I would not have gone to college. My dad dropped out of high school as a sophomore and my five brothers and sisters didn't go to college.
"I have a lot I owe to him and a lot to be thankful for."
The competition got much stiffer when the Roadrunners moved to D-I in 1988 but Kerr and his wrestlers were up to the task.
There were seven top-12 finishes at the NCAA Division I championships, including a third-place finish in 1996.
And then two NCAA individual titles by heavyweight Stephen Neal in 1998 and 1999, followed up with a World Championship by Neal in 1999.
"He was definitely someone who had a big impact on a lot of peoples' lives, including mine," Neal said of Kerr. "He taught me how to fight for what's important and I'm thankful and grateful for the lessons he taught."
Neal said it was Kerr's passion for wrestling, and his eagerness to fight for what he believed in, that kept the program alive.
"Several times people tried to take (wrestling) away from him at Cal State Bakersfield but because of his efforts we were able to keep it going," said Neal.
By the time Kerr retired in 2010 his accomplishments read like a book.
On the team side there was the illustrious 236-142-2 (.624 winning percentage), the Division II title, two Pac-10 championships, six Division II champions, three Division I champions, 29 Division I All-Americans and 17 Division II All-Americans.
As for individual accolades, Kerr was the National Wrestling Coaches Association Coach of the Year in 1996, the Amateur Wrestling News Man of the Year in 2007 and the Pac-10 Coach of the Year three times (1991, 1996, 1997). In addition, he was inducted into the California Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2005.
Mike Stricker, president of the Coyote Club, which supports local wrestling, said Kerr was found dead in his home Thursday by his housekeeper.
He said Kerr was instrumental in helping him start the Coyote Club in the 1980s.
"Joe Seay got (the CSUB wrestling program) going, and then T.J. stepped in, and for the budget (issues) and everything they (faced), they did some fabulous things," Stricker said. "He battled. He was a warrior. That's the way he was. He was a tough ol' boy, an ornery ol' cuss."
"I just hope people remember what he really did for wrestling. Even people who didn't agree with him. They don't even understand the battles he fought. He did a lot of positive things for wrestling and student athletes. I think, most people, when the dust settles, are going to understand that."