Photo: Shortly after head coach John Smith (left) and his Oklahoma State assistant coach Zack Esposito were watching the Cowboys capture another Big 12 team championship on March 10, the head coach learned that his father Lee Roy had passed away during the finals.
By Mike Finn
Now in his 28th year at Oklahoma State, John Smith is considered the patriarch of today’s college wrestling coaches. But as the 53-year-old legendary OSU alum leads his wrestlers into the 2019 NCAA Division I Championships in Pittsburgh, this marks the first time the Cowboy coach is missing his mentor.
Lee Roy Smith, the father of John and three other former successful Oklahoma State wrestlers in Lee Roy, Pat and Mark, as well as six other children, 50 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren, died at the age of 85 on March 10 just as Oklahoma State was claiming a seventh straight Big 12 Conference championship.
“I don’t think anything is easy,” said John, who brought nine wrestlers to the 2019, which begins tomorrow (March 21) and runs through the finals on Saturday night in PPG Paints Arena. “There are challenges in life. You get up and you go. I’m just doing what my father would want me to do.”
The Smith name and Oklahoma State has been an integral part of the annual national tournament, including the 34 all-time team titles by Oklahoma State and John’s two national championships in 1987 and ’88. And 25 years ago, Pat Smith became the first NCAA Division I wrestler to win four national championships at the 1994 nationals in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“I have great memories and not just wrestling when it comes to my dad,” John said. “There are a lot of things that are stored up that is good.
“I wish everyone who has lost someone could feel what we felt last week. We had a lot of caring people. It was really nice to have people around saying good things. The closure to that made it a lot simpler.”
But there has been nothing simple about the second-ranked Cowboys’ season that saw them go undefeated (15-0) in dual competition and see two wrestlers, 133-pound Daton Fix and heavyweight Derek White, earn No. 1 seeds at their respective weight classes.
Because of injuries to 197-pound qualifier Preston Weigel during much of the season, that forced John to move several wrestlers up a weight class.
That included his son, Joe, a two-time All-American, who missed last season because of injury but returned this winter and compiled a respectable 14-4 record at 174 pounds. That included a second-place finish at the Southern Scuffle where he lost 5-1 to defending national champ Mark Hall of Penn State in the finals.
But once Weigel (11-0) returned to the lineup as the postseason neared, that meant that John had to drop several wrestlers down a weight class, including Joe who had to beat out another OSU two-time All-American in Chandler Rogers to compete at the Big 12s, where Joe settled for a 4-2 mark and fifth-place finish.
“Joe has had a challenging year, from the start of the season being a little injured,” John said. “There was never a time when he did not want to be at 165 pounds. I chose to keep him up. He wanted to go down early on.”
This move also forced the NCAA to rank Joe as the lowest seed (33rd) at 165 pounds, which means — if he can beat Northwestern’s Tyler Moreland in a pigtail match — he will face No. 1 seed and Big Ten champion Alex Marinelli in a first-round match.
“There wasn’t a lot of brainpower that went into making that decision,” John said. “It’s like, ‘Are you punishing Joe or punishing the No. 1 guy?’
“The rules that we have in place make it real challenging, over-the-top challenging. We have good rules but there are some things that happened throughout the country, and not just at Oklahoma State, that we need to go back and look at.
“Everyone says the dual meets are important. But at the end, it has no importance. There are some things that need to be considered and a lot of it is moving up a weight. If the rules allow you to descend the day before the conference tournament, why can’t we consider that athlete’s performance at whatever weight he is.
“I like the rules in that it protects the student athletes from cutting their weight wrong. But I do believe that we need to reevaluate things so that we can recognize that anyone who has a season, we can’t ignore it.
“In the end, it’s not fair … and not just to Joe, but those who had a long season and earn their place no matter what weight they wrestled.”
ENLARGE POSTSEASON ROSTERS?
The return of Joe Smith also meant that Chandler Rogers, a two-time All-American who lost to Smith in wrestle-off prior to the Big 12s, could not make the Cowboy postseason lineup in what would be the senior’s last chance to wrestle in the NCAAs.
“The nice thing about wrestling is you get to put the two guys out there and see who wins,” John Smith said. “You don’t have to pick or choose necessarily. Both of them are high performers, or have been. It’s just the way it is. I don’t know if you can do anything about it.”
Should the NCAA follow the route of the NAIA, which allows more than one wrestler per weight class?
“I think if the coaches wanted that, there was a big support for that,” Smith said. “I don’t see that being a disadvantage for the student-athlete.”
The same thing happened at No. 1 Penn State this winter when Anthony Cassar, who moved up from 197 (where he was a reserve last season) to heavyweight this season, where he beat out another two-time All-American in Nick Nevills. Cassar enters the 2019 NCAAs with a 25-1 record, a Big Ten championships and No. 2 seed.
Derek White, the No. 1 seed, is a senior who originally started his career at Nebraska before transferring to Oklahoma State.
Limitations in starting opportunities are also forcing many more wrestlers to transfer. Is that good for the sport?
“Generally speaking, wrestling needs more scholarships,” said Penn State coach Cael Sanderson. “I don’t think the issue isn’t that we have too many guys and can’t get them all in the lineup. That happens occasionally. And obviously — like for us heavyweight, it really — it really is gleaming, right?
“But heavyweight is just that weight class where there’s nowhere else to go. They’re not going up a weight because there’s no other weight. Nick Nevills is two-time All-American, great wrestler. We have a ton of confidence in him. If he was in the tournament, I think he could do really well. But Cassar moved up and earned that spot. And that’s wrestling. You get a chance to earn it.
“You’re probably going to see more and more transfers. That’s more on the NCAA and them trying to kind of bend to accommodate student-athletes. I think it will probably be a problem. It’s probably not in the best interests of what sports are supposed to kind of teach you a little bit about commitment and when you give your word or something or you sign a contract, usually — it’s just tricky. Right?
“I think wrestling is more on the other side where we should be fighting for more than 9.9 scholarships. We have ten weight classes. I don’t know why that isn’t brought up more. But this tournament, sold out. You can’t get a ticket here. Dual meets are growing. The popularity in the sport’s growing. We should be getting more scholarships. That would be in the best interests of wrestling.”