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John Smith on a quarter-century of coaching
This feature Q&A with OSU Coach John Smith appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of WIN. To subscribe and get the rest of the Nov. issue either in print or digitally, use Promo Code: November, and CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE.
Editor’s Note: Oklahoma State head coach John Smith has been part of the Cowboy program for much of his life; beginning when his brother Lee Roy earning All-American honors at OSU in 1977 to himself winning two NCAA championships (1986 and ‘87), also going on to win a combined six World/Olympic championships. He then became OSU’s head coach in 1992. Now at age 51, Smith leads a program which has produced 31 champs and 117 All-Americans and is the preseason No. 1 team. Smith is trying to lead OSU to a sixth national title with him as a coach, the last was in 2006. Smith, who has also coached brothers, a nephew and son over the years in Stillwater, recently spoke to WIN Editor Mike Finn about his career.
WIN: You have spent 25 years at Oklahoma State, which ranks you high on the all-time coaching-longevity list. How do you feel after all these years?
SMITH: That’s a good question. I enjoy it as much as I ever have. As you get older and establish yourself, there is a level of confidence and security that comes with that. I’m not saying I don’t have to do a good job here. But when you reach a point where you’ve grinded through your career, you create an environment where you are on the other side and there are some good things that come with that.
WIN: Many people are surprised when they see you’ve coached so many years. To many, you are still that young wrestler who won NCAA, World and Olympic championships. Some people think of you as eternally young. Are you surprised how people react to your longevity?
SMITH: I was pretty young (26) when I started coaching here and got a head start on it. I didn’t plan on a career that long. But it has been a great thing for my family and myself and I’ve enjoyed 98 percent of it.
WIN: What word or phrase would you use in comparing yourself now to that first year?
SMITH: The biggest difference is that I feel seasoned and stronger mentally. I know what I want to try to accomplish and I’m not second-guessing myself. Whether it ends up good or bad, I don’t look back anymore. The wear-and-tear is not there anymore. This gives me the opportunity to give your wrestlers a lot of confidence in you.
WIN: Coleman Scott, one of your former All-American wrestlers, took over the North Carolina program about the same age you did. What recommendations did you make to Coleman?
SMITH: Just pay attention to details and try to create the best environment you can and put good people around you. Learn and be patient. Young coaches have ideas and get stuck on them, when they need to be doing something completely opposite. The one thing I have learned is that you are going to coach a certain way at Oklahoma State, but that may not work at a program like North Carolina. There needs to be an understanding that young coaches have to evolve and if you don’t continue to evolve as a coach and as a person and in your thought process, you won’t find a lot of satisfaction. I know a lot has changed for me over 25 years.
WIN: Talk about those changes. Are they good or bad?
SMITH: I don’t look at them as good or bad. I look at them as what we have to work with, whether it is better or worse. You work really hard at figuring out a way of helping your student athletes achieve success, both academically and athletically. It changes year to year.
WIN: How different are college wrestlers now to when you wrestled and started coaching?
SMITH: I don’t know if there is that much of a difference. Through some of the NCAA rules, it’s put academics back in a very important role. It has become much more important to make sure our student-athletes excel academically. With that pressure, it may compromise the level that we can get them to early in their careers. I think these NCAA rules have held coaches more accountable to giving the student athletes a great experience.
WIN: Many people think that because of the higher academic standards that recruiting is tougher? What do you think?
SMITH: There are challenges either way. Kids have to make certain grades in high school, but the ones you would have recruited 25 years ago would have still made it today as long as they had counselors recognizing what they have to do. If kids really want to wrestle in Division I, they are going to make it.
WIN: Speaking of young college wrestlers, you had a lot of success last year with several young wrestlers, including your son, Joe, who eventually became an All-American as a true freshman. How did that happen?
SMITH: There is a level of mentality throughout the country that is quite different. That may be one of the differences from 25 years ago. We are dealing with kids who have dealt with social media and may get a false sense of success, but must deal with the reality of wrestling.
WIN: Regarding your son Joe, have you been able to put last year in an even better perspective?
SMITH: I’m extremely proud of him. It was a really tough year for him, where we planned on redshirting him until there was an opportunity that was more about the team. Not for a second did he hesitate. He dealt with a pretty serious injury, a knee that was really infected, which made his postseason doubtful. I felt I had to be more of a father figure and knowing that he’s learning things through this process that will help him throughout his life. Getting an All-American honor at the NCAAs was secondary, but I believe that would be the case with any student athlete.
WIN: What role model did you have to help you deal with balancing your role as coach and father?
SMITH: My dad was a pretty sharp guy when it came to handling his own boys, Lee Roy, myself, Pat and Mark, and controlling any negativity. He always looked at the positive side of things of what we were capable of doing. He kept things low-key for us and showed us there were a lot things more important than wrestling. That kept us pretty balanced and level. I’ve tried to copy some of those things that helped deal with disappointing times.
My dad had a strong belief system that he did not compromise. I think it came natural, as he seemed to make a lot of right decisions. It’s not that he sat around and thought about them. He just had a good sense of where his children were at all times.
WIN: Could we say the same thing about John Smith, that it comes somewhat naturally to you?
SMITH: I think so. We have views of what we want from our children. For me, wrestling is not at the top of the list. 95 percent of the athletes who wrestle in college end their careers as seniors and move on. That’s important for coaches to think about and what role we want to play. The No. 1 thing is that we have a strong moral compass and don’t compromise that. Growing up in a family of 10, this was instilled in us and provided a successful model.
WIN: Do you look at your wrestlers differently, now that you’ve also coached your son?
SMITH: I don’t think so. I may look at my son differently, comparing him to how Dean Heil and Alex Dieringer work out and train. These guys have figured out some of these things and I hope that he does. But that’s what I share with all my wrestlers.
WIN: You have been part of the program for nearly 80 percent of your life and understand the winning tradition the Cowboy program created. After leading OSU to four straight team championships (2003-06), you have gone ten years without one. Has that been a grind on you?
SMITH: It’s not a grind. There have been some things that have occurred the last 10 years that we’ve had to focus on and move in a positive way. Winning a team championship is very challenging. There are a lot of things that need to take place to put yourself in that position. We’ve done a pretty good job over the past four years creating an opportunity for ourselves. We came up short and I don’t have a lot of shame in that. There was disappointment that we were so close, but in the end I was proud of what our teams did over the years.
WIN: Last year, your team was rated No. 1 in the preseason, but lost two key starters — Kaid Brock and Kyle Crutchmer — because of injuries and eventually finished second as a team. If they had been healthy, it’s possible you could have had more point potential at the NCAAs. Do those things eat at you?
SMITH: I stay away from those things because it doesn’t do the champion any justice. We all have challenges. I don’t focus on ‘what ifs’ because everyone has ‘what ifs’.
WIN: Over the summer, you provided color analysis for NBC at the 2016 Olympics, where you had to express your thoughts more. What did that experience teach you?
SMITH: Sharing my thoughts about wrestlers’ mindsets on the mat, especially in critical times, there were some things I was very vocal on that I don’t share with the student athletes. That’s an area where I see myself improving and where I have to be a little more honest and not assume they are too young to handle that type of information.
WIN: Because you have not been one to express yourself, some people may not really know you. Who does?
SMITH: I think that I’m a private guy with a family of five. I’m a busy guy who is involved with my children. It’s not so much that I don’t express myself. I find time to do things outside of wrestling. My wife knows me pretty well and so does my family. It’s not that I’m keeping things from anyone. You just get really busy and your time is important and there are things you want to accomplish outside of wrestling.