By Gary Abbott USA Wrestling
I received an email today from my friend Jose Campo, who is a very successful high school wrestling coach out in the San Diego area. Jose let me know that his father, Joe Campo, had passed away last night at the age of 85.
A part of my job at USA Wrestling is receiving information about people within the wrestling community who have died and to inform the wrestling family about it. Anybody who has followed high school wrestling for a long time knows that Joe Campo, who was known as “The Gov,” was one of the greatest high school wrestling coaches in history. There will be many people who will want to know about his passing.
However, Joe Campo was also a tremendous friend of mine and a true mentor in my career within wrestling. I was sad to hear the news, and my mind wandered in all kinds of directions.
When I was growing up on Long Island in the late 1970s, Joe Campo was already a legend. He was the head coach at Brentwood Ross High School, which was one of the top teams on the Island and in the state. In fact, Brentwood Ross won the Suffolk County (Section XI) team title in my junior year in 1977. At the time, Brentwood had two high schools, Ross and Sonderling. Prior to the split, Campo was also the head coach of a combined Brentwood High School team. Brentwood wrestling was very successful for a long time under Campo’s leadership.
What I remember about the Brentwood Ross wrestlers were that they were all very strong, in great shape and had excellent technique. Brentwood was known as a tough town, and many of their wrestlers came from disadvantaged situations. Coach Campo helped these young men become outstanding athletes as well as impressive people.
At the time, everybody knew a little bit about Brentwood’s history. His program developed three great college wrestling stars, all who went to Iowa State and became national heroes. Carl Adams won two NCAA titles for the Cyclones, and Pete Galea and Bob Antonacci were also multiple All-Americans there. I met these great stars during summer wrestling camps when I was a kid. All of them talked with pride about their great wrestling coach Joe Campo.
When I was a senior at Boston University, we got a new head wrestling coach named Carl Adams. He had been coaching at the Univ. of Rhode Island for the previous two years, one of our top rivals. URI dropped wrestling, and BU was fortunate to hire Adams at the time. In my final year on the mat, I had a chance to wrestle for a great coach, who later became a business partner and close friend for life.
Carl ran successful wrestling camps which I worked at for many years. He always brought Coach Joe Campo to work at these camps, and it was there that I got to know him personally. All of the great things I heard about Joe Campo and witnessed as a opposing competitor in high school only scratched the surface. Joe Campo was a wonderful person in all aspects of life.
Coach Campo was an interesting person beyond just wrestling. When I met him, he was already considered an older coach. He did not have an impressive physique or a commanding personality. Yet when he got on the mat, he really knew his stuff and was an excellent teacher. What I liked most about him was that he was a very nice person, somebody who you immediately enjoyed spending time with. When you got to know Joe, you could sense why he was such a great coach. He was a winner because he was a great man.
After I got Jose’s email, I immediately called Carl Adams and we shared some thoughts and stories about Joe Campo. Carl remained tremendously close to him and gave him so much credit for his success. Carl’s first thought when we spoke today about Coach Campo is that he was “an unbelievable person.”
Carl said that he was so respected by his wrestlers that they came up with the nickname “the Gov” because of his positive influence in their lives. He also noted that Coach Campo was admired by athletes and coaches from opposing teams. He made an impact on so many people through his involvement in wrestling.
I quickly did a web search on Joe Campo, mostly looking for a good picture of him to go with this column. I discovered some information about him that I did not know. Wrestling USA Magazine, which has great stats on high school wrestling, places him at No. 22 on the list of all-time high school wins with 452. His head coaching career spanned from 1957-1987, a total of 30 years covering teams in upstate New York, Long Island and even in Alabama. His win total should be higher, because there were years when he helped coach some teams later in his life when he was not the head coach.
Another website told me that his overall dual record was 452-38 with a 261-20 record in his two decades in Brentwood. His teams won eight Suffolk County team titles, and he had nine state champions and 27 New York State place winners when New York had only one state meet. The same article explained that they recently named the gymnasium at Brentwood Ross High School in his honor. Coach Campo came back to Brentwood for the gymnasium ceremony at the age of 82, and a large number of his former athletes were there to celebrate with him.
Another article explained how Joe and his son Jose have both been inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame’s state chapter program, with Joe going in for New York and Jose getting honored in California. It explained how they were believed to be the first father-son combination to be so honored. Jose’s email to me explained that his father had started three different wrestling programs in New York, and that he had been elected to three different Hall of Fames.
None of this information surprised me a bit. I have always known that Joe Campo was an amazing wrestling coach. But, I also knew from personal experience how much he meant to so many people.
I often spent time with Joe Campo when I was living out East and able to attend Carl Adams’ wrestling camps on a regular basis. However, when I moved to Colorado to work with USA Wrestling, we would only see each other at the NCAA Championships. Joe would show up with his sons each year to enjoy the tournament and visit his many friends from across the country. No matter how busy I was at the NCAAs, I always seemed to run into Coach Campo for a nice conversation. He was genuinely interested in how things were going with me and my family, and he was very supportive of my efforts as a USA Wrestling staff member. I felt that every time I saw “The Gov” was a treat and a privilege for me.
This is not an obituary for Joe Campo, because I don’t have all of the information about his amazing life at this time. When the official obit becomes available, we will post it for people to see. I am sure that when you read it, you will be very impressed about what he accomplished and how many people he was able to influence.
In my own small way, I would like to honor the life of Joe Campo in a more personal way. I would like to thank Joe for all of the years of love and support, and for being such an inspiring role model. I was truly blessed to call him friend. I already miss Joe, but I feel very good that I got to know him and have him as part of my life.