On the wall inside Jerry Rucker’s Bret Harte High School classroom is a collage of memories. Team photos, newspaper clippings and all-league snapshots are a small glimpse of the past that spans over three decades.
But at the end of the 2018 school year, after 35 years of teaching and coaching, those pictures and memories will be taken off the wall as Rucker retires from Bret Harte.
“I bleed purple,” said Rucker Monday afternoon, which was the first day of his final semester. “I’m a Bret Harte person. However, I need to get out before I get a third generation coming through. I joke with some of the students and tell them that the first set of students that I ever taught are now 55 or 56 years old. Yeah, sometimes I forget names because we figure it’s been over 5,000 students that I’ve seen. But you still remember parts of them, somewhere.”
The decision for Rucker to retire not only leaves Bret Harte in search of a new computer skills and consumer math teacher, but also will require the school to find a new athletic director. Unlike his years as a teacher or coach, Rucker has had the title of AD for only a short time.
When current interim Principal Heath Lane accepted the position of assistant principal in the summer of 2016, he had to relinquish his duties as athletic director. Being the constant team player, Rucker stepped up and filled the vacancy.
While Rucker feels comfortable being called coach or teacher, filling an administrative role was a title he never thought he’d have associated with his name.
“It’s nothing that I ever desired,” he said. “I’m glad that I won’t have to check emails all the time. It’ll be nice not to have to check if you have referees and to make sure we have workers for games. You think you’ll get something taken care of, and then something else will pop up.”
Rucker first popped up in Angels Camp before the 1984-85 school year. After graduating California State University, Chico, with a degree in business education, Rucker was hired at Pierce High School in Arbuckle. He taught and coached in the small town 48 miles north of Sacramento and two-and-a-half hours away from Angels Camp for four years. During that time, he attended coaching clinics where he met legendary Bret Harte coaches Hal Clements and Rich Cathcart, who informed Rucker of an opening at the school.
Even though he had never been to Angels Camp, the San Luis Obispo native applied for the job, got hired and never left.
“We wanted to move up a little bit in (school) size,” Rucker said about his desire to find new employment. “Arbuckle was very tiny. This area is a perfect place to raise your kids. Bret Harte was a nice, small school atmosphere and I think it has continued to hold on to that.”
Upon being hired, Rucker found himself in a coaching position. He helped with the junior varsity football team and in the winter, was an assistant to Cathcart on Bret Harte’s 1985 CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship basketball team. In 1986, Rucker took over the freshman basketball team, where he stayed for four years. He then moved up to the junior varsity level and stayed there for a decade.
In 2000, Rucker took over for Cathcart as the varsity head coach and held on to the position for 13 years. In that span, the Bullfrogs won the Mother Lode League title in 2001 and 2012. Rucker wasn’t concerned about being handed the keys to the program, especially because Cathcart was never too far away.
“I learned a lot from Rich, working under him for all those years,” Rucker said. “He left me a pretty good group, so it wasn’t too bad. He also came back and helped me, so things were kind of the same for a while.”
Even while he was the head basketball coach, Rucker still could be seen on the Bret Harte football sidelines. After years on the JV level, Rucker moved up to the varsity squad, where he was an assistant coach from 1996-2004. Rucker was a member of the 1999 coaching staff, which is the last time Bret Harte defeated Calaveras on the gridiron.
“We picked up a fumble and when you watch it on video, you can see the crowd on our side all start to stand up as it’s returned 60 yards for a touchdown,” Rucker recalls from the 1999 win in San Andreas. “I didn’t think that would be the last time we’d beat them in my career. But, we go in cycles. We’ve had our chances; we just haven’t come through in the close games.”
When it came to coaching football and basketball, Rucker liked to dissect the sport to try to find any sort of advantage.
“I like the X’s and O’s of the game and trying to manipulate players around seeing how you can steal yards when you weren’t talented enough to do things,” he said.
Rucker stepped down as Bret Harte’s varsity basketball coach in 2012 after his Bullfrogs went a perfect 15-0, but found himself back on the bench three years later. With a sudden position opening for a girls’ basketball head coach, Rucker stepped in on an interim basis. He coached the varsity girls’ team until current head coach Mitch Hodson took over in 2017.
“The girls can get over a loss a little faster than guys can,” Rucker said about the difference between coaching girls and boys. “When they are playing, to me, they want to play and they play to win. But, a loss doesn’t last as long with them. However, things are changing and that’s also the case with boys.”
Now, Rucker is back to where he started 35 years ago, coaching freshman basketball. For 39 years of coaching, Rucker has been an on-campus coach, which is something he feels is important, but sadly, going away.
“On-campus coaches are around the students more, so that helps them deal with them,” he said. “It’s becoming a dying breed that, nationwide, people are getting less and less into the coaching field who are teachers.”
Rucker has yet to decide if he will return next year to coach the Bret Harte freshman team, but even if he doesn’t, he will not cut himself off from Bret Harte athletics.
“I will either help or coach, but I’ll be around,” he said. “I’ll hang around to see if there’s anything they need help with in regards to the league. I just enjoy high school sports. It’s always been a fun thing.”
One thing Rucker does know is that once he leaves his classroom for the final time, he’ll be able to travel and not have to worry about the start of a school year or practice schedules.
“If we want to go somewhere, we can pick our own time to go,” Rucker said. “We don’t have to pick and choose around sports.”
While it may be difficult for Rucker to take his photos off the wall and put them into boxes, he will never forget what Bret Harte has meant to him.
“There are so many great memories,” he said. “From all the different wins in all the different sports, to winning the section in basketball and winning in football. I got to coach my two boys and help coach my daughter in softball one year. Those are important things to me.”