The Missourian: Brian Smith’s ‘Family-like atmosphere’ helped the MU wrestling program reach new heights
Ten years ago when MU wrestling coach Brian Smith took over as head coach at MU, the Missouri Tiger wrestling program was in shambles.
There was no tradition to speak of. No accolades. No championships. Nothing.
"The high school kids, the youth coaches, high school coaches, kids, parents, nobody wanted to come to this program," Smith reminisced. "It was just looked at as a safety thing; if you couldn’t get a scholarship anywhere else or if nobody else wanted you, then you go to Missouri if it was your last resort."
Smith’s arrival was not greeted with open arms. He received a fax his first day on the job listing all the reasons why some people felt he should be fired. Rumors were swirling around the state that it would only be a matter of time before the MU wrestling program was dropped altogether. But Smith and his staff were relentless in their efforts to turn the program around. They began running free wrestling camps and clinics around the state for high schools and youth organizations to change the perception of MU wrestling.
"We were just hustling and getting people to know us," Smith said. "And we were doing a lot of that and getting out in the community and getting out with the alumni and letting them know what we’re going to do and bringing them back together and just naming awards after some of the former coaches and wrestlers from here that were famous. Doing things like that, bringing it together."
Smith was creating tradition within the program from the ground up and, after a few losing and mediocre seasons, the program finally began reaching some of the lofty goals that Smith had set. The past 6 years the team has finished no worse than 17th nationally and is now an annual contender for the Big XII and National Championships. And Smith thinks now that the program’s initial success has been established, its growing tradition will help carry it to annual success.
"The more you give to people, the more they’re willing to give back," he said. "And I think that’s what this program is based on that if you’re going to give to people and put the time in and work hard with them and believe in them and see the results and the graduates come back and say, ‘Man you gotta work hard,’ that’s what this program’s built on and believe in that and it just kind of cycles through."
Since being introduced as Missouri's Head Wrestling Coach May 5, 1998, Smith has demanded nothing but the best from himself, his coaches and his wrestlers. Owning six consecutive winning seasons (18-3, 2001-02; 15-6, 2002-03; 15-3, 2003-04; 15-6, 2004-05; 13-5, 2005-06, 12-2, 2006-07) Smith has coached eight All-Americans to 14 top-eight performances, most recently guiding 174-pound grappler Ben Askren to the program's first back-to-back National Championship titles (2006 and 2007). In the past four years alone, five Tigers have earned nine Big 12 titles with Askren becoming Missouri's first three-time Big 12 Champion. In 2007, Missouri sent a program high eight wrestlers to the NCAA Championships, besting the previous high of seven set in 2003 and 2006. At least one Tiger grappler has been selected to compete at the championship event in each of his nine seasons at Missouri.
Smith's teams have made a remarkable turnaround in nine years. Inheriting a program that had not seen a winning record since the 1991-92 campaign, the Tigers are now continuously ranked among the top-10 in the nation, reaching as high as No. 1 during the course of the 2006-07 campaign. On Dec. 12, 2006, the Missouri wrestling team became just the 11th wrestling program in history to earn a No. 1 ranking. Missouri joined the elite ranks of programs such as Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Iowa, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Arizona State and Illinois to stand at No. 1 in the nation. Only a loss to eventual National Champion Minnesota forced the Tigers down in the polls.
Five schools in the Big 12 have NCAA wrestling teams. Historically, it has been the big four — plus doormat Missouri. But this season's Tigers are ranked No. 1 in the land.
Last week, Missouri topped the National Wrestling Coaches Association poll for the first time. Expected to stay No. 1 when this week's poll is released, it is 3-0 going into a Thursday night home meet against No. 23 Pittsburgh.
"We've changed the attitude of a whole state," Smith says. "Everywhere I go I see kids in Missouri wrestling shirts."
"Our success is not a fluke," Smith said. "We’re going to be tough for a while."
"I think of this program as a family restaurant," he said. "My wife is so involved with the team and wants to help in any way possible. If I don’t keep her up-to-date, she gets mad at me, because she lives for this."
His son is the same way.
"He comes up to practices and helps keep time," Smith said. "He wants to travel with the team, and he was crushed when I told him I didn’t buy him a plane ticket for this past weekend."
Smith’s family-restaurant theme reaches beyond his team to his three children, his wife and his extended family back in Florida. Today, nearly 200 families make up the Missouri Wrestling Booster Club, which, in addition to attending matches, single-handedly takes care of hospitality for The Missouri Open Tournament each December.
"This whole facility was built by the alumni, boosters and families of this program," Smith said. "Even the walls were put up by these families. The lockers were built by a father."
Back in 1998, Smith opened up the doors to his family restaurant. The result was a new era in Missouri wrestling.
"We’re not afraid to talk about nationals," Smith says. "Our goal is to win a national title."
It has been amazing to watch Head Coach Brian Smith build this program from literally the ground up. In the five years before his arrival, the Tigers won 27 matches. In his first five years at Mizzou, Smith coached the Tigers to 55 dual victories. From his very first day at the helm, the former Michigan State star believed he could win a national championship at Missouri.
"I believed it from day one," Smith recently said. "There were certainly days you questioned how long it was going to take. I remember telling my coaches, ‘it’s baby steps,’ when we were getting beat 44-0 by Oklahoma State my first year, but every year we showed improvement. Believe me, there were hard times. Losing to Central Missouri my second year, tying Missouri Valley in my third year. But every year we showed progress. The kids kept believing and working harder, and better recruits kept coming in. And that’s a big part of it. We kept getting big recruits every year. We knew in our third year, when I was redshirting Jeremy Spates, Tyron Woodley, Kevin Herron, Mark Bader and a host of other people, we knew that fourth year was going to be a breakout year, and fortunately it was," he said.