Missouri head coach Brian Smith (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
In May of 1998, the University of Missouri introduced its new head coach, a relatively unknown Brian Smith. At the time, the program was in a rough stretch of six seasons with a dual record under .500 and their best conference finish was in 1969, finishing fourth out of seven teams. The Tigers were in the brutal Big 12 conference (previously Big 8) and were just trying to compete against blue bloods Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, and Iowa State. The team had never had a national champ, and over 50 seasons only had 23 All-Americans.
Fast forward to today, and Coach Smith has just signed a contract extension with Mizzou through 2027, continuing his record-setting tenure as Mizzou Wrestling's head coach. While the program was in a rough place in 1998, Coach Brian Smith has turned Mizzou wrestling into one of the most consistent programs at Division I, and the culture of Tiger Style is now known throughout the wrestling scene.
Smith came from Syracuse after a single season trying to keep the program alive. Before that, he had spent five years as an assistant at Cornell with Rob Koll. Together they put signed top recruiting classes and the first Big Red national champ since 1960. As an athlete, Smith competed for Michigan State and was a three-time All-Big Ten wrestler. While it is a respectable resume, fans at the time were skeptical of the choice by the Mizzou athletic administration.
In Smith's first four seasons, the team made slow but continuous progress. Their dual record went from 4-9 in 1999 to 18-3 and Smith's first All-American came in 2002. However, the conference struggles continued with last-place finishes. That changed in 2003. The team went 15-6, including wins over Oklahoma and Iowa State for the first time in Smith's tenure. They followed that up with a second-place finish at Big 12's, the program's highest ever. At NCAA's, they had two All-Americans and seven qualifiers, the most since 1995. That was all without another path blazer for Mizzou wrestling, Ben Askren, who was redshirting at the time.
In 2004, there was another turning point for the Tigers, as they beat legendary Oklahoma State 21-17 for their first win in 25 duals against the Cowboys. Even in Coach Smith's time, they had been 0-5 previously. They were competitive at conferences again, with three champions. They also finished in the top 15 at NCAA's, the highest for the Tigers since 1984. At this point, Tiger Style was in full effect.
When Smith was first hired as head coach at Mizzou, he created a list of goals for the team to accomplish. While a lot of progress had been made by the 2005 season, there was still one of those goals the team had not reached: to develop their first NCAA National Champion. That dream culminated in 2006 with Ben Askren. The controversial but dominant Askren had come close twice already, losing in the finals to OSU's Chris Pendleton. But in 2006, Askren not only became the school's first National Champion, but their first Hodge winner as well.
The team didn't lose any momentum in 2007, winning their first team trophy with a third-place finish. That remains their highest NCAA finish for now. That year, Coach Smith also tied a program-high eight qualifiers, which had not been done since 1979 for the Tigers. In 2011, he broke the qualifier record with nine, and again in 2012 with ten. That 2012 season also saw Coach Smith and Mizzou win their first-ever conference championship in the Big 12. The team moved to the MAC in 2013, after the Mizzou athletic department moved to the SEC. Coach Smith's teams dominated the conference, winning nine more consecutive titles.
In 2015 the team went 24-0 and won the national duals. They beat Illinois, Lehigh, and Iowa for the National Duals Championship. At the time, it was only the second undefeated season in program history, but has since been repeated in 2018 and 2021.
At NCAA's, the team went from just outside the top ten, to eight top-ten finishes in the last ten tournaments. More than every team outside of PSU, Iowa, tOSU, and Cornell. The team has had 90 qualifiers since 2013, again more than every team outside of Iowa and OK State. Of Mizzou's 80 total All-Americans, 57 have come under Coach Smith's time. After a move back to the Big 12 in 2022, the conference title streak is up to 11 consecutive championships. Since 2012, the team has not only been dominant in conferences, but in duals as well. Coach Smith has a 156-28 record since then, and a 319-114-4 record overall.
In his 24 years at the helm of the program, Coach Smith has racked up a long list of accolades. His teams have won the Scuffle, Midlands, and multiple team titles in two conferences. Individually he has won the Dan Gable Coach of the Year (2007), NWCA Coach of the Year (2017), Big 12 Coach of the Year twice (2012, 2022), and MAC Coach of the Year five times (2013-2017). He's coached nine national champions, with J'Den Cox and Ben Askren winning multiple titles. Askren was also one of six multiple-time Hodge winners.
There is one thing that has eluded the Tigers so far, and that's an NCAA team title. The team was ranked #1 in 2015, but finished fourth. That year, the team had Alan Waters, Drake Houdashelt, and J'Den Cox all seeded first. Unfortunately, Waters and Cox were both upset, while Houdashelt won the only title for the Tigers that year. In 2017, the team had Lavion Mayes, Joey Lavallee, and J'Den Cox all in the finals, but again only had one wrestler win a title in Cox. That team had five All-Americans for a program record, but finished just outside of a trophy in 5th place.
Currently, the team has a returning champ in Keegan O'Toole, and two other multiple-time All-Americans in Brock Mauller and Rocky Elam. O'Toole and Elam are both ranked #1, and if they can take that ranking into March, they would be the first Tigers to do so since 2015. With all ten starters currently ranked, the Tigers are projected to contend for a team trophy in Tulsa.
According to Coach Smith, the culture of Tiger Style wrestling consists of believing in yourself, competing, giving one more, and expecting to win. He has turned the program around, and become one of the most established and longest-tenured head coaches at Mizzou. With NCAA's in Kansas City next year and the #4 overall 2022 recruiting class, Coach Smith will be leading a team that will be ready to compete for their first team title.
Brian Smith looks on as Keegan O'Toole and assistant coach Kendric Maple embrace after O'Toole's 2022 national title (photo courtesy of Tony Rotundo; WrestlersAreWarriors.com)