By JORDAN IKEDA/SPORTS EDITOR &
TREVOR WONG/STAFF WRITER
When the Rafu sat down to interview Haruki “Rocky” Seto in late July out in the San Gabriel Valley, before the first question had escaped our lips, he simply asked if we could pray. Actually, it was more of a statement than a request, but done in such a confident and unassuming manner that we indeed began the interview in prayer.
This, at the heart, is who Rocky Seto is.
A man of God.
He could surely be defined in many other ways. Nisei. Former USC Trojans linebacker. Father of three kids. Football coach.
But he wasn’t just any coach – he was a coach under the leadership of coach Pete Carroll, who helped shape arguably the greatest college football dynasty ever, winning seven straight Pac-10 championships, a record three consecutive Rose Bowl wins and five BCS bowl games. He is a champion, a leader and a former USC defensive coordinator. But tomorrow, in the Mile High City, he’ll be roaming the sidelines for the Seattle Seahawks with a brand new title: NFL assistant coach.
Spend a couple minutes with the man, and you’ll come away seeing him through a different lens. He is easy-going, with a hint of what might be mistaken for a Hawaiian accent, using words like “dude,” and “cool,” Seto exudes confidence while effortlessly remaining humble.
And despite the success he has achieved through football, and despite the fact he has enjoyed and continues to enjoy every minute of his job—the struggles, the wins, the practices, the travel and the players—none of it has come to define who he is as a person.
“With identity, sometimes, you get pushed into certain things that logically fit,” Seto said. “Being a Christian, that’s freed me up from a lot of stuff. You go off of what God calls you to do.”
Born to hard-working Issei parents, Seto grew up in Boyle Heights. Like most Japanese-American (JA) kids raised in Los Angeles during the ‘70s and early ‘80s, Seto adopted his father’s love of John Wooden basketball and John McKay football. On occasion, his father attended USC football games and would later describe to him O.J. Simpson in his glory days. It was from these moments with his dad, that his love of football blossomed into the aim of wearing the Cardinal and Gold.
His family moved to Monterey Park and then to Arcadia where he went to school and played football. After high school, Seto was not “physically or mentally ready” for USC so he opted to attend Mt. San Antonio Community College. His reasoning was simple – the head football coach at Mt. Sac, Bill Fisk, had been an All-American at USC three decades earlier, and that proximity, no matter how marginal, kept alive his dream of playing for USC football.
Three years later, after waiting nearly the entire summer to hear back from USC about walking onto the team, Seto took a leap of faith. He drove out to the campus, entered Heritage Hall, walked amidst the rows of bronze-casted Heisman Trophies and gleaming National Championship trophies, and sought out former coach John Robinson.
“He invited me into his office when I told him that I wanted to play,” Seto said. “He listened to me, then tossed me a notepad. I wrote down my information and a couple weeks later, I got a letter that told me to report to training camp.”
“It’s unbelievable how it happened.”
Seto made the team as a walk-on, though it wasn’t without serious concerns from his parents whose Issei thinking had them struggling with the idea of him playing football. Undeterred, he pressed on and through his perseverance, eventually earned a scholarship during his senior year.
“That scholarship was a huge moment for our family and not just for the financial reasons,” Seto said, emotions causing him, for the first time during the interview, to falter to find the right words. “My father…he literally told me that I made him believe in the impossible.”
That belief was tested again when Seto declined to get his doctorate in physical therapy and instead felt called to coach. His parents just couldn’t understand this line of thinking. Coaching was such a foreign notion to them.
Seto joined the USC coaching staff in 1999 as an unpaid volunteer assistant under then—head coach Paul Hackett, where he worked with the defense and special teams.
“You can see these things where God was leading me in a certain way,” Seto said. “I could see how God was using football to keep me on course. I just wanted to play and I wanted to coach.”
A year later, he was upgraded to an administrative graduate assistant where he would do anything and everything to help out whether it be paperwork, cleaning, putting together scouting reports, getting lunch.
“It was good because it taught me to serve,” Seto said without an ounce of irony in his voice. “As you grow in your profession, as you grow in leadership, I think it’s important that you learn how to become a good follower, so that you are able to meet and understand the needs of the guys that are following you.”
He also learned the tenuous nature of coaching, when he, Hackett and the rest of the staff were let go before the start of the 2001 season. Based on a chance meeting at a USC volleyball game Seto had only attended to impress his then girlfriend (now wife) Sharla, he saw then-newly hired coach Pete Carroll in the stands. Seto introduced himself, talked with him and was offered the graduate assistant position.
A week after he accepted, Seto received a call from the Washington Redskins. One of his fellow coaches under Hackett wanted to know if he was interested in being the graduate assistant. From a purely professional perspective, this was a no-brainer.
He turned it down.
In explaining his decision, Seto references a verse in the book of Matthew in the Bible that states, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” This same verse and the message behind it would play a major role in his decision four years down the road.
In the meantime, he worked two years as the USC graduate assistant, coaching the general defense in 2001 and safeties in 2002. In 2003 he became a full coach, in charge of safeties, and from 2004-2005 he coached linebackers.
Then, coming off a heart-breaking loss to Texas in the 2005 Rose Bowl, Seto was again offered an NFL job. This time, the Buffalo Bills were interested. He flew into Buffalo, aced a four-hour interview conducted by the general manager, head coach, and the defensive coordinator, and was offered the linebackers job right on the spot.
But, it was his wife who gently reminded him of a promise he had made to one of his players at USC, who had asked him if he would leave the team if he was offered an NFL job. Never thinking he would actually get an NFL gig, Seto told the player that all he needed to worry about was football, that he would indeed be back the following year as coach.
“We prayed about it and we decided to stay,” Seto said. “As we have grown older and closer to Jesus Christ, our priorities became a lot clearer. It’s always what’s pleasing to God first, then what’s best for our marriage, then our children, then what’s best for our work … in that order. It didn’t even get past priority number one.”
Another offer, this one to be the defensive coordinator for Steve Sarkisian at the University of Washington, came down to a family decision and was aided with a little advice from John Wooden, who asked Seto if he was happy.
“I was extremely happy,” Seto said. “Coaching at USC was my dream and my family was well taken care of. Plus, California was my home. And I could hear in his voice like he was almost saying, ‘Then what’s the problem?’”
So, Seto continued to live his dream. He coached the secondary for a couple years and last year, he was promoted to be the defensive coordinator. But sometimes living a dream is not all its cracked up to be. Last season didn’t exactly live up to USC football standards—the Trojans finished 9-4, fell short of a Pac-10 title and didn’t qualify for a meaningful bowl game. Furthermore, there were whispers that it was the Trojan defense that lost a few of the closer games.
To top it all off, Carroll left USC for the NFL, the coaching staff was overhauled and the NCAA imposed sanctions on the football program including a bowl ban for two years and stripping former running back, Reggie Bush, of his Heisman Trophy.
“It makes us appear like we were cheating throughout the whole time and it’s sad because that’s not the case,” Seto said. “We weren’t paying the players, getting the parents paid. It’s very, very unfortunate to coach Carroll, the staff and the players for all the hard work that was put in. It puts a negative tone on it. Nonetheless, I was there, coach Carroll was there and it is our responsibility on how things turned out. Unfortunately, all these things that happened…we weren’t able to keep them from happening.”
Despite all this, Seto never regretted his decision in deciding to stay at USC. And despite uncertainty for the future, he never worried, nor wavered in his faith that has helped shape his identity.
“The perception is that we cheated,” he said. “Me too … I was there for 13 years. But perception is a thing you can never control and you should never live for. It’s who you are before God that is the most important thing.
“I believe the more you focus on who you are, perception will take care of itself. And even if it doesn’t, I’m at peace with who I am. Just like this whole probation thing, the perception is very negative. I feel saddened by what’s happened, but for me, because I only answer to God, I feel okay with it.”
Seto explained how fleeting things are—how Heisman Trophies and national championships can disappear as quickly as momentum after a goal-line fumble. He talked about finding peace concerning not coaching after he left USC. He also talked about finally joining the NFL after turning it down twice before.
In January, Carroll brought Seto onboard with the Seahawks as the defensive quality control coach. Now, Seto and his family live two minutes away from where his wife was born and raised. He’s coaching three of his former players, Lofa Tatupu, Mike Williams and Anthony McCoy. And he’s helping to build up a team that has been languishing at the bottom of the NFC for the past several seasons.
Last year, Seattle was one of the worst defensive teams in the NFL.
Last week, they dismantled the 49ers, holding San Francisco to six points.
“The goals remain the same here,” Seto said. “Maximize our team and the team we have right now. The goal, even back at SC, was never to win championships. We never talked that way. The goal was to see how good we could be. To see how far we could go if we maximized ourselves.”
Seto has come a long way since that first time he set foot in Heritage Hall. Never worrying about results whether it be in football or in life, through the highs of championships, to the lows of sanctions, through all of the uncertainty, he has remained certain in his identity.
“God allowed me to experience a lot [at USC],” Seto said. “Those championships were fun, they are life-long memories and they were tremendous. But what’s sold out in the media is the championships, the money and the fame. All those things are really promoted, celebrated and really worshipped—but in the end, if you put your hope in these things, they will disappoint you.”
Seto understands where his identity lies, where his foundation is firmly planted. And he wholly embraces it.
“This is how I am,” he said. “I don’t know how to not be myself. In coaching or anything else, it’s important to be who you are.”