The weekend’s honor could have come much earlier for Bob Thomas if only he had wanted it.
The former Southeast High wrestling head coach will be inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum’s Florida chapter this weekend, but it took years of people in the state’s wrestling community needling Bryan Wilkes to finally put Thomas’ name up for nomination. Year after year, the Palmetto wrestling head coach, who both wrestled for and coached under Thomas with the Seminoles, heard the same questions: When are you going to nominate Bob? What’s taking so long?
“Bob didn’t really want the recognition and then after a while he deserved it,” Wilkes said. “Sso, yes, it was overdue.”
For 32 years with the Noles, Thomas left a legacy at both his school, in Manatee County and across the entire state. Southeast placed four wrestlers atop the podium during his tenure and led the Seminoles to a Clas 3A runner-up finish in 1993, the best finish in school history. Thomas mentored Wilkes and Lakewood Ranch’s Charlie Higdon, both of whom were their respective schools’ first wrestling head coaches. Statewide, Thomas’ legacy lies in helping bring the 1988 state championships to the Manatee Civic Center, now the Bradenton Area Convention Center, setting the precedent of holding all classifications’ finals in one location.
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Bob didn’t really want the recognition and then after a while he deserved it, so, yes, it was overdue.
Bryan Wilkes, Palmetto head coach
On Saturday at 7 p.m. in Orlando, Thomas will finally receive his recognition. Alongside 70 others, Thomas will be recognized with the Lifetime Service to Wrestling honor at the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista, commemorating a career marked by longevity at a high level.
“Thirty-two years, a lot of tournaments that we hosted, a lot of events, a lot of time with the kids, a lot of lost weekends,” Thomas said. “I said, ‘You know, this is paying back.’ ”
Thomas was head coach for 30 of those 32 years with the Seminoles and spent those years compiling one of the most accomplished resumes in Manatee County. Ten times the Noles finished in the Top 10 of their classification, and even if there was never a team state title to show for Thomas’ work, there was an air around the program fitting a perennial power.
“People knew who Southeast was,” Wilkes said, “when we walked into the gym.”
Thomas began with the Seminoles in the late 1970s. After two years as an assistant he took the reins in 1980 and wouldn’t relinquish them until he retired in 2010.
67State tournament qualifiers for Southeast during Bob Thomas’ tenure.
The 1993 team was one of his crowning achievements with a pair of wrestlers reaching the championship bout, including Higdon, who would win an individual title a year later when the Noles notched another Top 10 finish. Even when Southeast no longer contended for state titles, Thomas had the Seminoles positioned as one of the county’s best teams despite being smaller in enrollment than some of their peers.
The importance of longevity has sunk in during the past few days as he’s been organizing his trip to Central Florida. He won’t just be surrounded by family and friends, but also by people he met during three decades in the Florida wrestling community. He’s heard the National Wrestling Hall of Fame is expecting 600 people in attendance this weekend, and Thomas’ biggest regret is that he’ll be too busy to adequately catch up with everyone he wants to see.
His speech, which took him only a few days to write after he found out about his induction, will center upon the relationships he’s made. He’ll thank those who were so adamant about his induction and congratulate everyone he’s sharing the weekend with. He’ll have jokes prepared at some of their expenses because that’s what happens when you’re in the community so long — you learn everyone’s ticks more than you might think.
“You’re involved in it way more than you probably realize,” Thomas said. “Now that I’m in it, I get to look back and go, ‘Man, I’m going to be seeing people that I met through wrestling all this weekend.’ And I’m going to go, ‘My gosh, I never would’ve thought how many friends I made through 32 years.’ ”