The sport honors a decades-long coach of wrestling — and of life

A coach becomes more than just a person with a whistle when, after an athlete has finished his time playing under that coach, he or she decides to follow the same path, to help others as they have been helped.

John Casebeer was inducted into the Washington State Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Oct. 24 following a 30-year coaching career in the Edmonds School District, including stops Alderwood Junior High School in Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace High School, Brier Terrace Middle School in Lynnwood, and finally Alderwood Middle School.

While serving in those positions, Casebeer made wrestling fun and exciting for kids often seeing the sport for the first time, gave them a solid foundation in the fundamentals, and on numerous occasions, set kids on a path to be involved in the sport for most of their adult lives.

Outside of the wrestling room, Casebeer served as a surrogate father to many of the kids he coached, in one instance inviting future colleague Gregg Ortega to live with he and his wife, Marilyn, during Ortega’s senior year of high school.

In another, Casebeer identified a seventh-grader who hung around the wrestling room at a time when only eighth- and ninth-graders were allowed to wrestle in junior high school. Casebeer encouraged the young man, allowing him to serve as a team manager until he could compete.

“He was just a rare breed of kid who just had that grit and toughness where quitting wasn’t even in his vocabulary, and he would push himself to become the best he could be,” Casebeer said of a young Randy Couture, who would grow up to win a state championship at Lynnwood High School, an NCAA championship at Oklahoma State, six world championships as a mixed martial artist, and induction into the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Hall of Fame.

Casebeer often took kids whose fathers were absent or disinterested in the outdoors on hunting, fishing and camping trips, to introduce them to one of his passions outside of wrestling.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now if I didn’t wrestle for coach Casebeer,” said Blaine Gilchrist-Smith, a 30-year coaching veteran who currently heads the wrestling program at Archbishop Murphy High School and nominated his former mentor for induction into the WSWCA Hall of Fame after wrestling for Casebeer at Alderwood. “I probably couldn’t count all of the lives he’s impacted, and now I’ve impacted lives as well. It’s a ripple effect. It’s pretty amazing.”

Casebeer was inducted to the WSWCA Hall of Fame as a middle school coach, but spent five seasons at Mountlake Terrace High School from 1980-1985, where he produced one state champion (Ron Oberg in 1984) and 25 state tournament participants.

The 70-year-old Casebeer has another life in wrestling as a member of the Snohomish County Wrestling Officials Association, where he has worked for 27 years. For the first 12 years of his tenure as an official, Casebeer coached and officiated concurrently, a practice that was more common in those days.

Casebeer is a no-nonsense arbiter who takes his job very seriously. He doesn’t hesitate for a moment to call one or both wrestlers on the mat for stalling, which he sees as a scourge of the sport.

“Whenever we see him, it’s laughs and giggles before the match, but then we both get serious,” Stanwood wrestling coach Ray Mather said of Casebeer. “He tries to take his vision of what good wrestling should look like and apply it as an official. He remembers how wrestling used to be, but I’m pretty impressed with how he’s acclimated to how much the sport has changed.”

Casebeer still officiates a regular schedule, working matches on Tuesdays or Thursdays and a grueling tournament schedule on Saturdays, and plans to do so for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve been blessed with very good health,” Casebeer said. “I don’t have a date (to retire), I’ll just do it until my body doesn’t allow me to do it anymore.”

At every match he officiates, fans are treated to the great theater of what Mather calls “The Casebeer inch”, where Casebeer, while lying on his side as a wrestler is in a pinning predicament, holds up a hand and narrows the distance between his thumb and index finger to tell the crowd just how close the wrestler is to being pinned.

Casebeer grew up in Mullan, Idaho, as the son of a miner. John and Bertha Casebeer raised three children in Mullan — young John and two girls — but moved to Lynnwood when the mine shut down.

The elder Casebeer went to work as a Snohomish County road foreman, building roads in the area while his son grew into a prep wrestling star.

Casebeer won a state championship as an Edmonds High School senior in 1963, and went on to greater success at Central Washington University after a year at what was then called Everett Junior College. He placed third at the NAIA national tournament in 1968, earning All-America honors under legendary coach Eric Beardsley, himself a member of the WSWCA Hall of Fame.

Casebeer took his first teaching job at Alderwood Junior High immediately after graduating from CWU, and set about perfecting his recruiting pitch to youngsters who had never been exposed to Olympic wrestling, in the days before there were youth wrestling clubs in most communities.

Casebeer said his biggest recruiting tool were the cool uniforms his wrestlers wore, a discovery for which the University of Oregon might owe him money.

“I made sure those kids were dressed right,” Casebeer said. “I let the wrestlers wear their gear in P.E., and I was fortunate to have administrators who gave me anything I wanted in terms of finances.”

Armed with the right gear and an enthusiastic, outgoing personality, it was difficult for young, would-be wrestlers to stay away from Casebeer’s program.

“He just had a way of working with guys like me that was so easy, and his relationship with us was so natural that it was almost like we couldn’t resist. He was very hard to say no to,” Gilchrist-Smith said. “And he just did that year after year.”

Attempting to find statistical records for middle school wrestling is a precarious business, but suffice it to say Casebeer’s teams did a lot of winning.

“His teams terrorized the entire district,” said Shawn O’Donnnell, a longtime officiating colleague of Casebeer who wrestled against his teams while a student at Brier Junior High School. “They were a different level of tough.”

Kevin Judkins, another fellow WSWCA Hall of Famer who was the head coach at Lynnwood High School from 1987-2002, had the benefit of receiving wrestlers from Casebeer’s program that were ready to contribute.

“When I would get kids from John’s program, I knew I wouldn’t be starting from scratch,” Judkins said. “They came in with a work ethic. They understood hard work and appreciate it. But one of his biggest attributes was the ability to get kids to turn out. It was a lot easier to keep them interested in high school because of that.”

Casebeer had that five-year stint as Mountlake Terrace’s varsity coach, but it ended prematurely when, according to Casebeer, a football coach was hired in 1985 and took a teaching position at the high school that was promised to him.

Casebeer, who was coaching at Mountlake Terrace and Brier/Terrace Middle School at the same time from 1983-1985 while teaching at Brier, stayed on at the middle school for another six years.

“Had he remained at Mountlake Terrace, they would have had a reign of success like we can’t imagine,” fellow WSWCA Hall of Famer and current Arlington wrestling coach Rick Iversen said. “We lost what I thought was the premier coach in the northwest part of the state at that time. He was technical, a gentleman and a great leader.”

But for all of his acumen as a molder of wrestling talent, some say the greatest impact Casebeer has had on folks in the Snohomish County wrestling community was as the positive male role model he provided for kids who didn’t have one at home.

Ortega, who is the longest-serving wrestling official in the Snohomish association — he began his 42nd season in December — described his family situation as “not cohesive” when he was a senior at Lynnwood High School in 1973-74 after wrestling on one of Casebeer’s first teams at Alderwood.

“Even after I went to high school and stopped wrestling for him, we were always good friends,” Ortega said of Casebeer. “He offered to take me in, even though he was a struggling young teacher at the time with a couple of children of his own.”

Ortega went on to hold jobs as a commercial airline pilot, owner of Sporty’s Beef &Brew in Everett and his current position doing fleet management for Michels Corporation, a large pipeline construction company, but still relishes his time officiating the state wrestling tournament in February with Casebeer either on a nearby mat or at the scorer’s table with a clipboard, evaluating his former temporary houseguest.

“He’s the reason I became an official. He got me into it in 1974, the year I graduated,” Ortega said.

One measure of a coach’s success and overall impact on the athletes he or she mentors is what those athletes go on to accomplish after they’ve left the coach’s nest.

Couture, in addition to all his athletic achievements, has parlayed his fame into 15 motion-picture roles, but credits Casebeer for opening his eyes to the world of wrestling, which he said is the entry point to all his success.

“I think through him I developed the love for the sport that I have and have carried around through my entire life, and it’s led me everywhere I’ve been,” Couture said. “I’m forever grateful to him. His lessons were my first look through the eyes of a wrestler. When I applied those lessons and looked through those eyes, I could solve every problem that’s ever been before me.”

Couture added that he was raised in a single-parent household and that his father was never around, but Casebeer filled that void for him, as he has for so many less-famous athletes he coached.

“It’s just the kids,” Casebeer said. “The kids are what makes it. There’s not a lot of instant gratification — you might win a championship or something. But for people to come back after 30 years and thank you for being a part of their life — that’s huge.”

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