Among Oklahoma State’s longevity legends are James Wadley, who before his 2012 retirement coached the Cowboy men’s tennis program for 40 years; Henry Iba, who coached OSU basketball for 36 years; and Mike Holder, who celebrated eight national titles during his 32-year run as the OSU men’s golf coach.
As the king of Oklahoma State wrestling and a member of both the Oklahoma Hall of Fame (2020) and Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame (1997), John Smith also has a seat at the table of coaches who committed a lifetime to coaching in Stillwater.
The 2022-23 season is Smith’s 33rd as the Cowboys’ head coach.
Both as a competitor and a coach, the 57-year-old Smith has done it all and seen it all. The Del City native was a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a four-time world champion and a two-time NCAA champion. Combining his years in high school, at OSU and in international competition, his record was a stunning 357-18-2.
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His body of work as the Cowboy coach: national team titles in 1994, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006, along with 33 individual national champions, 150 All-Americans and 21 conference championships.
Until this week, however, Smith never had seen the NCAA Wrestling Championships conducted on Tulsa soil. Oklahoma State is the host school as the three-day spectacle begins with Thursday’s 11 a.m. session at the BOK Center.
Smith, in effect, is the host coach, and that resulted in a bit more media attention for him than the other coaches and wrestlers received during a Wednesday news conference.
I’d been hearing for a while that Smith is seriously considering retirement, so I asked him about it.
“It’s one year at a time,” Smith replied. “I enjoy the moments, taking it one year at a time. When I was younger, you’re worried about raising a family: ‘I’ve got to have my job. I’ve got to make money.’ I’m at a different place now, and it’s really nice to be able to go one year at a time. I think I’m doing a better job of coaching, doing it in that manner.
“Right now, I’m so fired up about this tournament. If I look out a half-year or a year from now, I see myself at Oklahoma State.”
However, he added, “you do think about the process a little more as you get older.”
John Smith’s son Joe was a three-time Cowboy All-American and recently completed his first year as OKC Heritage Hall’s head wrestling coach. Another son of John and Toni Smith, Sam, is a Stillwater senior and will be an OSU freshman next season. There also is Levi, an eighth-grade son who wrestles.
Since John Smith was non-committal on the subject of retirement, is it possible that he might continue to coach through the entirety of Sam’s college career and perhaps even Levi’s college career?
Smith laughed. “That’s a long time,” he said. “I couldn’t even imagine going that long. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. I’m just saying I wouldn’t want to look out that far.”
The Oklahoma State wrestling program shares Gallagher-Iba Arena with the men’s and women’s basketball programs. On Feb. 27, OSU announced an ambitious plan to raise $325 million for a variety of new facilities. Included would be a long-overdue and beautiful building for Cowboy wrestling.
Asked about the building’s design, Smith replied, “It depends on (the amount of money) we raise. The good thing about a wrestling room: four walls are all we need. We need space. Our current room is a little dangerous. We need room for 35 to 38 guys.”
It’s not uncommon during a practice session, Smith says, for two Cowboys to get tangled up and have momentum carry them to a collision with other nearby Cowboys. OSU wrestling’s limited space could be likened to a football team attempting to have a full-scale practice session on a 50-yard field.
As Smith says, the amount of money generated through fund-raising will determine the size and definition of the upcoming Oklahoma State wrestling facility. Getting the money won’t be easy, but there’s an obvious option on the name: the “John Smith Wrestling Center” would look perfect in big, bold lettering, centered above the entrance.
If a signature donor prefers to have his or her name above the front door, it would be understandable. If the building is known as the “Generous Donor Wrestling Center,” then Oklahoma State should get busy now with the design and sculpting of a John Smith statue.
The most accomplished person at an internationally renowned wrestling school should be commemorated in a grand and permanent manner.