Don’t ask Dick Lang how many wrestling wins he’s compiled over the course of his legendary coaching career.

He hasn’t bothered counting — though his wife of 46 years, Gretchen, keeps asking him to.

But that’s typical of the modest, down-to-earth Royalton Town Councilman — a man who cherishes the greatest, though intangible gifts of his four-decade long coaching career — the lives he’s touched.

“I got a lot of enjoyment out of developing a team,” he said.

“To see them develop into young men who will contribute positively to society and the world — I had people go to the Naval Academy and the Air Force and continue coaching — it’s so rewarding and to know you’ve done something that helped them along the way is the most satisfying thing of all.”

Lang’s legacy as arguably the greatest, if not most popular, high school wrestling coach in Western New York history lives on not only within the hearts and souls of those lives, but physically in the abundance of local and national coaches he’s helped produce.

Retiring this year as the varsity head coach at Newfane, Lang, 66, the son of John and Grace Lang of Orchard Park, said he plans to take it easy for a while, and enjoy more time spent with his two sons, John, 45; and Mike, 41, both of Lockport, their families, and his seven grandchildren.

Among the many mounted mementos of his coaching career at his beautiful Hollenbeck Road home are pictures of the two state champions he coached, former United States Olympian Lou Rosselli (Royalton-Hartland) and Ryan Needle (Newfane), and perhaps his favorite one of all, the photo taken with his sons at the 1980 Niagara-Orleans League meet at Roy-Hart — in which both his sons (Mike 103 pounds, John 132) participated.

“If someone had told me in 1978 that I would go on and coach wrestling for 30 years, I would have doubted it,” Lang said.

“Coaching when I started was a new experience for me. I decided to do things the way my coach, the late Harry Wilhelm, did. He wasn’t a yeller or a screamer. He knew what motivated each wrestler and that impressed me. He knew how to get the most out of each wrestler. Every person is different.

“To get the most out of my teams, I had to get involved and figure out what made each tick as individuals. I had to know each of their personalities. I wanted to make sure they had passing grades, made sure they stayed healthy. I always said, ‘If I’m ever with them, I’m behind them.’ I always tried to look ahead.”

Gretchen knows this all too well.

“He would pick them up and take them to school. One student he got up and put him in the shower, then took him to school. He was like a father to his players and the boys remember that.”

A native of Orchard Park where he graduated in 1959, Lang wrestled four years of varsity (between 98 and 136 pounds), placing third and fourth at sectionals.

“I was a good wrestler, but not a great one. But I loved the sport and always had a passion for it,” he said.

Eight years after marrying Colden native Gretchen in 1961, the Langs and their young family moved to Royalton.

Ironically, it was his association with the Roy-Hart wrestling program while his sons competed there that got Lang his first coaching opportunity in 1978.

“It’s strange the way it happened. The coach at Roy-Hart didn’t want to do it anymore and my sons were wrestling and I had run a youth wrestling program there and had worked with the team,” said Lang, who retired after 34 years working as an environmental conservation officer with the DEC.

“They said, ‘Would you like to be the assistant coach?’ and I answered, ‘If I can get approval with the DEC.’ The DEC was very cooperative and said they would allow me to coach.”

The rest is record-breaking history for Lang, who produced league champions at both Roy-Hart and then Newfane, where he began as an assistant coach to today’s athletics director Doug Ames in 1988-89.

Within four years at Roy-Hart, Lang helped turn the program around, helping to guide the Rams to their first N-O title in 1983-84.

“We went from a losing team to a well-respected one and undefeated champions,” Lang said.

“We started a summer program there — one of the first of its kind in the area — and I think that started to put us ahead of the other teams. And we started wrestling some of the bigger and better schools, like Niagara-Wheatfield and Sweet Home. We wanted to be challenged because we knew we had a good group of boys. And we started sending boys to camps. Today, everybody’s doing it.”

Two years after heading to Newfane to assist Ames, the Panthers program turned around and then some. The Panthers racked up nine straight undefeated N-O championships.

“I can’t thank Doug and (former Newfane athletics director) Jim Conley and the entire Newfane administration and their teachers were wonderful to me,” said Lang, who took over the head coaching reigns at Newfane in 2000.

“I can’t say enough good things about them all. We did some great things in the 1990s. My assistant coaches there, B.B. Rendon and Doug Fitch, were a big part of my life there. They were excellent people to be associated with.”

Among the hundreds of wrestlers he cited as among the best he coached in his career are Rosselli, Nelson Colley, Mark Baehr, Jim Johnson, Willie Cunningham, Dave Lyndecker, Ken Copella and his sons at Roy-Hart, as well as three-time state-champion Ryan Needle (now wrestling at the University at Buffalo), Matt Dawson, Jason Etheridge, Chris Say, Tom Letcher, Allan Gerhardt, Keith Jones, Dan Rafferty and Jeremy Stopa at Newfane.

Among the former players who have gone on to coaching careers in wrestling are Tim Lukasik (Niagara-Wheatfield), Bill Bruning (Barker), Keith Jones (Wilson) and Kevin Lawson (Roy-Hart).

Rosselli, a two-time state champion at Roy-Hart and three-time collegiate national champ at Edinboro who was on the verge of medalling in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (114.5 pounds) before a cheap shot by a Romanian opponent who was losing badly broke his arm and ended his run, and Needle, whose 240 career victories at Newfane is a Western New York record, were perhaps the two grapplers Lang will be associated with the most.

And that’s great company, Lang said. In fact, one of the greatest honors Lang said he ever received was being invited by Rosselli to attend the U.S. Olympic Trials in Spokane, Wash.

“That meant so much to me when he called me and asked me to be there,” Lang said.

“Then to have him win it — that was special.”

While Rosselli’s “tenacity and technique” was the key to his great wrestling career, Lang said Needle utilized speed, quickness and agility.

“Ryan was — and still is — so quick and fast. Lou was above average from the start. He’d go to a camp, come back and teach me 50 moves, when the average kid would learn five.”

Lang said he has no regrets, admitting he feels tired and needed to step aside. He may coach in the future, but said he doesn’t think he’ll get back to coaching on the same level again.

“I tried to treat my boys the same way I wanted to be treated,” Lang said.

“It seemed to work.”

Lang has one brother, Dave Lang, who resides in Myrtle Beach, N.C.

Contact John D’Onofrio at 439-9222 Ext. 6247.