Luke Smith's wrestling journey has taken him all over the country. Smith, a Wisconsin native, competed collegiately at Central Michigan and spent a year on the coaching staff at his alma mater. He moved on to coaching stints at Old Dominion and Eastern Michigan before arriving at CSU Bakersfield in 2018. After two seasons as an assistant coach CSU Bakersfield, Smith was promoted to interim head wrestling coach in October of 2020 before being named the permanent head coach this past April.
Last season, Smith guided three CSU Bakersfield wrestlers to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships. He will look to build on that success this season.
MatBoss caught up with Smith and talked to him about his program, coaching staff, Pac-12 Conference, schedule and more.
In April, the interim tag was removed from your title and you became the head coach. What did that mean to you?
Smith: It meant a lot because it was after a very challenging year. There were a lot of unknowns with what was going to happen with the season and what was going to happen with the position. After like 13 years of coaching I've been through a lot and thought I'd have been prepared, but I would call Coach Borrelli at Central Michigan when I was overwhelmed because I kept getting thrown curveballs. He's like, 'Well, if it makes you feel better, I've been doing this for 30 years and I feel like I don't know what the heck I'm doing because I've never had to go through anything like this either.' To now have an opportunity to lead my own program means a lot after everything that happened at Eastern Michigan..
You spent several years in Michigan and a couple years on the East Coast at Old Dominion. Now you're on the West Coast. Has your coast-to-coast journey given you a unique perspective about wrestling?
Smith: I think it has. I've been very lucky with the coaches I've gotten to work with. To work with coaches that have different philosophies and came from different types of programs has helped a lot. It's been great making connections all over the country. Obviously, Coach [Tom] Borrelli having wrestled for him and then coached with him for a year, he is very big on attention to detail and just being disciplined. He's kind of calm, cool and collected. I went to ODU with Steve Martin. He's very vocal and hustled a lot. He wrestled under [Dan] Gable, so seeing what he learned from Gable was beneficial. At Eastern Michigan we had Derek DelPorto there who had worked with Rob Koll for a while at Cornell. He also coached under the legendary Jack Spates too. Then coming here when Coach [Manny] Rivera was here. Obviously, he wrestled at Minnesota and was around J Rob. My philosophy has come from everywhere I've been and it's still a work in progress. I keep making little adjustments and finding ways to do things better, but everywhere I've gone it's really helped kind of shape and mold my coaching philosophy.
You recently added Matt Meuleners to your staff. What does he bring to your program?
Smith: He brings a lot of experience. I like that he's been at a Division II school then he coached in the Big Ten and Ivy League, so he has gotten to be around some unique and different perspectives. I'm just excited. He's been here a couple of weeks now and he just brings a different perspective. I want hear different perspectives and get different opinions than mine and kind of collaborate and work together to find ways to keep moving this program forward. I think he does that. It's also hard to find upperweight coaches, especially good upperweight coaches. So I'm very grateful that he believes in our vision of where we can take this program and was willing to move across with country with his wife. I'm really excited to work with him. Then with Coach Bleise as an assistant and Efren Ceballos as our volunteer assistant, I really like the staff we have.
You were teammates with Jason Borrelli at Central Michigan. He was obviously the coach at Stanford when it was dropped. The program was brought back after Borrelli left. Describe your emotions when you heard Stanford was coming back?
Smith: I was very happy for California, West Coast wrestling and NCAA wrestling. But at the same time I had a few different emotions. Initially, I was kind of relieved that we were able to save this program. But it was disappointing that it felt like it should never have been on the chopping block to begin with. Jason had done such a great job getting Stanford to where they're at right now. He didn't get an opportunity to kind of see it through. I know he'll be fine. He's going to do a great job at American, but it just stinks that he was put in that position to begin with. He had to do what was best for his family and he had an opportunity. So obviously nobody blames him for making that move. Overall, I'm definitely happy that that program is back so that it can keep creating opportunities for these young student-athletes to get an education and compete at the Division I level.
When you look at the Pac-12 Conference in wrestling. Arizona State won a team trophy at the NCAAs this past season. Stanford crowned a national champion and obviously the program was kept and Rob Koll was hired to lead the Cardinal. Cal Poly finished in the top 25. Programs like yours and Oregon State seem to be on the rise. How do you feel about the conference right now?
Smith: I feel like the conference as a whole is really on the up and up with some of these non-traditional Pac-12 schools starting to be very competitive on the national level. Then with the Pac-12 looking to expand and add a couple more teams, I feel like that's kind of what we were missing in the past. But now they've shown they are invested in wrestling. We want to not just have it, but we want to add to it and build on it.
You spent time at Old Dominion and Eastern Michigan. Both programs are now gone. Obviously, you were at EMU when the program was dropped. How did that experience at EMU shape you as a coach?
Smith: It made me grateful for the opportunity. It was tough. Initially, I was definitely bitter to the point where I honestly didn't know if I wanted to continue coaching. I felt even worse for Coach Bolyard because he was there for like 10 years. I was there for seven. I was like, 'Man, we took this team and had five returning national qualifiers, first conference champion in 10 years, first All-American in 20 years. A year earlier we had the highest Division I GPA of all wrestling programs. We were checking every box doing it the right way. It was a lot of work to get to where we were. The fact that somebody could come in and just rip it away was very hard for me to accept. Any other jobs, you're getting promoted and getting a raise. No other job would let that happen. I talked to Manny [Rivera] and he was like, 'Why don't you come down here and give it a try. And I was like, 'All right.' And I'm really glad. Eleven years ago they tried to drop the program and the community kind of rallied around it and was able to save it. But at that point the only way to save it was for it to be a community-funded program, so everything had to be fundraised. As much as that's not ideal, I 100% believe that at Old Dominion and at Eastern Michigan, if given that opportunity, we definitely could have done that at those schools. So I'm glad that at least they gave them an opportunity to do that. Now we're actually back to a point where the school said they want to start investing back into us. They've been giving us money and eventually they want us to not have to rely on that as they're fully supporting us. So that's really exciting because this is a time where you're seeing programs be dropped for financial issues or budgets being cut. So at a time where they could have every excuse not to invest back into us, they're showing their dedication to doing that. I think that that's huge and it's really going to help us because what we've been able to do with the limitations we've had, it's been pretty good. Obviously, we're not content with that by any means but now with that reinvestment from the school I think we're capable of making some really big gains. It makes me grateful for staying in it and giving it another chance because it reminded me why I got into this. We get a lot of blue-collar, hard-nosed, tough kids who are first-generation college students. They appreciate the opportunity. They come in here every day and just scrap. I love that development process with the guys. Maybe they weren't at the top because California is kind of crazy being one division. Just taking guys that maybe didn't win a state title or even place, but then they are beating guys two years later that were much bigger recruits than them in high school because they've just kind of bought in, developed and put the work in. It's just very, very gratifying as a coach.
In May, a scholarship fund was established because of a gift from Vernon & Janis Varner. What did that mean to your program? And do you feel like the program is in safe place?
Smith: Yes, I think we are. It's crazy but I'd say that we are one of the safest programs in the country. One, because we don't have football. At Eastern Michigan and at Old Dominion they needed money was because they were overspending for football. They were building a $40 million football facility at Eastern. I know they built like $70 million or $80 million one at Old Dominion. So it's not a coincidence they were looking for ways to find money. I think not having a football program and the fact that we don't cost the school any money makes use safe as program. I think we're in a very good place. Just from the meetings I've had with President Zelezny and Ziggy, our athletic director, it's all been about wanting to build on what we have and moving forward and giving us more, not taking away. Our community, alumni and donor support isn't going anywhere either. So if we can maintain the support we've been getting and the school continues to invest in us, we're going to have a lot of resources to try to do some special things here.
You released your schedule for the upcoming season. It's a very competitive schedule with an early season dual against Michigan. You wrestle at the Cliff Keen Las Vegas Invitational as well as the Southern Scuffle. You have a mix of conference and non-conference dual meets. What are thoughts on your schedule?
Smith: I'm excited about it. I think we hit just about every conference between the tournaments and the dual meets. So there will be a lot of opportunities to test ourselves. When we get to the NCAA tournament, I want these guys to be prepared. I like that we are traveling early in the season to Michigan for a big match … because at the end of the year, that's the plan, to be traveling to Michigan for a really big tournament. We're actually making a couple trips up there. It will be nice going back to CMU and competing against my old coach and my old teammate Jason Borrelli and my first All-American I coached, Scotti Sentes. It's always nice to go back to Mount Pleasant.
Chance Rich was a round of 12 finisher last year. How is he progressing? And what does he need to do to get on the podium?
Smith: Chance has come a long way. He's always had the ability. I just think initially he lacked a little bit of confidence and self-belief. He's a two-time placer. He's an unbelievable athlete. He's strong. He's explosive. He learns really well. It was just him believing in his preparation and going out there and just competing and not putting pressure on himself. When he's able to do that he can compete with anybody. So I'm excited for him. For us, it's all about that continued progression, just constantly trying to fine-tune things and make adjustments on our individual game plans. When we go out there, it's just about trying to execute our game plan relentlessly for seven minutes or longer if it takes that. That's always the main focus. It's not necessarily on the outcome. But if we're able to compete as hard as we can, execute our game plan for seven minutes, then we're always going to put ourselves in the best position to win.
You had three NCAA qualifiers last season. You brought in a mix of newcomers … transfers and freshmen. What are the expectations for this year's team?
Smith: I think we have a lot of potential but at the same time we're still really young. I was going through our roster the other day with the other coaches and two-thirds of our team is in their first or second year here. With campus being online last year, it's like two-thirds of our team is in their first year on campus. That's a pretty young team but I think that we have a really good group of guys. If we continue to develop them and get them to buy into what we're doing, we have potential to do some really special things. We just have to keep working at it. Our room is really competitive. I think we have to keep focused on the process and getting better every day. Maybe we'll have some bumps in the road early, but I feel like by the end of the year, at the conference tournament, we can make some big gains and get some guys to nationals and hopefully surprise some people. Obviously, everyone else is trying to do the same thing too, so it's not going to be easy.