Back in the saddle: John Smith’s OSU wrestlers making noise again

Back in the saddle: John Smith’s OSU wrestlers making noise again

Even in years like this, when OSU wrestling has staged a revival and is ranked No. 2 in the nation, Smith is the same. If you ever think consistency has gone the way of the wind, hang out 10 minutes with John Smith.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Feb 15, 2024, 4:41pm CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Feb 15, 2024, 4:41pm CST

Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.

STILLWATER — John Smith walked into the Gallagher-Iba Arena lobby like he had just come from his ranch. Which he probably did, with a stop for Ash Wednesday mass. Mom Madeline Smith would be very proud.

Nothing pretentious about OSU’s wrestling coach. Never has been. Family. Wrestling. His Catholic faith. The cattle on that spread outside town. That’s what John Smith is about.

So he looked the Lonesome Dove part walking in on a gorgeous February day. Stetson. Work boots. Weathered face, befitting his 58 years. Zip-up vest, which sported a Pistol Pete logo, the only giveaway to his day job.

Smith has been on said job for 33 years(!). He went straight from world champion wrestler to OSU’s head coach, with even a little overlap. He won 1992 Olympic gold at Barcelona four months after coaching OSU to an NCAA runnerup finish.

“Should’ve Been a Cowboy” is not the John Smith anthem. Nothing But a Cowboy is more like it. Wednesday, he leaned against the base of the Pistol Pete statue, not far from the huge wall graphics regaling OSU’s fabulous history on the mat, of which Smith himself is front and center. He’s OSU’s most decorated wrestler and dang near its longest-serving coach, any sport (James Wadley, men’s tennis, holds the record, 39 years).

A spring in the step and a gleam in the eye are not trademarks of the Lonesome Dove crowd. Cowboys like John Smith are internalists. They don’t put their emotions on display. Good luck getting them to open up.

Even in years like this, when OSU wrestling has staged a revival and is ranked No. 2 in the nation, Smith is the same. If you ever think consistency has gone the way of the wind, hang out 10 minutes with John Smith, and you’ll see the same guy from Del City days and the Barcelona Olympiad and Cowboy seasons, be they up or down.

“This year’s no different,” said OSU star Daton Fix, in his seventh season in Stillwater. “Every year I’ve been here, it’s been the same. He always expects the most out of us, and I think that’s why he’s been such a good coach.”

But Cowboys also tell the truth. Pin down Smith, and he’ll come clean. This OSU wrestling team has his juices flowing.

“Absolutely,” Smith said. “It’s been a great year of excitement. When you’ve got kids that are wrestling hard and fighting for their team … But when you kind of get sidetracked for two years, yeah, it’s a hell of a lot better. It’s been a fun ride up to this point.”

OSU wrestling has finished 13th and 18th in the previous two NCAA Championships; 13th and 18th would be solid football seasons in Stillwater and would be glad tidings of great joy in basketball. But such placings are the abyss in wrestling, a sport in which the Cowboys have won 34 titles and placed second 13 times. That’s 47 years in the top two, out of 95 NCAA wrestling championships staged.

Those mediocre seasons had some calling for a coaching change. This is a school that still cares about wrestling. The Cowboys host Bedlam and Iowa the next two Sundays; the latter is expected to be a sellout and the former might be. That’s almost 14,000 fans per dual, in a building half-named for a wrestling coach (Ed Gallagher). OSU will let mediocrity slide in some things. Not wrestling.

But John Smith never has let it slide, either.

Smith says that he never thinks about not coaching. Those are off-season decisions. Through March, his focus is on the mat.

“I think there’s too much energy that goes into the thought of how you’re not going to take 18th again, not take 13th again,” Smith said. “Eliminate all the crap that we’ve dealt with in the last two years. You’ve got enough to do to clean things up and put a respectable team out on the map and be competitive like we’re used to.”

Smith’s squad is more than respectable and more than competitive. The Cowboys are 13-0 in duals and have risen to the No. 2 national ranking, behind only the Penn State monster. OSU has beaten fifth-ranked Iowa State 21-12, seventh-ranked Missouri 24-10, eighth-ranked North Carolina State 22-12 and 11th-ranked South Dakota State 31-6.

But be cautious. This Cowboy roster is not loaded with potential national champions. Fix, No. 3 at 133 pounds; Izzak Olejnik, No. 3 at 165 pounds; and Dustin Plott, No. 2 at 184 pounds, are Smith’s only individuals ranked above eighth. 

Smith has an excellent dual-meet team, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to tournament success. 

A wrestler seeded 18th or 19th at nationals is staring at a 1-2 record when the wrestling starts. Multiple upsets are required for a high placing. Get yourself seeded somewhere around 4-5, and the road is much easier.

“That’s how you win,” Smith said of winning big January and February matches. “That’s how you have a lot of success. Really just focus a week at a time and stay focused on the dual meet season, because you can help yourself a lot, especially with the competition that we’ve had.”

Smith is proud of this team. Rise to No. 2 in the nation with only three apparently-elite wrestlers, and you’re winning with grit. For instance; OSU starters are 15-3 in overtime matches this season.

Smith says this is the hardest-working team he’s ever had. I called him on it. Any recency bias? I mean, Smith has coached five NCAA championship teams. This 2023-24 squad is the hardest-working? Best ever?

“Ever,” Smith said. “Ever,” he repeated. “I’m not talking about one individual, but as a team, yeah. They’ve come together, no complaining; 7 a.m. workouts all season long, 3 o’clock workouts, just not a lot of complaining.”

Smith hails the down-the-roster wrestlers, who have little chance of making the lineup but push their teammates every day. The stoic almost gets emotional talking about their contributions. Guys like Joey Sanchez, Andrew Bloemhof, Reece Witcraft, Cael Hughes and Sam Smith. Those kinds of teammates create the environment that produce one-point victories.

“Last two or three years, I can remember, we’ve pretty much (lost) almost every close match,” Fix said. “To be on a team that’s won a lot of those close matches, it’s been nice.”

Smith said he doesn’t have the kind of team that’s going to win a bunch of matches by tech fall.

“The one thing you enjoy is kids working hard to win matches,” Smith said. “I’ve got a team that’s going to have to win by one, two points. You look at some of the overtimes that we’ve had over the course of the season … guts. Gutty. It’s a gutty performance.”

Smith is using four freshmen in his lineup. 

Troy Spratley is 18-4 and ranked 10th at 125; Tagen Jamison is 17-5 and ranked eighth at 141; Jordan Williams is 13-5 and ranked 15th at 149; and Brayden Thompson is 9-6 and ranked 20th at 174.  

“As a fan, it’s fun to watch these kids find ways to win,” Smith said. “It just comes back on us that we gotta remind ‘em that that’s how we’re gonna have to win. Tough matches, hard matches.”

But it’s more than just the freshmen who have invigorated Smith. Last summer, Smith hired Coleman Scott as associate head coach. Scott, a 2008 NCAA champion for OSU and a 2012 Olympic bronze medalist, had spent the previous eight years as head coach at North Carolina.

Scott seemingly has energized the OSU wrestling room.

“Whenever you have the same people around all the time, you can kind of get stuck in a rut,” Fix said. “It’s nice to bring someone in that has a little bit different perspective. That’s what he did. It’s definitely helped a lot. He’s been awesome.”

Sometimes, it can be difficult for a cowboy to admit he needs help. But maybe Smith did. He runs a strong and streamlined program. Former Cowboy athletic director Harry Birdwell told me a few years ago that in all his years as an OSU administrator, John Smith was the coach who stood out the most in always doing things right.

But manning such a tight ship, and grinding on freshmen to win overtime matches, and trying to repeat the splendor of not just the program’s history but your own, can wear out a guy. Smith said Scott has lifted some of the burden.

“Man, my life’s so much easier,” Smith said. “And a lot of it is just the fact that he’s aware of being a head coach. There’s no question he sees where he can help, and he does a lot of things I don’t even know. It’s been good. Real good.”

Smith calls North Carolina a tough place to coach. The program gets overlooked and undervalued, since Tobacco Road lacks the wrestling heritage of the Big Ten/Big 12 territory. But Scott’s final five Tar Heel teams placed in the NCAA top 20; a coach who can persevere and thrive in such a job has proven his mettle.

“You experience a lot of things that we don’t go through,” Smith said. “And those are the things that he brought here. It’s new ideas. New opportunities that we didn’t realize that we had. And he’s got a winning attitude. He’s been a blessing for us to be able to come out of this two-year slump.”

But North Carolina wrestling doesn’t have the demands of OSU wrestling. John Smith, the face of Cowboy wrestling for going on four decades, carries a heavy load and a burning desire to restore OSU’s championship pedigree.

Penn State has won 10 of the last 12 NCAA titles. The Nittany Lions’ dominance coincides with Penn State being designated a U.S. Olympic Regional Training Center, by USA Wrestling. The rise of Big Ten wrestling, coupled with the slow demise of Big 12 wrestling, has created a chasm between the Cowboys and not just Penn State, but several programs in the Big Ten.

OSU once was the cream of college wrestling. That’s no longer true. But it remains one of the few campuses in America where wrestling’s value never is questioned, and it remains a dream job for a certain cowboy, who looks the part and even moreso acts it.

 

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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