Why they coach: Brian Smith
Over the course of the next eight weeks, PowerMizzou.com is running a series of stories with the head coach of every varsity sport at Mizzou. The basic gist of the interviews began as “why do you coach?” Throughout each story, there will be many of the same questions, but with each subject we veer off on to some tangents as well.These interviews will run every Tuesday and Friday morning on the site from now until July 11th. Today, our conversation with head wrestling coach Brian Smith.
PM: When you were growing up, I know you wrestled, but what other sports did you play?
BS: "It was football. I played every sport, but football, lacrosse. Lacrosse was one of my great loves cause I grew up in upstate New York, but football was king because my dad was a high school football coach so I grew up on the sidelines. So at four was when I knew I was going to coach. My dad would let me come to coaches' meetings and traveling with them and I'd be a ballboy or a water boy at four and five and six and from that point forward, that's all I ever wanted to do. To the point where I was coaching before I went off to college. I was coaching youth teams, I was actually running the weight room at St. Thomas Aquinas for their football program before I went up to Michigan State. I knew it was something I wanted to do so when I showed up the first day of class with my advisor at Michigan State, they said what do you want to do? I said I want to teach and I want to be a coach. They're like what are some of your other interests? I'm like, no, I want to teach and I want to coach just like my dad. That's my love and that's what I did for a couple years."
PM: Whether it was wrestling or whatever sport it was, you just wanted to coach?
BS: "For me it was always football. I still sit back and I'm like, dang, I wonder if I would have stayed in high school where I would be now because I was eventually gonna be a football coach. I got hired as a head wrestling coach and assistant football, but I loved football. Football is my true love for coaching--and wrestling obviously I love it too--but if you had to tell me which one I enjoy better, I enjoy football probably a little bit more just in the sense that you have to get 22 players and kickers and everybody all to play on the same page together, where in wrestling I'm getting one guy to go out there and wrestle. It's different. They're so different. But I always tell coaches when I'm hiring them that I run a program that's more, if you watch the organization, the way things are run, it's run more like a football program. Our program, if you'd see the way practices are structured and we're very organized with meetings and things like that, I learned a lot from the way my dad was and how football is."
PM: So what was the moment that it went from football coach to wrestling coach?
BS: "After spring ball my sophomore year, after the Orange and Black Game at Oviedo High School--I went to three high schools, I got around--the head football coach told me because I had a great game and we won the game, I was one quarterback and there was a kid that was the other quarterback who played for the other team. I was an option quarterback and 'Hey, you'll get to play some special teams and hold on extra points and this and that' and I was like, okay, I got to work harder. Didn't think I did a good enough job or whatever. I then went home and started thinking about it and my cousin from New York called and said, 'You need to come up here. You made it to the state last year. If you commit to wrestling..." I started thinking and I decided, man, maybe this is the path I should take, give up this football and go full-time wrestling because I was so close to placing in the state and I had just started wrestling two years ago. I'd only wrestled for two years. It was the hardest decision I'd ever made, I felt like at that point in my life, to give up football, something that had been a part of my life since I could remember since I was like four years old. I remember going to tell my dad and thinking he would be really upset with me and he said 'Go be the best wrestler then.' And I said, okay, I'm going to quit football and walk away from it and spend the summers away from the family and living in New York and learning how to wrestle. My cousins were all-Americans in Division Two up there. And that's what I did. I remember I went and told the football coach. The offensive coordinator was saying no. Actually what happened is they brought some other young kid up who ended up being the quarterback and the other kid became a running back who ran for 2,000 yards. I could have handed it to him! But I don't regret it. I fell in love with it. I won the state that next year and it turned out pretty darn good that I went on and won two titles and got to go to Michigan State on a scholarship. I look back at how little I was not even caring about wrestling and it just took over my life where every moment of my life then was wrestling. Every spring break I was finding places to train and every summer where I could go to get better and every book I could find. There was no YouTube, there was no Internet. So if I could find video tapes and grab people, I was grabbing people and saying 'Show me what you got. I want to learn.' Everything I was doing in football for a million years I was trying to condense in a matter of two years where I even left my family my senior year and lived with my grandmother four hours away to go to St. Thomas Aquinas, which was amazing for me because the culture there with athletics is probably one of the best cultures I've ever been around in sports and academics. I mean, they dominate sports down there and there's a reason. And they were good to me with academics and taught me about all this recruiting because everybody was getting recruited there so it was very neat. I'm still very close with all the people at St. Thomas. George Smith, the AD, the old football coach. My family eventually moved down there. My brother was on the first state championship football team and a captain. It was kind of cool to be a part of that. I still stay close with the people there. The head football coach is my brother's best friend. So it's just neat how your life goes through things. And I actually had the job there when I got called back to be the full-time assistant at Cornell. I had left teaching and coaching in Florida for two years at a high school and after one year of working at Cornell as a restricted earnings (coach), sister John, sister John Norton was the principal and she decided to bring me back. George and all those people offered me a lot of money to be their wrestling coach and I was there. My sister-in-law had me for history and I never showed up because Jack Spates was at Cornell, took the job at Oklahoma, and the guy that we were both under, Rob Koll got the head job so that's how it all happened. Then five years at Cornell and a year at Syracuse and here I am."
PM: Was your dad your first coach or was it somebody else?
BS: "Pretty much. I grew up around my dad and everything was about playing catch and how to do it. He was tough. He's that tough old-school. He makes old-school coaches look really young. And everything was competitive in my house. I still go back or I'll get calls and it's like 'What the hell are you doing? Why are your guys wrestling like that? Are they going to wrestle tomorrow?' He's tougher than the toughest talk show hosts and stuff. He is it. He is so critical. But you know, it's what made me. He even says now that he was so old-school, he says 'You've definitely grown up and matured and know how to deal with athletic directors and people. You're a people person' which he wasn't. He would basically grab you and tell you what he felt and get fired. He's that old-school coach. But he's been definitely the coach that I look up to. I still talk to him and I'm still mentored by him."
PM: So what was your first coaching job and what was the first coaching job you got paid for?
BS: "My first coaching job was probably I was helping a little with my brother's youth football team and my dad was a head football coach but also coaching my brother's team. And they were really good. He made me take them over for a couple weeks cause he had to do some thing on the weekends to recertify for something for education and I took them over and I think I pissed off the league pretty good because we were winning games like 45-0 at the half. They were just killers. He had them so coached up and they were so good and they were just killers."
PM: How old were you then?
BS: "I was probably just out of college and so, teaching and coaching, said on the weekends I'll help them out. He had an offense and defense where they had it just so simple and those kids just knew where to go and they were just crushing people. I had a game stopped at halftime and my dad found out and he's like, 'What the hell are you doing? I'm gonna come back and the league's gonna be all over me.' Just doing what you said to do. It was fun. Then my first paid coaching job was Western High School. I got paid to help run the weight room at St. Thomas Aquinas the summer before I left and I still run into some guys (that say) 'Man, we hated you.' But my first paid job was Western High School. I had just graduated from Michigan State and was offered the job at Deltona High School where, if I would have taken that, I probably would have disappeared in the middle of the state of Florida. But my parents live right there in Lauderdale and I walked down the street to Western High School and I saw that my old high school coach left for a new high school. I said, 'You guys need a wrestling coach?' They said 'Can you teach history?' I said 'Heck, yeah, I can teach history.' They hired me like three days before school started. I had to call Deltona High School. They were expecting me there to be a football coach and wrestling coach and I bailed on them. But that's the business. That was my first and I loved it. We were second in the state. The team had never been that good. It was amazing. Those guys I'm very, very close to. My brother was on that team, Freddie was on that team, Lee Pritts, one of the coaches at Arizona State, I had a guy come in with a speaker this past fall, this fall, who was on that team and it's amazing, he's a CEO of a company in Washington, D.C. It's amazing. You don't realize the impact you can have on guys, but those guys still follow it and are fans and are at the NCAAs and I was only there two years."
PM: Every coach at this level says there are a lot of guys that could be at this level you've never heard of but they never got that break. What was your break?
BS: "Taking Cornell. Our high school team was becoming one of the best in the state of Florida. I had youth groups coming up, I was coaching 75 little kids cause I was going over to junior highs and middle schools, bringing a mat, laying it out, doing things at one of their all-school meeting things. I'd just bought a house and was about to get engaged to Denise, who's still with me. We're now on 25 years. Everything was showing that I was settling down and Jack Spates called me from Cornell. He would always call me about all the cadet level kids cause I was coaching the Florida national teams. He said 'How would you like to be the restricted earnings (coach)? It pays 12,000, no benefits.' I was over 30 something thousand, which isn't a lot when you think of it, but with camps and everything I was doing pretty good. And I thought it was like the greatest thing in the world and when I started mentioning it to people, they're like, 'You're crazy. You just did this and the house and this.' Everybody thought it was nuts until I went to my dad. And my dad said 'I have guys that are in the NFL that I coached with. I could have been at that level.' And I know he could have. He said 'I got to a point where I was in teaching and settled and bought the house and had a wife, your mother, and your sister and then you came and it was just impossible to do. It was at a point where it was way too difficult.' He said 'You can always come back and get a high school job. They'll hire you.' He's the one that said 'You need to do this because you won't have to look back like I am and say I could have done this. Find out. Even if it's a couple years, you come home, it's not a failure. Just see another side of it and learn another level, which you should.' That was the advice I got from my dad and so I did it. Cornell was that job. Restricted earnings. And it did blow my mind because I was under two, basically, Hall of Fame coaches. Jack Spates was amazing, had an amazing career at Cornell and then Oklahoma winning team trophies and doing great things. And Rob right now is crushing it at Cornell. So I got to learn under both those guys and other people that were coming through as assistants. And learning about how to develop and fund-raise and the culture of giving, which the Ivy Leagues are the best at. The Ivy Leagues are amazing at it. I was just in a box at the NCAAs with 20 of the guys I coached at Cornell 20 something years ago and it was like yesterday I was with them. That's how close we all were and still are."
PM: So a few years down the road, why did you come to Missouri?
BS: "They offered me the job. I don't know why. I had gotten a bunch of jobs. It was my tenth interview. I think I had gotten five jobs and a couple others I had gotten and then they took it back. It was crazy times. I took the Ithaca College job for a week or two and then another job opened up and they said if you take that, you haven't signed your contract yet, you're fired. So I called Rob and he said 'Yeah, you still got your job.' Crazy stuff like that. I have the personality that I had to be a head coach and I've told this to my assistants. I could not do what some of you guys are doing for eight, ten years. I was on a timeline. i was going back to high school. I got to be a head coach. I could make no money and still be happy because I can live with little means as long as I'm coaching and enjoy it. That's my love. And so I told Denise when she came up after we got married after the first year at Cornell that I'd only do it for two or three more years. Of course, I'm on my fifth year, it was down to the wire and I took the Syracuse job. A lot of people don't know the Syracuse job had dropped (wrestling) and brought it back. The part of it was I had to raise two million dollars to save the program in four years. I had four years to raise two million dollars. When you think about it, if you were a senior in high school when I took the job, that first year when I'm a senior when I'm recruiting you, there's only three years left. So to recruit? It was like impossible. And when I got there the administration was fighting with the boosters that were raising the money. And we were raising some money. We did a thing at the Tavern on the Green in New York City where we had everybody. We had Steve Kroft from 60 Minutes, we had Dan Gable, we sold out the Tavern on the Green with expensive tables and fund-raising. The Baldwin family was there. Everybody was there. We had the Touchdown Club donating pictures. It raised a lot of money. But in the middle of that event I was on the phone with a school called Missouri saying I was on their short list and this and that thinking, we're doing this fund-raising, this is going on. I was offered the Cleveland State job at the same moment and had to turn that down to take a risk to just take the interview here. My ultimate goal was to be a Big Ten or a Big 12 coach. And Mizzou stripped that away from me."
PM: And you were for a while.
BS: "But you know what now? When you look at where we are, it's like the program is a very respected program, we have goals to be a national champ and it's a realistic goal and so we're just plugging away and working for that. But taking that first year at Cornell and then taking the risk at Syracuse allowed me because they were like 'we're looking for a guy that has head coach experience.' So I made a move that everybody said was stupid, but it ended up turning out to be good. Missouri was looking for somebody, I don't know how serious, they weren't that serious about the program back then. I can tell you by what they paid my staff and their budget. They just wanted it to run and get a couple wins here. At that point, they didn't feel like they could compete with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Nebraska. Within four years we were there."
PM: Big picture, what's the most rewarding part of being a coach?
BS: "Most rewarding? Probably, I say this all the time and people say you're crazy, but I go to a lot of weddings. When I'm at the weddings with Denise and we're sitting there and there's like 25 guys and some of them are married now with kids, cause I've been with Mizzou now it's going on 22 years. Seeing these guys and how they get together and how it was like yesterday and some of them will just grab me to the side and it's very heartfelt. They'll say impact and they'll say how they've changed and what you've done for me. I feel like I just coached you, but I know I did more than that. Just how close we all are. And it truly is, you say when you come here you're going to be a family. I think it's more when you leave you'll realize what kind of family you have because you keep coming back. It's that time when I'll get a text from a parent and say 'Hey, I'm watching my son walk across the stage now and that's the one promise you made for me. Thank you, coach.' Things like that. Those are the things, because I know unfortunately in our society it's about wins and losses to the fans and message boards and all that craziness and this guy doesn't know what he's doing and what the hell? But if they knew what was happening within this team and the culture. We have an amazing culture. Amazing culture of what is happening here and it just keeps getting better. We work really hard at it. We do more than coach these kids."
PM: What's the most challenging thing?
BS: "Challenging? It's probably when they come in a freshmen and getting them to really, really, really understand what TigerStyle is and the lifestyle. Because once they do it, it's unbelievable what happens. If you ever come to our banquets and stuff and you hear them talk about, basically, how stupid they were and idiots and 'I wouldn't listen to coach. I was trying to do this or do that, not doing well in school, hanging out with the wrong crowd. Coach told me all this stuff, but I didn't listen. Eventually I figured it out and here I am, I'm getting my graduate degree and already graduated and all this stuff.' It's amazing to see it because it happens. But getting them to that point, getting them to buy into the lifestyle. But once they do it's amazing what they're doing, how some of them are now doctors and lawyers and unbelievable coaches and fathers because they bought into it. And the ones that didn't, I've had guys sit in that chair and they left here and decided to go chase something else and they sit there and bawl ten years later when they come through and they're visiting. 'Why didn't I stay? Why didn't you make me stay?' You can't make people stay."
PM: Specific to this job, people from the outside look and say this program's on cruise control now, but what's the most challenging thing about coaching at Missouri?
BS: "No. We have an end of the year staff meeting where everybody's in there. The SID was there, team doctors in there, trainers, academic advisors, the coaches, strength coaches. Everybody that truly believes in TigerStyle, it's that core, it's like 12 people. And probably the biggest issue is how do we get those number one recruits? And I said we've had some and I went through. But I said, we know our niche and our niche and the reason we win is our culture so we find those kids that fit our culture. It's amazing how well we do. And I said, but it's hard. It's hard. We're sitting here and we've had five straight years of fourth, fifth or sixth in the country and you would think the sky was falling at that meeting. And I like that. Because there's that urgency that we've got to get better. How do we break through that ceiling? I feel like it's stuck at fifth right there. We've had this thing where we keep taking fifth or sixth or fourth in the country and how do you break through that ceiling? What's the small little details? Because it's nothing big. So when you say cruise control, when you guys think I'm on cruise control, when I hear that, that's time to leave. That's time to move on. Because I'm trying to just finish, get years. No. I'm working my ass off and I want to get on top. My ultimate goal is to win a national title. That is a thing I would love to do here. We've been so close some of those years, I think back that we had an opportunity and I can tell you the matches we lost that cost us those points. But we've been there. So let's try to do it again."
PM: Whenever you decide it's time to be done and you walk away, what do you want people to remember about you and say about you as a coach?
BS: "Honestly, I don't want them to remember me. I want them to remember TigerStyle. That's just me. I don't like doing interviews. I've never been on a poster. It's something I'm proud about because I think it's about the kids. My job is to give these guys the best experience so I hope when they look back, they'll look back and be like, 'TigerStyle or Mizzou wrestling was awesome at this time' and there was a lot of people that did this. Because it isn't just me. I don't want to be remembered. That guy that just got it done maybe. That I lived it. I lived TigerStyle. And I was an example to young men to go out and live greatly and do that kind of stuff. I'm not in this to win awards. Shoot, it means nothing to me. I have a lot of coach of the year things that are in a closet, stuffed under stuff, under pillows, and I don't even put them out. It's something that's not important to me. My wife made that box (holding his championship rings) because the rings were sitting in my, all those championship rings were sitting in the bathroom, under with the extra toothpaste. She made it so we could at least put it out for people to see."
PM: You don't wear them on recruiting visits or anything?
BS: "Never. Never. We sell culture. This program is about culture. I think if you hung around our team for a week you'd be wowed. We do some things that are different. The expectations. We have one team rule, which is go to class. That's it. That's our team rule. The other is live TigerStyle so I guess we have two. We read books every year. Today if you came to practice, you'd be sitting with us and they'd be in groups and talking about how The Soul of the Team compares to TigerStyle. We read one every year so the kids are reading books. They always come in and borrow books. I think it's important. There's so many different things that we do. We are the most competitive team at Missouri. I would say it here with a room full of coaches. We won the Tiger Cup this year, which is academics, athletics and community service. We've been the only male team to win it. This is the second. All those female teams crush us usually. But we've been in the top three since the existence, I think, of it. Maybe the first couple years we were like last and I was like, 'All right, this is gonna change guys.' And now it's like they win it. There's a thing called the spirit week every year that our team has won. And you think why is that important? But we want to win at everything. And our program wants to win at everything. We've had probably the most SAC presidents and leadership-wise, our team is unbelievable leaders. Daniel Lewis is the male athlete of the year because he was also on committees, he was also four-time academic all-American, he was also an aeronautics engineering major. Just an amazing young man that was leading in the community and here. Hey, yeah, that is the male athlete of the year what he did. To do all that and still be a four time all-American. That's our goal is to have guys want to achieve at that level where they're doing it all."