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How the Smiths and Ryans have defined the relationships of coach and wrestler
By Mike Finn
John Smith and Tom Ryan have both been coaches and fathers for the past two decades, but the respective head men at Oklahoma State and Ohio State admitted on Wednesday — the day before each of their sons compete in their first NCAA Championships in New York City’s Madison Square Garden — that it took this season for them to really understand the difference between those two roles.
“As a coach, you think you understand the relationship between coach and athlete the way you should and then when your own flesh and blood is in your lineup and going through things, it’s given me another level of awareness when I’m dealing with other peoples’ children,” said Buckeye coach Tom Ryan, whose redshirt freshman son, Jake, stands 17-5 on the year at 157 pounds at the start of the 2016 nationals.
Meanwhile, Smith’s son, Joe, is a true freshman, also at 157 pounds and has won 31 of 34 matches and is coming off a Big 12 championship.
“I don’t think (Joe) looks at me as a coach. He relies on me as a father,” said John, who decided at midseason to take the redshirt off Joe, who started the season at 18-1 prior to his first official varsity status at the Southern Scuffle on Jan. 1-2. “It’s like all these guys and all these wrestlers in this tournament who count on their fathers. They have close relationships with them.
“Most fathers in the sport have been real close to their sons. They are the ones who first took you to tournaments. I want to keep it that way.”
And oddly, both coaches’ sons’ first NCAA tournament matches are against each other. For when fans spend Thursday morning watching the 170 first-round matches, they will see Bout #86 pop up and there will be Joe Smith lined up against Jake Smith.
“I wish it could have been a different draw, but it is what it is,” said John, who sat right next to Tom Ryan in the pre-NCAA Championship press conference at Madison Square Garden.
“I remember when the brackets first came out and (Ohio State’s former four-time champion) Logan Stieber said to me, ‘Wow, do you realize that there are six World titles and two gold medals between the families?,” joked Tom, well aware that John Smith had done more on the mat than him.
The media present on Wednesday and the rest of the wrestling world all know that the Smith family — led by John who excelled internationally in freestyle after first collecting two NCAA titles for Oklahoma State in 1987 and ’88 — have a better wrestling pedigree than the Ryans. (Oddly, Tom Ryan was prevented from winning the 1991 NCAA championship when Pat Smith — the younger brother of John, who also wrestled at Oklahoma State and became the sport’s first four-time titlist — defeated Tom, 7-6, in the 158-pound final when the current Buckeye coach wrestled at Iowa.)
But the outcome of first-round match in MSG between the next generation of Smiths and Ryans — Joe is seeded sixth and Jake is unseeded — could be irrelevant compared to the impact these young wrestlers have made on their fathers, who have experienced the highs and lows being the father of a wrestler.
For John, who with his wife, Toni, have four other children — sons Samuel and Levi and daughters Isabell and Cecilia — that might have come on Feb. 7, when Joe lost 7-3 to Cornell’s Dylan Palacio, then was lost for nearly a month … and longer … after also sustaining a knee injury before returning to the Big 12 tournament, Marc 5-6.
John said that was the time when he was most proud of Joe this season.
“Seeing him nearly have a season ending injury and watching him deal with that personally, you realize as a father that you do some good things,” John said. “You try to do things right. It may not be perfect. You see that he has some resilience, some sustainability and things that you just hope for outside the sport.”
Tom Ryan — who with wife Lynette has two other living children, Jordan and Mackenzie — said he and Jake have a very open relationship, which has made him both a better father and coach.
“(Jake) has always shared with me his emotions, things with the team,” Tom Ryan said. “He’s been open with me the entire process. He’s definitely made me a better coach and aware of some things.”
Both Tom and Jake also have dealt with the memory of son, Teague, the oldest son who died on Feb. 16, 2004, from Long Q-T Syndrome, a malfunction of the heart when Tom coached at Hofstra, which sits 26 miles east of New York City on Long Island, where Tom also grew up.
That’s why Tom calls his relationship with Jake as a blessing.
“My perspective is a little different because I lost a son,” Tom said. “So many kids go away to college and I’m a life short. I don’t want to lose, for some degree, lose the family dinners and seeing them on a daily basis. Often when they go away, you lose that time frame. We have a great relationship.”