COLUMBIA — Struggling on the mat, drenched in sweat, a spandex-clad man writhing under the pressure of his opponent's grip, Matt Pell appears to be just another member of the Missouri wrestling team.
Three years ago, he was.
Pell, who graduated from MU in 2007 with a degree in psychology, was a 2005 All-American for the Tigers. After spending four years wrestling under coach Brian Smith, Pell decided that he would ultimately like to be an NCAA wrestling coach. After graduating, he moved to Charlottesville, Va., and spent two years as an assistant coach at the University of Virginia. Pell returned to his alma mater this year to begin his first season as a coach, and since taking the job he has worked to assert his role as a coach and to share his passion for the sport.
“I knew that when I left I was going to come back eventually, someday, whenever the opportunity arose,” Pell said.
After Pell graduated, both he and Smith knew that the aspiring coach should move away from the school for a few years, both to learn about other programs and separate himself from his teammates. Smith said that he wanted Pell to learn about recruiting and also other behind-the-scenes duties associated with coaching.
“He wanted me to get away from the program and see how things are done,” Pell said. “Sometimes learning what not to do is the best way to find out what you took for granted. If you go to another program and things are a little bit different, you might notice things that you like better in the program that you just came from, or things you like better at the new place.”
Pell said that at first it was difficult to switch to a new school, but that he knows now that it was the best decision.
“He asked why I was pushing him away, but I said that I wasn’t,” Smith said. “I knew he was going to grow and learn a lot and see what’s out there. You need to see other places, compare it to Missouri, to see how you’re going to improve.”
While Pell was learning about coaching at Virginia, though, he always kept his goal of returning to Missouri in the back of his mind.
“I think he put all his Missouri stuff in a box,” Smith said. “He didn’t throw it out. So when I called him for the job, he was very excited.”
When he returned to Missouri, Pell said, the transition from wrestler to coach was an easy one. Since he was gone for two years, most of his former teammates graduated while he was away.
“There are guys on the team right now that I was teammates with when they were young,” Pell said. “They looked up to me then as a team leader, and now coming back as a coach, they all call me Coach Pell.”
Nick Marable, a senior on the team, agreed that Pell was one of his mentors when they were teammates, and he said he still sees him in that light.
“He’s probably one of the reasons that I improved so much between my freshman and sophomore year, because he just beat on me every day, and he helped me out,” Marable said.
Now that Pell is back at Missouri, he said his main goal is to pass along his love of wrestling to the team. Although he has other duties, like arranging the team’s travel and helping with the recruiting process, Pell says that his main focus is on what happens on the mat.
“It’s been all uphill … working in the room, trying to get ready for the season,” Pell said.
He tries to model himself after Smith, who was a father figure to him during his time on the squad. Since Pell’s family lived in South Africa for two of the years that he was in college, he spent a lot of time at Smith’s home, babysitting his kids and spending holidays with his family. Pell said that getting to know his coach so well allowed him to see what an important a role he could have as a coach.
“I knew that I wanted to coach when I was done with school, so he (Smith) was always someone I would look up to as a person,” Pell said. “I want to care about my guys. I want to have a relationship with them. I realized that I’m good at wrestling, and I want to make an impact on people’s lives. There’s no better profession for me than coaching.”
Pell said he does not feel like he has worked a day in his life. He's been wrestling since first grade and realized that graduating from college should not mean that he should have to stop participating in his favorite sport. He says that he hopes more than anything to pass on not only his skills, but also his love of the sport.
“I don’t want to say that wrestling’s my life, because it’s not,” he said. “But I do feel like when I go into that room, I’m able to be free … I always feel like I can leave everything else outside that door and really go in there and create something special with the guys.”