Wildfires force iconic coach Bob Larsen to scramble, sort singular life

It’s jarring how quickly a person calculates and prioritizes the important things in life as a fire bears down.

How do you decide, in mere minutes, what must go? How do you navigate the frantic mental debate about what stays, left to the mercy of the cruel wind and glowing, airborne embers?

Bob Larsen, a Hall of Fame track coach at UCLA, grabbed a hose at his Brentwood home Wednesday to safeguard his deck and roof from the menacing beast chewing up acre after acre just across the 405 Freeway.

Cornered by dense smoke and equally heavy thoughts, Larsen sprayed and sorted.

“I saw that black cloud,” Larsen said Thursday, “and thought, oh my God, that’s what I’ve been fearing.”

There were the trophies and plaques and awards from a singular career, too many to count, dating back more than five decades. From Monte Vista High School to Grossmont College to the Breitbard Hall of Fame, those precious San Diego seeds of what would come.

Materials naming him the NCAA’s coach of the year, twice, and detailing his role as the U.S. distance running coach at the 2004 Olympics immortalized a trail filled with the effort and sweat and the sustained winning of hundreds under Larsen’s dependable, guiding hands.

They are simply things, at a time when lives matter most. Those pieces signify lives, too, though — lives shared, lives intertwined for bigger purpose, lives that enriched and gave all that time meaningful shape.

What could be lost, if the fire threatening the Getty Center — just two ridges away from Larsen’s home — crossed the freeway with nothing to stop its angry march into his present and all-important past?

For one, 1963.

That’s when Larsen and a couple of San Diego State fraternity brothers jetted off to Europe for six months, a shoestring adventure rich in moxie but little else — a last hurrah before diving whistle first into a coaching career that rode wings into the next century.

There were pictures of the young friends running with the bulls in Pamplona, sleeping in parks and eating 2-cent, open-faced squid sandwiches washed down with 3-cent glasses of beer in Barcelona.

“I didn’t speak Spanish, so I didn’t even know what I was eating until I had a couple,” Larsen recalled. “I finally found someone who spoke English and said, ‘What is that?’ They said, squid. I said, gee, we’ve got to have this in California. People will love this.”

More images of the men’s reunion in Pamplona in 1993 resided in Brentwood, too, the 9-cent liters of wine alive solely in photos and dusty memories.

As fire roared nearby this week, choices had to be made. Would 1963 be lost?

“It’s still just material items and everybody’s life is more important, but at the same time you’d like to keep as much of those things as you can,” said Larsen, 78, who lives part-time in South Mission Beach. “It makes you analyze what’s really important.

“Thankfully, the firefighters did a tremendous job. It’s much better than yesterday. I think we’re going to be OK.”

Larsen had researched the history of the area before he bought the house. He shuddered at the details of the 1961 wildfire that ripped through Bel Air and Brentwood, reducing nearly 500 homes to ash — sparing no one in its path, including celebrities like Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Another fire that charred a path through Malibu in 1993, stopped only by the ocean, spiked Larsen’s anxiety as well.

“If it ignited around the Getty, there was nothing to stop it,” he said.

So the former coach of San Diego marathon legend Meb Keflezighi sprayed and considered, an uncomfortable accounting strained by an unforgiving time clock.

“I woke up, maybe 5:30 or 5:45 (a.m.) and it started a little before that,” he said. “You wake up and it seems like the fire is right next door. Smoke is everywhere. You’re breathing it in. That gets your attention real quick.

“The worst feeling is if I’m not here, if I’m home in San Diego. I’m glad I was here, so I could at least get some stuff out. If I had to drive in, maybe they don’t let you up the narrow road from Sunset (Boulevard) that leads to my house. Maybe they close it.”

Larsen paused.

“And everything is gone,” he said.

Mercifully and unexpectedly, Wednesday’s wind calmed long enough for fire crews to claw at the fire and gain traction. Danger, though, still remains a stubborn spark or gust away.

“This one, because of the really high winds and the history of wildfires in this area, had everyone on pins and needles,” Larsen said. “Thank goodness, we got a really big break so they were able to get on top of it.

“If it had kept blowing, I think it would have headed this way.”

Larsen dodged the peril, as did the trophies and remembrances of a career only a select few could match. He’s safe. They’re safe.

So is 1963.

bryce.miller@sduniontribune.com; Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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