John Smith leaves lasting legacy with Oklahoma State

Apr. 15—John Smith will never forget the first time he was in Gallagher Hall.

It was the day his brother and "first hero," Lee Roy Smith III, signed his National Letter of Intent to wrestle for Oklahoma State University in 1976. The 10-year-old John saw pictures of the great OSU wrestlers from the late 1920s to the early '30s hung on the walls.

"It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," the now 58-year-old John Smith said. "It made me believe that this is where I belonged and this is an opportunity for me to capitalize on everything I ever wanted in wrestling."

Smith became the greatest American wrestler and one of the greatest college wrestling coaches in history for Oklahoma State. The university on Monday celebrated the end of his legendary coaching career — which included five NCAA championships, 23 conference championships and 490 dual wins — as Smith announced his retirement on Thursday.

Why now?

Most people around the program, including athletic director Chad Weiberg, thought Smith would continue to coach a young team with an upward trajectory.

"We had a really good year, so I thought, 'Great, we're going to keep rockin' and rollin' and hopefully get another seven, nine, 10 years out of him, and maybe I'll retire before he does," Weiberg said.

Smith retired from coaching for the same reason he retired from competing.

"I was complete," he said.

Smith had just won his sixth straight world level championship — a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. USA Wrestling "bundled a whole bunch of money together" to keep him from accepting OSU's head coaching job.

But Smith had nothing more to prove on the mat. And after the NCAA Championships ended three weeks ago, he had the same feeling.

"I wish we would have done better, but for me, the way we wrestled, it was nice walking away," Smith said. "(The program) wasn't in good shape a year ago."

Smith was ready to retire in 2021, he said, but he couldn't leave the program in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor could he leave it after finishing 14th and 18th at the NCAA Championships in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

I wanted to grind it out, be in a better place and hand it over," Smith said. "This team this year made me the most satisfied I've ever been as a coach. They wrapped their arms around Oklahoma State wrestling, and it took them all to another level and not everybody has that. I damn sure didn't start that. I sure helped to keep it."

The most difficult thing about trying to memorialize Smith's career is figuring out which accomplishments to exclude because there are too many to list.

This is the byproduct of the impossible standard he set over 33 seasons. He made victory routine, to the point where top 5 finishes at the national tournament were the norm and Big 12 championships were the expectation.

He became a picture on the wall of Gallagher-Iba Arena that kids today want to be when they grow up and the man any future OSU wrestling coach will be compared to, as unfair as that may be.

Smith said the next coach will be successful only if he embraces the pressure that comes with the job.

"I never was afraid of it. It drove me. It excited me. It gave me a reason to do what I was doing," he said. "That's what this program gives you."

That's also what he hopes the Smith era's legacy will be.

He didn't make Oklahoma State wrestling what it is today, he said. It made him into the man he is.

"That's really how I want people to know me and the way I go out: as part of something that was incredible," Smith said. "I got to be a part of the legacy. I got to be part of something that when you get your ass knocked down, it's a lot easier to get up because of the program around you."