Oklahoma State Head Wrestling Coach John Smith has guided the Cowboys to five national titles and has been named NWCA National Coach of the Year twice. As a wrestler, he won two NCAA titles, four world championships and two Olympic gold medals. He is a legend in our sport and continues to expand his repertoire, getting behind the mic this off-season at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Coach Smith was kind enough to field our questions last week.
TOM – When you went to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul you were coming off winning your first world championship the year before. Did the Olympics feel different than the World Championships to you? What do you remember from that first Olympics?
JS – At that time both the world championships in 87 and Olympics in 88 were big brackets and you wrestled, in the old brackets, where you could wrestle up to seven or eight matches in a three day period. The challenge, always, was making flat weight three days in a row seeing that you hit everyone in the bracket that was any good, and a lot of times you hit ’em early, and it seemed to never end with the number of good competitors. It seemed like you had to compete against each and every one of them. The Olympics definitely feels different than the world championships just because its on a stage that’s much greater and, of course, its pretty exciting from the standpoint of its something that you’ve thought about for a long period of time, but both were very, very good experiences for me.
TOM – When you went back in 1992, now having won five world level titles in a row, was it different?
JS – I think when I went back to the Olympics in 1992 after winning five championships in a row, really, it was kind of a stressful time for me because I had a good feeling it was going to be my final competition and for that reason I didn’t see any reason not to finish on top. There really wasn’t a choice. I think my thinking at the time was it makes no sense having five gold medals and one silver or one bronze or maybe not even medal. So I put a little bit more emphasis on winning and it created a little bit more stress for me. It was a tough year for me taking on the head coaching position at Oklahoma State at the same time, I just realized how important it was to have that down time and you had no down time so it effected me, but I think, in the end, winning the championships was the most rewarding one because of some of the challenges you face as you end your career.
TOM – You still hold the American record, for men, with six world level titles (two Olympics and four World Championships). Jordan Burroughs sits at four (one Olympics and three World Championships) going into Rio. Do you think he will get to or surpass your record? How will you feel if he does?
JS – I think holding the record of six world titles here in the US, its been nice, but as we see Jordan Burroughs making a nice run at that record, I think we all enjoy it. You know records are made to be broken. I think I’d be excited if he broke it. There’s part of you that appreciates holding that record, but if it goes, it goes because an athlete committed himself to greatness and for that reason, you respect it, but I think we let Jordan win it one at a time. Its not easy. Hes got to stay healthy and of course as he goes into his second Olympics as a dominant favorite, we need to let him do that and recognize that anybody can be beat so hes got to be on and feel great and feel good about what hes doing, any athlete does to be an Olympic gold medalist. So, for Jordan, let the record happen and take it one year at a time.
TOM – Kyle Snyder won his first World Championship last year, but lost a couple of matches in international competition this year. You were in that position yourself a time or two where you were the defending champ, but dropped a match during the year before the next world competition. Obviously, as a competitor, you want to win every time out, but do you think there are times when a loss can help a wrestler in that position?
JS – I think as you mentioned, Kyle Snyder being a world champion last year, but lost a match in international competition, that’s normal. If you’re not getting yourself out there and getting tested, sometimes getting tested and realizing you’re not ready can make the difference in you being a world champion or Olympic champion that year. For me, I don’t know how many years I went undefeated, but I think of my six years it might have been two or three and three of those years I don’t think I did. I don’t remember, but I know that it seemed like every loss was the difference in helping me get to another level. I think the year is about competition and preparation for world championship trials, making the team and going on and competing for, hopefully, gold medals, but that year of competition is what prepares you. If you have to take a loss, move forward and let it be because it really does make a difference for those guys that are highly motivated and determined to stay on top.
TOM – The most recent Olympian that you coached, Coleman Scott, came up short trying to make the team this year. He also was competing after his first year as the Head Coach at North Carolina. You were the Head Coach at Oklahoma State in the lead up to the 1992 Olympic Games. How hard was it to be both the Head Coach and compete at your best? How much did you talk to Coleman about what he was going through this year?
JS – I think Coleman probably, his coaching experience this year was great for him and in the end it was the reason why he didn’t make the Olympic team, but I think he made the right choice for himself and his family to take the job at North Carolina. I think, in the future, he’ll have no regrets about that. For me, I did take over the program in 1992. That year, it was a real challenge, it wasn’t the best thing I could do, but I thought I could do it and I found out, when I got in the middle of it, how important my training was, how important my downtime was and I kind of overlooked some of the things I did on a daily basis and no longer could that made a difference in my overall performance. So, for Coleman, he was close and I just think he should have no regrets as to what he did as he prepared for the trials this season.
TOM – You got behind the mic at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials this year and your performance was well received. Is that something you enjoyed doing?
JS – When I was asked to do the Olympic Trials and, of course, I’m going to do the World Cup and Olympic Games, my initial thought was that it wasn’t something I was comfortable doing, its not something I was really prepared to do. I’m glad I got pushed to do it. I’m glad people perceived what I did was good. Talking about wrestling is easy for me and, of course, the guys next to you can really make you look good and I had that in the Trials. So, I’m excited about doing the Olympics and I look forward to having a great performance. It might be my first and only time I do it and that’s fine with me, but its been a good experience to this point.
TOM – One of the things I most enjoyed about you as a broadcaster is your ability to break down high level technique and make it easy to understand for a wide range of audiences. Is that something you focused on in preparation or just a natural result of years of coaching?
JS – When I was preparing for the broadcast for the trials and when I’m preparing for the World Cup and the Olympics I kind of look at people as 12 year-olds or 10 year-olds, that’s who I’m talking to. Somebody may have never seen a wrestling match, so we need to make it as simple as possible for them to understand and that’s what I was really told to do. That’s what I really tried to do. I think we can use terminology that nobody has an understanding of what we’re saying. My focus was, if you’ve never seen wrestling, hopefully I explained it to them where it made it easy for them to follow and what to look for and the strengths of each wrestler, what they do well, what they don’t do well. I really concentrated on making it simple for the public who is viewing it to appreciate it and want to watch it again.
TOM – Ryan Blees (Virginia Tech) and Chance Marsteller (Lock Haven) have announced their transfers out of Oklahoma State. Roster turnover is a reality for any program, but these two in particular were highly rated recruits coming out of high school. Is there a point where it is best for both parties to just move on and start over?
JS – With the transfer of Ryan Blees and Chance Marsteller, I think for both student athletes it was important for them to make a move, to have an opportunity to compete in college. I’ve always had an open mind on it. You want the best for your student-athletes. This is a career, and I look at my athletes, five years is a chance to have probably their greatest years, maybe not their most important years, but five of their greatest years. Part of that is being able to compete and wrestle and start, to get to experience whether it be success or failure. I was really pleased that they had an opportunity to move on to two good universities that I’m sure they’ll be very successful at.
TOM – The lineup for 2016-17 looks very good for the Cowboys, but Heavyweight seems to be a question mark at this point. Who are you looking at to fill that spot?
JS – As we go into next season, I think HWT is a question mark for us. I think we’ve got some bodies in our room that have some potential. You have a tendency to always look in the summer and think maybe you have a strong line-up and you have strong guys at certain weights, but in the end you need to ask me in February what I think at HWT or what I think of my team. The summer seems to always look pretty good and come January, you’re scratching your head trying to figure out what happened. So, I make no predictions at this point. In February I’ll know a little bit more, in 2017.
TOM – After winning four titles in a row from 2003 to 2006, the program took a down turn, finishing 5th in 2007, 5th in 2008 and 16th in 2009. What did you learn from that and how have you gotten the program turned back around from those tough years?
JS – What I learned from that time is that you don’t want kids graduating that are national champions. That makes a big difference in starting fresh! Working with 9.9 scholarships, its a challenge, unless you have a state full of superstars that you can pick up, then you’re always going to have those years where its going to take great coaching to maybe finish fifth. That’s not our goal by any means, but in the end, that’s where the dynamics of college wrestling has gone. Its competitive. There are so many more teams that are in the picture than in the past. We can talk about the 80s and 90s about some great teams from Oklahoma State or Iowa or Iowa State, but the fact is today you can talk about 15 teams, sometimes 20 teams that have got good, balanced teams. There are a lot more student athletes than there are scholarships. What comes with that is an opportunity for everybody to build a tough team and that’s what we want. We want parity. As coach at Oklahoma State, you want to stay out of that parity, but the fact is that parity is here and its here to stay.