When Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith took over the program before the 1998-99 season, he knew the key to building a winning team was cultivating in-state talent.
“When I got here, I knew we were going to have to win with Missouri kids,” Smith said. “You can stretch your dollars more with only a limited amount of scholarships in the sport of wrestling. The NCAA allows 9.9 for 10 weights.”
Smith’s approach allowed him to ramp up the numbers of wrestlers and the amount of talent and competition in the Tigers’ wrestling room, but it was an uphill battle in those early years.
“The biggest challenge, at first, was getting Missouri kids to buy in, because in the past it was not a good program,” Smith said. “My first three years, it was trying to get kids to come and they really weren’t buying into it.”
That is no longer the case.
Missouri, which is ranked second behind Iowa in the latest USA Today/National Wrestling Coaches Association poll, has finished in the top 20 at the NCAA national championship in 12 of the last 13 seasons, relying predominantly on in-state talent.
The Tigers’ football team touts itself as Mizzou Made, a moniker Smith has sort of adopted.
“That’s our poster — football has Mizzou Made, we put Missouri Made,” Smith said. “Meaning it’s parents, it’s youth coaches, it’s high school coaches, we have kids from all over the state, so we say Missouri Made. It’s not a pun at those guys, to make fun of football, but it’s to highlight the contributions from around the state.”
Those contributions might push Missouri to the top of the heap at the NCAA Division I wrestling championships, which begin March 19 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
The Tigers are led by sophomore J’den Cox, a Columbia Hickman graduate and the reigning national champion at 197 pounds. Cox is 26-0 this season and on track for a possible repeat.
Smith believes at least two other MU wrestlers, senior 125-pounder Alan Waters and senior 149-pounder Drake Houdashelt, should make the NCAA final.
Waters, 23-0, is a Park Hill graduate, while Houdashelt, 26-1, hails from Fort Zumwalt West in suburban St. Louis.
Several other wrestlers — including senior 184-pounder Johnny Eblen from Park Hill, sophomore 141-pounder Lavion Mayes from Mascoutah, Ill., and senior heavyweight Devin Mellon from Lawson — also should be in the mix to reach a final or be All-Americans.
“This team can definitely win the national title,” Smith said. “There’s about six to seven teams that can win it right now, which it’s never been that way. … It’s going to be a battle.”
The Tigers’ best finish at the national tournament was a third-place showing in 2007. MU also finished seventh in 2009 and 2013.
“It’s close to the most complete team I’ve had,” Smith said. “The 2007 team was really solid. Those teams that took seventh were really solid teams with five All-Americans. … We’ve had some really solid teams, so I won’t know until after the national (tournament) where this team stands.”
Smith won’t be surprised if the 2015 squad goes down as MU’s best.
“Missouri has made unbelievable strides, especially with the clubs they have,” Smith said. “Park Hill has an amazing Greater Heights club over there. They develop a lot of good kids. We’re reaping that reward.”
Smith also mentioned the Purler brothers, Tony and Nick, who run wrestling academies in Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia.
“It’s elevated, because the best kids are meeting at this clubs and being trained at a high level from 8 or 10 and all the way through the years,” Smith said. “They hit high school and I got watch these high school tournaments and go, ‘Wow, these kids are doing things I only wish I knew back in college.’ They’re doing it at junior high or high school age and that’s why, every year, Missouri kicks out good kids. We’ve been fortunate.”