Bruce Burnett oversaw what the National Wrestling Hall of Fame stated in a release as “the most successful Olympic cycle in U.S. history.”
As the head coach of the Team USA national freestyle program from 1993-2000, he was in the corner as four Americans won Olympic gold – including former Oklahoma State wrestler Kendall Cross (1996).
The U.S. also won World Team Titles with Burnett spearheading the program at the 1993 and 1995 World Freestyle Championships.
It’s just the tip of the highlights for Burnett, who will be enshrined in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame this weekend – a year later than originally expected as his class was delayed due to the pandemic.
“I’m not sure you can have a higher honor in the sport of wrestling, just because your name is put up there with so many other greats,” Burnett said earlier this week. “So many of the people that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame already I’ve either worked with, coached with or coached. So to be included in that group, that’s a special, special honor for sure.”
Before taking over the reins at Team USA, Burnett was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State from 1987-90 under Joe Seay.
Part of the back-to-back team titles won by Oklahoma State in 1989-90, he was also in the corner with Cross won his national championship in ’89 before winning gold alongside Burnett seven years later.
While John Smith was no longer competing for Oklahoma State when Burnett arrived in Stillwater, he still credits the wrestling legend in helping shape his coaching approach in working with elite wrestlers.
“I paid a lot of attention to John, what he did, how he trained, the whole process,” Burnett said. “I watched him continue to grow and become a legend in the sport.”
Burnett also joked that he owns a lot of his success to Smith’s older brother, Lee Roy Smith.
The former three-time state place-winner for North Bakersfield (California) High School followed Lee Roy in several of the job openings starting with the assistant position at Oklahoma State – hired by former Cowboy head coach Myron Roderick, who was OSU’s athletic director at the time, after Lee Roy left OSU to work for the Swiss Wrestling Federation.
It was then Lee Roy’s move from Team USA to head the Arizona State wrestling program after the 1992 Summer Olympics that created a the position for Burnett to take the job for Team USA.
“It’s hard to believe the track that I followed,” Burnett said. “Lee Roy’s decisions impacted my decisions in life. … Those are two of the big moves in my journey being a wrestling coach and being inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.”
After his successful run with Team USA in the late ’90s, he returned to college coaching to be the head man for the United States Naval Academy.
Shortly after retiring from head coach of Navy, where he spent 13 years after serving as the Team USA coach and led the program to a 113-57 dual record, he was courted to return to Team USA for a second stint.
In 2014, Zeke Jones left Team USA to become the head coach at Arizona State right in the heart of the Olympic cycle.
And so two years out from the Rio de Janeiro Games, Burnett was sought out to complete the cycle.
And with his return, Team USA also had another Olympic gold medalist under Burnett’s watch with Kyle Snyder claiming gold at heavyweight – the first American to win the Olympics at the weight since Kurt Angle, whom Burnett coached in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
“I was really enjoying my retirement,” Burnett said. “… They came up with the idea and approached me about coaching through 2016 – they actually flew up to visit me at the house (in Idaho). Honestly, it was a family decision – if my wife wouldn’t have agreed, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Burnett has officially been retired since his second stop with Team USA, living in the panhandle of Idaho – the same state in which he started his coaching career as a high school coach at Meridian High School, where they won four state team titles. He also wrestled collegiately at Idaho State, where he was a two-time Big Sky champion.
But he hasn’t completely escaped the sports that has been the focal point of his life and led to his spot in the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
The former Cowboy assistant said he still does some individual coaching on the side, but it’s all virtual – allowing him to limit his travel after already living a well-traveled life.
He has traveled to Stillwater to be a part of the Honors Weekend, and according to Burnett it will be his first trip back to Stillwater since 1997 – when the World Cup was hosted at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Also among the induction class are fellow Distinguished Members Dremiel Byers, Mark Lieberman and Bill Zadick. Gary Abbott is the recipient of the Order of Merit for this year’s class, with Tim Shiels receiving the Meritorious Official, Gary Chopp receiving the Medal of Courage and Carl Eschenbach being this year’s Outstanding American.
Complete biographies of each member in the Class can be found at nwhof.org.
The Class of 2021 Induction Ceremony, which has traditionally been held at the Hall of Fame but will be held at the McKnight Center today, will be available to stream live online. Scheduled to start at 7 p.m., the broadcast will be available on the Hall of Fame’s Rokfin channel at rokfin.com/nwhof (a subscription is required).