'Home mat advantage' crucial for Tigers

Smith: “I have parents coming up to me and they say, ‘We’re going to come back every year and make this a tradition.’”
“Superfan” Larry Wyatt cheers for the Missouri Tigers wrestling team March 7 at Hearnes Center.

Fifty years.

It has been 50 years since the University of Missouri has brought a national championship, in any sport, back to Columbia. There have been nine different presidents and five different popes since, and back then, gas was 45 cents.

Though Mizzou has come close in big-name sports such as football and basketball, the sport with the best chance to bring home some hardware is not the most spectated.

The Missouri wrestling team has been consistently good for years, but tends to struggle with recognition. When coach Brian Smith took over the program, he remembers calling one of his top recruits’ parents to let them know he was the new coach.

“Oh yeah, we’re very excited,” the mother replied. “He’s going up to Missouri. What division are you? Division II? NAIA?”

“No, we’re Division I,” Smith said. “We wrestle in the Big 12.”

Years later, and now wrestling in the Mid-American Conference, Smith and the Tigers have won three straight MAC Championships, J'den Cox has won the 197-pound National Championship, and the Tigers as a team have placed in the top-10 at the NCAAs in three of the last five years.

This year, the Tigers are No. 1 in the country and the favorite to win the NCAA team title. They have also acquired a fan base around campus.

“It’s been different,” senior Alan Waters said. “We’ve never had this sort of fan base.”

Cox agreed.

“It’s been cool to have people come up to you and say, ‘Hey, good job,’” he said. “I feel like we’ve been good for a pretty long time and we didn’t have this fan base, so it’s been awesome.”

Smith said he believes this is the perfect opportunity to start growing a loyal fan base and expand the popularity of the sport itself.

“I told the high school programs and youth programs that they should take their kids to a wrestling match,” he said.

Smith explained that exposure to a team or sport early on will impact the future, citing his New York Mets fanhood because “my dad took me to Shea Stadium” when he was young.

Smith added that going to events are spectacles for young kids and can play a huge factor in people’s attitudes towards the program. The Iowa Hawkeyes' fanbase, which has a heavy amount of support from its fans, is something to look up to.

“I have parents coming up to me and they say, ‘We’re going to come back every year and make this a tradition,’” Smith said. “That’s how you grow your fan base into an Iowa, where people live for that wrestling team.”

Now, coming off a commanding MAC Championship win at home in Columbia, Mizzou will go into another familiar environment, St. Louis, to battle for the team title they covet.

“Our chancellor, athletic director and strength coaches are all going,” Smith said. “I don’t think they know what they’re in for. Most people think it’s a little tournament, and then they get there and all of a sudden, there are 19,000 people.”

The NCAA Championships, Smith said, are one of the only NCAA tournaments that actually makes money for the organization. It also makes a fair amount of money for the host city.

“These people come in on Wednesday, and they don’t leave until Sunday,” Smith said. “In between wrestling, they’re all going out to casinos and stuff. For the wrestling community, this is like a vacation. This is the Super Bowl for them.”

Waters expressed his excitement for the NCAAs being in Missouri this year.

“We might have the most fans there,” Waters said. “Usually, Iowa brings a ton. It’ll be nice to hear (the crowd) cheering instead of getting booed after you win.”

After the Tigers took home the National Duals title earlier this year in Iowa City, beating the then-No. 1 Hawkeyes in the finals, the team said it was a hostile environment.

“I was like, ‘Alright, we won. Now let’s get out of here, because everyone hates us,’” Cox said jokingly.

The stage is set, the brackets are out and the team has been able to prepare for the upcoming weekend. Now all that’s left to do is try and accomplish the end goal: a national championship.

“It would be great for the university,” Smith said. “It needs to happen. Someone has to have that breakthrough.”

Smith went on to emphasize the importance of former Missouri wrestler Ben Askren winning a national championship, which led to a change in the program’s culture. Since Askren’s two titles in 2006 and 2007, there have been two other individual champions.

“Askren won a national title, and now it’s become a common thing,” Smith said. “One person has to get to the moon, and then you’ll see a lot of launches. Once somebody gets that first trophy, I really believe it’s going to blow up.”

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