Three conference trophies adorn the glass case on the fourth floor of Hearnes Center: one from the Big 12, two from the Mid-American Conference.
Those trophies are for “Tiger Style,” a catchy nickname that has become synonymous with Missouri wrestling and embodies the program’s philosophy.
Ben Askren, a two-time world champion and Missouri Hall of Famer, bought into Smith’s vision for the program back in 2002. Today, he has co-founded a wrestling academy with a philosophy echoing that of “Tiger Style.”
Coach Brian Smith is the creator of “Tiger Style,” and he has started a trend not seen in other sports within the athletic department. The wrestling program has become a national powerhouse, making 15 trips to the national tournament under the watchful eye of Smith.
Once again, the No. 10 Tigers will head to the NCAA championship, this time in Oklahoma City. Eight wrestlers will compete for the All-American distinction, and two have a legitimate chance to take home a national championship.
Regardless of the result at this weekend’s tournament, Smith has already established himself as Missouri’s most successful coach.
Rebuilding and Reloading
Smith’s 16th season is representative of his career, as his coaching staff was faced with the task of essentially starting from scratch. Anchoring the group were junior captains Drake Houdashelt and Johnny Eblen, both top-10 wrestlers. Eblen was later sidelined due to injuries.
“I do not think there has ever been a team in any sport at MU that has replaced 80 percent of their lineup over a one-year period,” Smith said. “We lost two top-10 kids during the season, and then (to) come back and win the conference title, … I was truly proud of the effort.”
Smith said the rebuilding effort started in the summer, and the coaches were committed to getting the incoming freshmen ready to compete.
“It wasn’t easy,” Smith said. “The whole season hasn’t been easy.”
Yet, the Tigers had their work cut out for them. The No. 2 recruiting class in the country filled the shoes of the departing seniors admirably with three true freshman getting starting nods.
“The effort that my coaching staff, my strength coaches and everybody else committed to this just shows what we can accomplish,” Smith said. “I am so proud of this program and where it is and the people that are associated with it.”
Rebuilding in the world of Missouri wrestling doesn’t mean dropping out of the top 10, a place to which Missouri has grown accustomed. At the season’s start, the Tigers started at No. 16 before rising to No. 7.
The Tigers wouldn’t leave the top 10 the rest of the season.
“Thought it was going to be a down year, but you can never count the Tigers out,” Askren said.
Jeremy Spates, coach of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville wrestling, said it was an impressive feat.
“If you were to tell someone that Missouri would win the conference after graduating their seniors and redshirting their best wrestler, I don’t think a lot of people would’ve believed it,” he said.
The Tigers came from behind on the final day of the MAC Championships to capture the program’s third consecutive conference championship, a feat no sport at Missouri has accomplished.
“It was a great, great day for Missouri,” Smith said of the tournament win.
History of Success
Before Smith’s arrival in 1998, the wrestling program hadn’t had a winning season since 1991-92. With 2013-14’s regular season on the books, Smith has now led Mizzou to 13 consecutive winning seasons and has developed Missouri into a perennial top-10 team.
Such success has made the team a household name in the world of collegiate wrestling.
“The way our program has developed, a lot of kids want to come to Missouri,” Smith said. “When I recruit out of Ohio and Pennsylvania, they know what Mizzou is, and they know Mizzou wrestling.”
Smith left Syracuse after a two-year stint as coach for the Missouri job. Prior to Syracuse, he worked as assistant coach at Cornell. He put together two top-10 recruiting classes for Cornell and helped the team finish 10th in the national tournament in 1993.
In 16 years, he has become the program’s winningest coach and reached the 200-win milestone in his career. He is one dual win shy of 200 wins at MU.
Building a Brand
Missouri wrestling has been since become synonymous with “Tiger Style,” the name of Smith’s philosophy for the program.
The phrase was coined by former-wrestler Spates. In a nutshell, “Tiger Style” is a mentality of working hard in everything they do, on and off the mat.
While Spates provided the name, he said Smith is responsible for making “Tiger Style” what it is today.
Spates, who wrestled in the black and gold from 1999 to 2003, competes against “Tiger Style” once a year as the coach of the SIUE Cougars.
“It’s not very fun wrestling against Missouri,” Spates said with a laugh.
The Cougars were shut out by the Tigers in January.
Spates was one of the initial building blocks in Smith’s program. He said Smith sold him on the future of Missouri wrestling.
Spates was a member of the team during the rough times and saw two losing seasons. Those would also be the last losing seasons for some time.
“It was a lot of fun to be on the winning side,” Spates said.
Askren, who arrived in 2002, was at Missouri during the program’s formative years. While he was a wrestler, he witnessed the program transition from when breaking into the top 25 was a big deal to a No. 1 ranking.
Of his initial recruiting trip, Askren said he found something at Missouri he didn’t find elsewhere — an excitement about winning and taking the program to new levels.
“I knew I could accomplish my personal goals there,” Askren said.
He went to win three individual conference titles. He also became the program’s first athlete to compete in the Olympics.
Several Tigers have gone on to aspire for the Olympics, some even staying at MU to train under assistant coach Sammie Henson, a silver medalist himself.
Askren rewrote the record books, and during his time at Missouri, the program paved the way for success of other programs, he said.
“We were the first program to come through and say Missouri doesn’t have to be the doormat of the Big 12 and showed that you can win here,” Askren said. “We were the torchbearers leading the way. Missouri was good at almost nothing. Our team was leading the charge for Mizzou Athletics.”
Spates also said he thinks the success of the wrestling team inspired other programs.
Since then, football has won three division titles. Basketball captured the Big 12 Championship in 2012. Volleyball won the Southeastern Conference this past season.
Smith has also had 19 wrestlers become All-Americans at NCAAs by finishing in the top eight. His 19 matches the same number as his predecessors from 1923 to 1998.
Askren credits Smith’s steadiness for the program’s success.
“(He) keeps level of consistency that you don’t find elsewhere,” Askren said. “He teaches you what to expect, and then those expectations don’t change.”