Abbott Blog: A heartfelt tribute to my friend, the late Joe Seay

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | July 13, 2019, 5:49 a.m. (ET)
Coach Joe Seay helped the USA to the top of the world podium in men's freestyle during an amazing stretch in the 1990's. Photo courtesy of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

It is a truly busy time at USA Wrestling, with the USMC Junior/16U Nationals beginning today, a number of foreign tours on the schedule, a magazine deadline looming, as well as preparation for the upcoming age-group and Senior World Championships. Plus a ton more things. In spite of all that, I am compelled to squeeze in a few minutes to write about my friend Joe Seay, who passed away on Thursday.

On a wrestling level, Joe Seay was a giant. His gift was the ability to coach, and help develop and support great wrestlers. On a personal level, Joe was a wonderful man with a kind heart that made spending time with him a positive thing.

You can track his coaching career and understand why he is in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He was a great high school coach, who then moved up and built the CSU-Bakersfield program into a Div. II giant, with many Div. I champions and All-Americans (back then, D-II champs could go to the D-I NCAA meet). He went on to coach two NCAA Div. I national champion teams at Oklahoma State. Later, he was a masterful freestyle coach for the Sunkist Kids, and in perhaps his biggest moments, he was volunteer head coach for many of the greatest U.S. World and Olympic teams in history.

If you were a great wrestler, or was active with USA Wrestling at the national level during Joe’s prime as a coach, you knew Joe Seay and probably worked with him often.

I started working in wrestling on the national level in 1982 and have been in contact with countless great wrestlers and coaches for almost four decades. One of the reasons I have remained in the sport so long is that I truly like wrestling people. There is something about their character, the way they think and act, how they handle themselves, what they are like inside, all which continues to inspire me. I know literally thousands of wrestling people around the world. A small number of them are truly my friends, and Joe was one of them.

One of the toughest jobs I have at USA Wrestling is writing obituaries for many people I know well who have passed away. I do my very best to get the facts right and portray the person in a way that honors who they were and what they did for wrestling. Luckily for me, when a member of the Wrestling Hall of Fame passes away, Jack Carnefix at the Hall of Fame often creates an obituary. With Joe’s passing, it was Jack who pulled his obit together, with me as a support resource. I appreciate that, because, emotionally, this one was going to be difficult for me to write.

Joe coached two of the best U.S. Senior World Teams, the 1993 World Champion Freestyle Team in Toronto and the 1995 World Champion Freestyle Team in Atlanta. Those were the first and second USA Wrestling Senior Teams to win a World Team Title. He also coached the 1996 Olympic Freestyle Team, which won the medal count in wrestling at the Atlanta Centennial Olympic Games. I was there for all of those great moments.

This was a glorious time for U.S. men’s freestyle wrestling. When Jack Carnefix and I started counting the current Hall of Fame members who were on those three amazing teams Joe coached, we came up with 12. You know all of these legends: Kurt Angle, Bruce Baumgartner, Terry Brands, Tom Brands, Kendall Cross, Melvin Douglas, Les Gutches, Kevin Jackson, Zeke Jones, Kenny Monday, Townsend Saunders and Dave Schultz. Truly remarkable.

There were two very prominent freestyle coaches during that 1993-1996 Olympic quadrennium, Joe Seay and USA Wrestling National Freestyle Coach Bruce Burnett. They worked well together. In fact, Seay brought in Burnett, then a legendary Idaho high school coach, as his assistant coach at Oklahoma State. After Bruce moved on to work at USA Wrestling as our Freestyle Developmental Coach, he was promoted to National Freestyle Coach in 1993. Joe became Bruce’s volunteer head coach for his three best Senior teams in 1993, 1995 and 1996. Their roles had reversed with Seay serving under Burnett’s leadership, but their ability to work together remained strong. (Bruce Burnett truly deserves to be in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, but that is a story for another column).

With Joe as a freestyle coach, it was never about himself. It was all about helping athletes. He would do anything to support his wrestlers, and they knew it. Creating the right environment to assist others to improve and excel was a gift that Joe Seay had.

You could say that Joe had it easy with all of that Hall of Fame talent on those teams. But that is exactly the point about what made Joe so great. His style of coaching and relating with elite athletes was exactly what these superstar talents needed. He helped get the best out of those legends, which takes tremendous skill and finesse. Maybe some coaches were better technicians or stronger motivators. Yet few ever put it all together and got the results that Joe Seay was able to achieve on behalf of the U.S. freestyle program.

In our wrestling journeys across the nation and world, Joe always found time to visit and inquire about me and my family, with a spirit of caring. So often, people only reach out to USA Wrestling staff when they want something. That was clearly never the case with Joe Seay.

My wife Patricia and I took some vacation time to visit with Joe and his wife Cheryl at their home in Paso Robles, Calif. for a few days. They warmly opened their home to us and made us feel very welcome. Joe and Cheryl took us to all the best wineries in the area, drove us to the Central Coast to see elephant seals, and shared some of the world’s best fish tacos in one of the beautiful nearby harbor communities. I will cherish that visit not just for what we did, but who we spent our time with, both Cheryl and Joe.

I have talked with a number of wrestling people since Joe’s passing, and the consensus was about Joe Seay being “a great guy.” They showed their respect for Joe and what he achieved in his wrestling career, no doubt. But it was more about how he impacted others and how he treated them. That is the kind of legacy I would like to have when my days are done.

Joe Seay is already missed. I can smile knowing that I am one of many who feel that way today.