With a burst of energy and an inspiring personality to match, Joe Seay had the local and national wrestling community in a collective front head lock for more than four decades.
The former South High and Cal State Bakersfield coach collected wrestling championships at every stop, helping to mentor and change the lives of countless athletes along the way.
Seay's signature move and legacy will live on forever, despite his passing Thursday morning at his home in Paso Robles. Seay, 80, had battled a variety of health issues for some time.
“Joe had a way of just making you feel comfortable and making you feel like you knew him all the time,” said Bill Kalivas, a two-time All-American wrestler at CSUB who went on to coach at Bakersfield College for 27 years. “He always had a kind word for somebody, no matter where he stopped, even when he met you for the first time, it was like he knew you.”
Seay’s connection with his athletes and his seemingly tireless effort and dedication to the sport he loved was paramount as he built powerhouse programs at South High in the mid-1960s, and later at Cal State Bakersfield and Oklahoma State.
“The thing that impressed me the most about Joe was he was in there wrestling with us,” said Joe Gonzales, who won two NCAA Division II titles and a Division I national championship wrestling for Seay at CSUB in 1979-1980. “He was training right along with us, which motivated me. I was like wow, here’s my coach in here battling with us and it’s like, I want to wrestle for this guy.”
Seay was born in Altus, Okla., but earned his wrestling stripes in Kansas, where he was a national Greco-Roman champion. He won a state title at Wellington High in Kansas and then was nationally-ranked at Kansas State before heading to California and starting a coaching career that eventually led to his induction into the Bob Elias Kern County Sports Hall of Fame in 1981.
“He put Cal State Bakersfield and South High School on the map,” said Mike Stricker, president of the Coyote Club wrestling program and an assistant to Seay in his final season at South High. “Any time we would go to a tournament out of state, people would hear what school you’re from and they’d say ‘oh yeah, that’s Joe Seay’s school.’
“Part of (his success) was that wrestling was so new in our area, and he came out of just competing, and he had a wealth of knowledge compared to everyone else. He was so young. He was the type of guy who could look you in the eyes and tell you you could whoop the world. He believed in you, and got you to believe in him. We used to joke that he could have been a great car salesman or real estate agent and made a lot more money.”
Seay compiled a 117-12-2 record in eight seasons at South, capturing five South Yosemite League titles and four Central Section championships, including three straight (1965-67), according to Central Californian sports historian Bob Barnett.
“He was one of the few people that was running spring and summer programs, and he’d have that room open and anybody and everybody would be in there wrestling,” Stricker said. “The guy you’d be competing against in December and January would be in the room, and Joe would be teaching everybody. His theory was if my athletes are good enough to beat the competition, then so be it. Nowadays, you see coaches that don’t want people in their room, they don’t want to teach the competition.”
When Seay was first hired at South High, he was still actively competing in wrestling events himself, something he continued to do well into his 40s, a fact that Stricker says prevented him from being paid so he could protect his amateur status.
Seay continued his success as Cal State Bakersfield’s first wrestling coach, building a dynasty comprised primarily of local wrestlers and junior college transfers. The Roadrunners won seven NCAA Division II championships and had four Division I Top-10 finishes in his 12 seasons as coach. Seay coached 30 individual champions and 86 All-Americans at CSUB before taking a job at Oklahoma State.
“Coach Seay’s impact runs deep in not only the tradition of our wrestling program and the Bakersfield wrestling community, but across the entire country,” CSUB wrestling coach Manny Rivera said. “He is responsible for making Bakersfield one of the best areas across the nation and his accomplishments speak for themselves.”
Seay won two Division I national titles at Oklahoma State, and then had international success, guiding national teams to world titles, and was an assistant on the 1992 U.S. Olympic team. Perhaps his biggest coaching victory came during the 1990 Goodwill Games when he guided Team USA to an upset of the Soviet Union in Seattle.
“Joe was a guy who didn’t really try to push his style on you,” said Gonzales, who qualified for the 1980 and 1984 Olympics. “He tried to add on to your own style of wrestling. He tried to improve what you already had.”
Seay was also someone his athletes could count on off the mat.
“I think for me, and I think there were a number of us, he gave me a direction, he treated me fairly, there were times when I needed that push, needed that kick in the pants, and there were times he was willing to listen and understand,” Kalivas said. “For me, I didn’t really have a father figure, so from my own perspective of things, he presented a father figure that I tried to emulate in my coaching career. That I would hope that when it’s looked back upon for myself, just like his career, it’s not about the wins and losses, it’s about the people you produce. And I think that’s a bigger deal.”