Breaking down the success of Mizzou wrestling

Between an effective coach, star athlete and promising young team members, the Tigers have established themselves as a national powerhouse.

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The University of Missouri has been constructing a premier wrestling program for years. In the 2016-17 season, Mizzou wrestling continued to build upon its stellar resume by controlling the Mid-American Conference and surprising many at the NCAA championships. However, for those close to the program, this success came as no surprise.

It begins with coach Brian Smith, who is in his 19th season and still understands the importance of preparation. He continues to stress commitment to the #TigerStyle approach, where living, eating and training right is the only way to achieve success under coach Smith. Off the mat wrestlers avoid risk and are extremely careful about what enters their bodies, and because of this they get the most workouts and training.

On top of that, Smith absolutely hates losing, and Mizzou doesn’t lose often. The Tigers went 11-4 overall and 7-1 in MAC dual meets this year.

“It hurts,” Smith said after a 20-16 loss to then-No. 1 Oklahoma State on Jan. 27. “I don’t like to lose. I don’t enjoy [losing]. Everybody’s like, ‘It’s a great moral victory,’ and all that crap. No, I hate it.”

It is this mentality that pushes Smith, and in turn pushes his wrestlers. Smith’s record speaks for itself. In his 19 years at Missouri, Smith holds a 237-92-3 record in dual meets and has been the recipient of five straight conference coach of the year awards.

After his team won the MAC Championship for the fourth straight year and finished fifth in the NCAA Championships in 2017, Smith was named the National Wrestling Coaches Association coach of the year. This marked Smith’s second national coaching award; his first was the Dan Gable Award in 2007.

"I'm very proud of what our team accomplished this season," Smith said in a press release. “They learned from their mistakes and got better. There was a lot of talent on this team, and when the lights went on and it was time to perform, this team stepped up and accomplished a great deal this season."

The next thing the program needed was a big-name star to help gain national appeal. Who better than Olympic bronze medalist and three-time national champion J’den Cox?

Cox finished his senior year 28-0, becoming the second Mizzou wrestler ever to have an undefeated season, the first since Ben Askren. To culminate his historic season and career at Mizzou, Cox overpowered Minnesota’s Brett Pfarr 8-2 at the NCAA Championship to become the first wrestler in program history to win a third national title. And Cox didn’t just win matches — he dominated. Of his 28 wins this past season, six came by falls, another six by technical falls and seven by major decisions.

To go along with his performance on the mat, Cox’s likeable, humble personality only adds to his allure as the face of Mizzou Athletics, a role he has gladly accepted. That was evident in his comments after winning the 197-pound championship at the NCAA Championships on March 18.

“I've accomplished great feats,” Cox said after the win. “And I hope to become a stepping stone for someone else to come through and break that. That's all this is. I want somebody else to come through and win four. I want someone to come through and do unimaginable things and things which I could only dream of or I couldn't even dream of, and I want to watch that.”

What will keep Mizzou wrestling good?

So what separates Mizzou from any other program that has the good fortune of recruiting a star like Cox? This year, Mizzou set a program record with three national finalists: Cox, Lavion Mayes and Joey Lavallee. Cox and Mayes are seniors and will not be wrestling next fall.

But even without two of their top three wrestlers, the future is still very bright for the Tigers. For four straight years, Mizzou has had a freshman All-American wrestler. 2016’s freshman All-American was redshirt freshman Jaydin Eierman. Eierman finished 29-7 overall and was fifth in the 141-pound weight class.

"[Eierman’s] improved practice habits are what made him better,” Smith said. “To come through and win the conference then take fifth in the country at a really tough weight and knock off some really good wrestlers is a credit to what he did from January on with his training and his mentality."

Mizzou returns Lavallee, John Erneste and Daniel Lewis, among others. Lavallee (29-2) is coming off a second-place finish in the 157-pound weight class, and Lewis (28-6) finished sixth in the 157-pound weight class. This was Lewis’ second straight All-American season. Erneste finished 25-8 and won his first MAC Championship at 133 pounds. All three are poised to take major steps next year and help fill the void that Cox and Mayes leave.

The Tigers, however, will need greater production from those who didn’t consistently win this year. Redshirt freshman Dylan Wisman and redshirt freshman Austin Myers will both need to step up. Wisman is coming off a 14-11 season and finished fourth in the 174-pound weight class at the MAC Championships, while Myers, the highly touted West Virginia transfer, had a disappointing 15-15 season. He earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships by finishing third in the heavyweight class but was exposed in the NCAAs. Myers did not advance past the first day of nationals.

No matter who comes and goes, one constant is coach Smith. It is Smith who has built the program up over the past 19 years, and he is the one who will continue to improve it going forward. Under his watch, Cox and Mayes helped lay the groundwork for Missouri Wrestling to continue and thrive this year, and if Lavalle, Lewis, and Eierman can continue Mizzou’s tradition, the program will be in good hands.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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