Brian Smith’s ‘Family-like atmosphere’ helped the MU wrestling program reach new heights

Tuesday, December 11, 2007 | 8:35 p.m. CST; updated 12:17 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith watches his team during a recent practice at the Hearnes Center on the University of Missouri campus.

COLUMBIA — Ten years ago when MU wrestling coach Brian Smith took over as head coach at MU, the Missouri Tiger wrestling program was in shambles.

There was no tradition to speak of. No accolades. No championships. Nothing.

“The high school kids, the youth coaches, high school coaches, kids, parents, nobody wanted to come to this program,” Smith reminisced. “It was just looked at as a safety thing; if you couldn’t get a scholarship anywhere else or if nobody else wanted you, then you go to Missouri if it was your last resort.”

A lack of funds and poor facilities didn’t give Smith much to sell potential recruits on either.

“We had the worst facilities in the Big XII and maybe even in the country,” he said. “It was this little room in here that we use for our weight room now. We had a horrible locker room. We only had one full-time assistant coach where you’re allowed two. So we had one of the smallest budgets. It was a big disadvantage.”

Despite the state of the program upon his arrival, Smith had no doubt that he could build the team into a perennial powerhouse.

Now, he can barely contain his enthusiasm when speaking about how far the program has come.

“I remember just coming in here and taking the job and I didn’t even care what my salary was,” Smith said. “And just not caring. I didn’t even care, I just knew that if I could get an opportunity to coach in one of the elite conferences, you can turn a program around and make people believe.”

But Smith’s arrival was not greeted with open arms. He received a fax his first day on the job listing all the reasons why some people felt he should be fired. Rumors were swirling around the state that it would only be a matter of time before the MU wrestling program was dropped altogether. But Smith and his staff were relentless in their efforts to turn the program around. They began running free wrestling camps and clinics around the state for high schools and youth organizations to change the perception of MU wrestling.

“We were just hustling and getting people to know us,” Smith said. “And we were doing a lot of that and getting out in the community and getting out with the alumni and letting them know what we’re going to do and bringing them back together and just naming awards after some of the former coaches and wrestlers from here that were famous. Doing things like that, bringing it together.”

Smith was creating tradition within the program from the ground up and, after a few losing and mediocre seasons, the program finally began reaching some of the lofty goals that Smith had set. The past 6 years the team has finished no worse than 17th nationally and is now an annual contender for the Big XII and National Championships. And Smith thinks now that the program’s initial success has been established, its growing tradition will help carry it to annual success.

“The more you give to people, the more they’re willing to give back,” he said. “And I think that’s what this program is based on that if you’re going to give to people and put the time in and work hard with them and believe in them and see the results and the graduates come back and say, ‘Man you gotta work hard,’ that’s what this program’s built on and believe in that and it just kind of cycles through.”

Two-time All-American Tyler McCormick said that Smith has established a family-like atmosphere on the team that only intensifies the passion that the wrestlers have for it.

“I think that the way that he runs this program is more of a family than a wrestling team or an athletic program,” McCormick said. “I mean all these guys here are like my brothers and so I like that aspect of it.”

McCormick also said that the relationship that he has with Smith has helped him grow and mature.

“I came here as an 18-year-old boy but now since I’ve been in this program I’ve matured into more of a man,” McCormick said. “And he’s seen me grow through that way and so we’ve had a pretty special bond for a long time now.”

McCormick isn’t the only one who has matured at MU. Even with all the success he has achieved, Smith says that he continues to learn everyday.

“I learn from them (the wrestlers),” he said. “Whether it be how to treat somebody, or a technique, or just learning that there’s more to life than just wrestling. I used to be just so tunnel vision, at wrestling, wrestling, wrestling, and realized that these kids come in with issues. Family issues and problems, and you have to deal with that stuff before they can become a great wrestler.”

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