Longtime Whitman-Hanson Regional High Wrestling coach Bob Gay will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Bob Gay would not have guessed that a late-night phone call would lead to a Hall of Fame career in a sport he knew nothing about.
It was Nov. 30, 1979 and Gay had just concluded his fourth season as the Whitman-Hanson Regional High girls’ golf coach. He was sitting in the dining room of his Raynham home testing his luck at Trivial Pursuit when he heard a ring. It was Ron Brown. The two knew each other well as they were colleagues in the W-H history department and Brown would occasionally attend some of the girls’ golf team’s away matches. But, this call wasn’t about history or golf. Brown, who had started W-H’s wrestling program two years back, needed an assistant coach.
“He asked, ‘Can I come to practice the next day?”’ Gay said.
Gay had no prior wrestling experience, but he — still a bit shocked — obliged.
“Everything was foreign to me,” Gay recalled. “I didn’t know how to score, I didn’t know the moves. It was like a brand-newexperience.”
However, Gay didn’t let his lack of knowledge hinder him one bit. He watched, listened, and attended coaches workshops and clinics along the way.
“My job would be to make sure the kids would get into shape and were working out and all that stuff,” Gay said. “When Ron would get there, he would go into the instructional part of practice.”
Gay served as the assistant coach for five seasons, before taking the 1984-85 campaign off for personal reasons. At the outset of the 1985-86 season, he was back and elevated to head coach at W-H. It was a post he held until 2001.
During the course of his 16-year stint, the Panthers reached unprecedented heights. They claimed nine league titles, won three South Sectional championships, boasted nine state champions and had a span in the mid-1990s where they won 53 straight dual meets. The accomplishments of the program became Gay’s biggest recruiting tool.
“Kids like to enjoy some success,” Gay, who also served as the assistant principal at W-H from 1988-95 and the principal from 1995-2001, said. “At the time at Whitman-Hanson, the hockey team was just up-and-coming and the basketball program was going through some lean years, so if an athlete came into the school he would see the kids wearing their championship t-shirts or jackets or such for high school wrestling and I think that drew a lot of the kids that could have gone and played other sports to us.”
Gay’s wrestlers changed by the season, but his expectations of his Panthers wrestling program did not.
“We had the three same goals every year,” Gay said. “Good sportsmanship – I want them to represent their parents, their school, their team with good sportsmanship. No. 2: we’re going to have a positive experience. I want them to have fun, they’re not going to come out and stay on the team if they’re having a miserable time. No. 3: the goal is we will win. We’re not going to practice this hard, work this hard and lose. Losing is not acceptable.”
Because of Gay, W-H created a Good Sportsmanship Award aimed to recognize fairness and respect for one’s opponent displayed outside of its own program.
“I thought, at the time, we have our own awards for most improved wrestler, MVP, rookie of the year, but I thought we should be acknowledging people who displayed good sportsmanship on other teams,” Gay explained. “So, the first one to ever win it was the Rockland High School wrestling coach, Jeff Perkins. He just was a good guy. If he lost a close match he was a gracious loser, if he won a close match he was a gracious winner. Some years we’d give it to a wrestler from another team, some years we’d give it to an official or referee.”
In 2012, Gay began coaching wrestling again as an assistant to one of his former wrestlers at W-H, Nick Flynn, on the inaugural Bristol-Plymouth/Coyle-Cassidy co-op. Gay became the head coach the following season, a position he still holds today.
“If you walked into a Bristol-Plymouth/Coyle-Cassidy practice you would swear you were at a Whitman-Hanson practice,” Gay said. “I brought everything that worked and was successful.”
A few months ago, Gay was shocked again. Not via telephone this time, like it had been 39 years back, but by a piece mail postmarked Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“I don’t know anyone there,” Gay recalled of his reaction to receiving the piece of mail.
But, he went on to open it anyway. The letter explained he was selected to be inducted into this year’s class of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
For Gay, who has already been inducted into the MA Wrestling Coaches’ Hall of Fame in 2012 and New England Wrestling Coaches’ Hall of Fame in 2016, this is the ultimate achievement.
“It really humbles me very much,” Gay said. “I’m looking at the people who have gone in in previous years and you talk about the giants in the sport in our state, and when I first started as Ron’s assistant in ‘79, these people were legends back then and suddenly I’m going to be receiving the same Hall of Fame recognition. It’s an amazing thing, it’s just an amazing thing.”
Gay, despite all the success (355 wins and counting), tried to never stray too far from his primary message.
“We had a lot of wins and we had a lot of titles and stuff, but I’m hoping when all is said and done that I’ve had a positive impact on as many kids as I can,” Gay said.
Gay’s induction will take place Saturday, April 7 at Gillette Stadium.
“That call changed my entire life,” Gay said with a laugh.