Photo by: Simon Jimenez
John Smith has been there and done that many times over to where if you wanted to debate whether his plain-as-milk name is synonymous with wrestling, you’d be sure to lose because, after all, there is a move named after him.
The John Smith low single is part of his sport’s lexicon, and yet he is legend for many more reasons than his namesake takedown and sublime leg attacks.
When he speaks Wednesday at lunch at Maggiano’s in Buckhead and at dinner at the Buckhead Club about how coaching has evolved in a quarter century, the Oklahoma State head coach will bring an unmatched pedigree before members of the Atlanta chapter of Wrestlers in Business.
No American wrestler has been more successful at the international level, where his 100-5 record, two Olympic gold medals and four World freestyle championships — won consecutively from 1987-’92 — stand alone in our land.Only one other American wrestler, Bruce Baumgartner, has won as many as five world-level titles, and Smith is still the only wrestler to win a world freestyle title while still in college. That one came between his junior and senior years at Oklahoma State, where he won NCAA individual titles in ’87 and ’88.
Just six men have won more world-level titles, and Aleksandr Medved (10), Buvaisar Saitiev (nine), Sergei Beloglazov, Arsen Fadzayev, Valentin Yordanov (eight each) and Makharbek Khadartsev (seven) all wrestled longer.
John Smith stopped winning only when he stopped wrestling, and he hung up his competitive singlet only to go to work as the wrestling coach at his alma mater beginning shortly after the ’92 Olympic Games at the age of 27.
That’s worked out well, as the Cowboys have won five NCAA championships and 13 Big 12 titles while producing 26 national champions and five Olympians on his watch.
In 1990, he became the first — and still only — wrestler to win the AAU Sullivan award, given annually to the nation’s top amateur athlete.
A great deal has changed since Smith moved into coaching 23 years ago, and he said that, “about 70 percent” of his job now is administrative exclusive of recruiting and coaching student-athletes.
Academic requirements have stiffened, rules are always shifting, the sport has been threatened at the Olympic level, money beyond scholarships is now in play for student-athletes and must be managed, and the nature of student-athletes themselves has evolved.
One thing hasn’t changed: wrestling has long been a family affair for the Smiths and will be for a while.
This fall, John — who has nine siblings — will for the first time coach one of his children. Joe, a four-time Oklahoma high school champion, will be a freshman.
Smith, 49, has experience coaching blood. His younger brother, Pat Smith, was the first four-time NCAA champion, winning titles from ’90-’94, while wrestling for the Cowboys. He also coached his nephew, Chris. Smith’s older brother, Lee Roy, was like John and Pat an NCAA champion.
He took time to preview his speeches and opine on a few issues.
Is coaching substantially different than when you started at Oklahoma State?
Smith: There’s definitely been some changes in America. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re negative or positive. You stay pretty close to what you believe is successful, but dealing with individuals is different.
I don’t know whether as you get older you believe it’s more maintenance [required], but in the end, this generation of athletes works just as hard as any.
We’ve gone through pretty serious times with things like 9-11, where you want to protect. With that comes things that don’t correlate with athletics at times.
I think parent involvement is pretty good yet I think we need to teach parents how to be involved. How do we teach them to give [their children] the best opportunity to excel, meaning reach their potential? That’s not necessarily about being an NCAA champion, but [ensuring that] they feel fulfilled, and have some sense of accomplishment.
In some ways with parents, that’s working opposite. Today’s student-athletes, when they’re done, they’re sometimes feeling unfulfilled because of parental interference.
Given your suggestion that parents and society may have greater inclinations to “protect,” do you sense a change in the mindset of student-athletes vs. a quarter century ago, perhaps more sense of entitlement in young people?
Smith: Kids coming in tend to be, I wouldn’t say softer, but maybe they just don’t know that level of the people who developed it 30, 40 years ago. I don’t think it’s anything that they don’t want. It just takes more time [to bring athletes up to the level of commitment needed]. It’s really a focus issue.
It takes patience and understanding. One thing I’ve learned is you can’t push that. You push it, and they’re not ready, and you’ll ruin them. They may not be ready until they’re juniors, that maturity level.
I’ve had some hard lessons. We probably could have won three or four additional national championships if I’d learned that. You have to pace.
The difference on the mat is just the culture of student-athletes. You find that a lot of student-athletes have had private lessons, and somebody has spent a lot of time with them. With that, somebody is getting paid and sometimes not telling them what they need to hear because of the paycheck.
We’re seeing that in a lot of sports. Sometimes, you get a student-athlete who has never been scolded, or that they’re weak in a certain area.
Have you changed any of your basic methodology with regard to how much mat time you require of student-athletes?
Smith: One of the things I notice is the evolutions that stick pretty close to the ’90s are the most successful. That’s a routine of being on the mat at least five days a week.
But what you do understand is that not everybody is made that way. There is a certain body of student-athletes for whom . . . sometimes taking off an entire summer may be the best thing for them to win an NCAA championship.
There is knowing when to pull people off to allow them to be their best because maybe they don’t have the mentality to train year-round.
It’s physical and mental as well. If they’re going through the motions, when you start seeing that, it’s a waste of time. They’re not thinking about winning. They’re thinking about getting through practice. Really, the best remedy is pulling them off the mat. A lot of times, a month later, their drive is back.
Each year it depends on your team and what’s taking place. Personally, I worked out about 2-2.5 hours a day and that was split between two practices.
Are you getting things done in one hour, or does it take two because you’ve got focus issues with two or several of them? You stretch it out, or slow it down.
You can get things done in an hour and 15 minutes to where they’re crawling off mat. If they’re not, something needs to be done.
What do you draw upon when dealing with student-athletes on a psychological level?
Smith: History tells us that anyone who has been highly successful in a sport, the next generation tends to struggle [meeting heightened expectations]. I learned a lot from my father [Lee Roy]. He had some common sense … about the support system that it takes to maintain motivation within that athlete.
There’s no question that creating a next generation for my sons is a challenge, but I learned a lot from my father in how he handled my brothers and I.
What I noticed is … sometimes, you back off, leave him alone. Most of what I learned was that there can be pressure through a sibling.
I remember my dad, when I was harping on Patrick, he came in the wrestling room and grabbed me by my ear and drug me off and told me to leave him alone. After a poor performance, the comments you make can set someone back a year.
How will you level the pressure of expectation that figures to be attached to your son, Joe, as he wrestles for you and Oklahoma State?
Smith: With my son, it’s a little different because he’s been around student-athletes training for Olympics … so he’s had good role models.
I’ve really not coached him at all. My lectures have been about mentality; ‘you didn’t show enough emotion, or stretch your score out when you could have.’
I’ve been able to keep my hands off of him, tried to build mental toughness and kind of do it in a quiet way from the standpoint of not yelling a screaming. I’ve helped him be more of a student of the sport.
I’m constantly reminding him more of letdowns, and in that you tend to look more at the negatives, but it’s how you present the negatives.
There’s no question he feels pressure, but the pressure he feels is good. The pressure he feels is something that he’s going to reach a little deeper for, drive a little harder for rather than feel like he’s got to live up to something.
We’ll never know until we get in there and start battling.
How much more time do you spend now tending to administrative duties than you did in your early years as a head coach?
Smith: It’s probably 70 percent. Being in this 23 years, there’s no wear and tear on me. I can see where for a young coach the passion could be driven out of them.
A lot more strategies have been presented by the NCAA. I think the NCAA in a lot of ways has been positive. With academics, forcing a lot of pressure to graduate [student-athletes], put pressure on coaches, which doesn’t bother me.
We’re raising standards; they want kids to graduate. For me it was easy. I like that standard, that pressure on us to respond. Your staff has a responsibility.
I stepped straight out of the Olympics and into this job with no preparation. I often tell our younger guys who are passionate about stepping into coaching … I don’t think there’s any possible way of doing that today.
I just think people understand, especially administrators and athletic directors, that experience is so important in dealing with student-athletes, the rules, some of the issues of today.
Do you think the NCAA’s new cost-of-attendance allowances, which will lead to athletic departments giving money to student-athletes above and beyond scholarships, will impact wrestling programs?
Smith: I have a strong opinion I will keep to myself about where we’re going with that. I think a lot of times people don’t recognize the opportunities that student-athletes get. It’s so much more than the scholarships, the money. There is so much that is not about a dollar value [like tutoring made available for student-athletes]. Struggling to pay rent, learning how to make things work, there’s value in that.
It’s going to be a challenge, probably, for some wrestling programs. I’ve decided that I’ll use that [additional money] to get more athletes on aid rather than give the money to students [already on aid]. It is much more important to create opportunities for student-athletes who wouldn’t have had them.
How did the Big 12 losing its allocation to the NCAA meet impact Oklahoma State’s wrestling program?
Smith: When Missouri went to the SEC, and Nebraska to Big 10, we lost the automatic qualifier. I was a little bit upset they would drop that from the Big 12 when 65 percent of NCAA champs since 1960 have come from Big 12.
In the long run, I’m pleased with it. My [initial] views were wrong. By moving to a non-qualifier, it forced the big 12 to get up. We brought in SD State, ND State, Wyoming, Air Force, Utah Valley and Northern Colorado [from the Western Wrestling Conference].
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby at the Big 12 office, who was a wrestler [at Minnesota State], really understands Olympic sports. He kind of helped us push this forward.
We have something we didn’t have before — affiliate members. I think that’s going to strengthen not only our programs, but strengthen the programs coming from the Western Conference. I think we’re going to see this in other sports.