BRIAN SMITH

Missouri head wrestling coach Brian Smith runs through drills Wednesday in the first-ever Brian Smith Wrestling Camp at West Carteret. (Zack Nally photo)

MOREHEAD CITY — The “Tiger Style” way of life came to the Crystal Coast this week in the first-ever Brian Smith Wrestling Camp.

The University of Missouri wrestling coach is putting on a four-day camp this week at West Carteret High School, where his cousin Kevin Smith is the coach. Typically, the Patriot coach accompanies a dozen or more West wrestlers to the Tiger Style Wrestling Camp at Mizzou. This year, Brian Smith returned the favor and traveled over 1,000 miles to Morehead City.

“We were sitting in the dorm room at Missouri last year,” Brian Smith said, “talking about the adventure it is of bringing 15 or so kids across the country. I said, ‘Hey why don’t I come out there for a change.’ I’ve never been to his home in North Carolina, so it became a thing.”

The 22-year Missouri head coach brings with him a wealth of knowledge and experience in the sport. The Tigers of Columbia, Mo. are a perennial Division I powerhouse, finishing the 2018-2019 season with a 16-1 mark in duals. Smith has the most wins (283-94-3) and highest winning percentage (.744) in program history.

The Tigers finished sixth this past season at the NCAA Wrestling Championships with four wrestlers earning All-American honors, including true freshman Brock Mauller (149 pounds), redshirt junior Jaydin Eierman (141) and redshirt seniors Daniel Lewis (174) and John Erneste (133).

It was the program’s fourth straight NCAA top-10 finish, the eighth under Smith and ninth overall. The four All-Americans marked the seventh time in program history the Tigers have recorded four or more All-Americans, including the last three straight years. Missouri recorded five All-Americans in 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2017 and four in 2016.

“(He’s) a top-10 Division I coach,” Kevin Smith said. “(The camp) is a great opportunity for this area. It can only help our area and help our wrestlers get better.”

The camp, which started Tuesday and ends today, is catering to close to 50 kids ranging from third-graders to seniors in high school. Brian Smith was joined by his cousin, Kevin, and recent graduates from West, including Dustin Smith, Will Newbern, Will Willis and Micah Dixon.

Also in attendance on Tuesday was Gordy Patrick who built a powerhouse wrestling program over a 19-year span from 1965-1984. Patrick, also a former longtime principal at West, was named in 2016 to the N.C. Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and then the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2018 Hall of Fame class.

“I was walking through the school’s hallway looking at all the state champs,” Brian Smith said. “There were 30 state champions, and 14 of them were wrestlers. That was really impressive. I wondered who coached all those guys back in the day because they were pretty good. It was cool to meet (Patrick).”

After Patrick, numerous West state champions were also produced by former head coach Dan Varner.

Once on the mat, Smith delivered a curriculum focused on drilling, learning technique, live wrestling, team-building exercises, special instructions and talks on weight training, nutrition and sports psychology.

“The first day we worked on being on our feet,” Brian Smith said. “Three things can happen: a guy is going to reach and you’re going to go under it, a guy could grab your head and you have to take it off, or a guy can shoot and you can score off his shot. It was a lot of stuff on their feet, understanding what your opponent can do and how to score off it.”

Smith’s relentless drilling stems from a fastidious system able to be applied to wrestlers ranging from novices to experienced varsity state qualifiers.

“There are a few out there that are just learning,” Brian Smith said. “But I teach this in a systematic way with a step one and a step two and so on and so forth. One builds off the last one and then on to the next one.”

The extra time with campers also afforded the instructors the ability to focus on often-overlooked techniques.

“(On Wednesday), we did all bottom stuff,” Brian Smith said. “Kids at this level often struggle with that. That’s not to discount coaches in high school, they have to worry about kids getting scores first and they only have them for so many months. Bottom is something that gets left behind sometimes.”

Toward the end of the camp, including today, the focus will turn to top scoring where schools like Missouri thrive.

“We’ll work on top and their technique for putting people on their backs, which is something we strive at in Missouri,” Brian Smith said. “We take pride in taking people down and keeping them down. It’s a mindset of our program.”

The camp also focuses on “Tiger Style,” which is character-based living on and off the mat. The way of living, coined and copyrighted by Smith for the Mizzou wrestling program only, is built on four core foundations – “believe, compete, one more and “expect to win.”

Brian Smith came to Missouri in 1998 when the school was still a “safety school” for prospective college wrestlers looking for a Division I spot. He would fill a spot vacated by Wes Roper while Athletic Director Joe Castiglione bolted for Oklahoma. Smith, a Long Island, N.Y. native, had no connections with the Midwest other than his four-year college stint at Michigan State.

According to a story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the other finalists for the head coaching job were Missouri assistant coach Gil Sanchez and USA National Freestyle coach Bruce Burnett. When the school hired Smith, the Columbia Daily Tribune received a fax, blasting the program for hiring an unknown, written by a wrestler for the Tigers.

“People didn’t think the choice of Brian was the right choice when we made it,” then-Mizzou selection committee chair Peter Fields said in the article. “I got phone calls from people who stated their displeasure. But we stayed the course. I knew it would be successful. He’s made himself and his program. He’s taken the opportunity and made the best of it. I’m really proud of him.”

Smith had his work cut out for him in the Big 12, where he would face legendary coaches such as Bobby Douglas at Iowa State, John Smith at Oklahoma State, Tim Neumann at Nebraska and Jack Spates at Oklahoma who he coached under at Cornell.

“People were laughing at me when I said we were going to win the Big 12,” he said. “They were like, ‘Whatever. This guy’s crazy. He doesn’t know who’s in the Big 12.’ ”

This year, the Tigers won the MAC for the seventh straight conference championship, including a Big 12 title in 2011-2012, the last year the school would be part of the conference. The other Mizzou sports compete in the SEC.

Smith came to Missouri straight from Syracuse where he spent one year as head coach trying to keep the program from elimination. He coached five years at Cornell, where he put together two of the nation’s top-10 recruiting classes, a feat he accomplished without athletic scholarships as Ivy League schools do not award them. At the 1994 NCAA champions, Cornell grappler David Hirsch became the school’s first national champion since 1960.

His first coaching gig was at Western High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. From 1991-1992, Smith led the school to its first top-10 finish at the state tournament, finishing second in 1991 and fourth in 1992. There, he coached two state champions and led five wrestlers to top finishes at the Florida state tournament.

Smith attended high school in Fort Lauderdale, but often spent time at Kevin Smith’s house with his brothers in Long Island, as wrestling ran strong in that family. Kevin Smith’s brother, Joe, is the head coach at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va.. His brother, Pat, is the athletic director and former longtime wrestling coach at Smithtown East in St. James, N.Y., and his brother, Pete, is a former wrestling coach at T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va.

While not a Smith sibling, Brian Smith may as well have been Kevin Smith’s fourth little brother.

“He used to come to our house and spend summers with us,” Smith said. “He was seven years younger than me, so it was like having another little brother. That’s where he learned to wrestle.”

Brian Smith found wrestling to be a refreshing change from the mass accountability found in most ball sports.

“In wrestling, you control your own destiny,” he said. “You have to rely on a lot of other people when you’re playing a team sport like football or basketball. I was a hard-working kid when I was playing sports, but I had the bad luck of being on some bad teams. It was frustrating. Then I got into wrestling, and I realized I could be pretty good on my own, with help from my teammates in practice.”

Brian Smith was a two-time state champion at Oviedo High School in Orlando and then at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale.

Kevin Smith came down his junior year to help him refine his technique, or Brian would come to his house in Long Island.

“My cousin was so kind to do that, even though he had just gotten married and he was busy working a lot,” Brian Smith said. “He took his free time to help me develop my technique. I owe a lot to Kevin.”

Brian Smith went on to attend Michigan State where he was a three-time All-Big Ten wrestler and a four-time letterman. He was voted the program’s Most Outstanding Wrestler as a senior, with his best finish a second place at 126 pounds in 1990.

While at Missouri, Smith has coached five wrestlers with a combined eight national championships. The legacy began with Ben Askren,who won the program’s first back-to-back national championship titles in 2006 and 2007. On Wednesday, in a roundtable discussion about coaching with area coaches – including New Bern head coach Jamie Yezarski, Northside-Jacksonville head coach Eric Frazier and Morehead Middle head coach Kenny Watts – Smith used Askren as an example of the success undersized grapplers can achieve.

“He was an awful athlete when he got to us,” he said. “He couldn’t bench his weight, he couldn’t climb a rope, and he was a top recruit in the country. But he had developed a style from his weakness. People would run him over, and so he learned to scramble better than just about anyone.”

Brian Smith also coached national champions Mark Ellis (2009), Max Askren (2010), Drake Houdashelt (2015) and three-time champ J’den Cox (2014, 2016, 2017). Ben Askren and Cox both wrestled in the Olympics, with Askren competing in Beijing in 2008 and Cox in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Smith also used Cox as an example of size versus technique.

“He came in doing some things wrong, but he was so explosive. He was running over everyone,” Smith said. “He started improving his technique, and next thing you know, he was unstoppable.”

Smith expounded upon his technique-prioritized recruiting philosophy: “It’s a physical chess match. That’s what this is. Once you start learning the tactics and the techniques, you’re unstoppable. When I’m recruiting a wrestler, I don’t look for the biggest bruiser. You look for the undersized kid who out-techniques everyone because he’s had to.  Imagine how good he’ll be when he gets those muscles.”

At the coaching roundtable, Smith emphasized the “Tiger Style” way of teaching as well as the importance of making an impact in the lives of young student-athletes. He also alluded that wrestling isn’t for everyone, but those who pursue it will find useful life skills that can be applied in any situation.

“It’s not for everyone,” he said. “This area has a lot of military bases nearby. The military is not for everyone. But the people who go in it often become very special people. They have a commitment and a purpose. The military guys love to recruit wrestlers because they already share that mentality.”

Neither Kevin or Brian Smith are sure if the camp will continue next year. If it does, it’s a good bet there will be West alums there, including the incoming seniors who attended the camp – Ariana Wolkerstorfer, Manuel Jaurequi, Jake Reynolds and Clayton Wilson.

“It’s a great sign for our program,” Kevin Smith said. “Kids that have graduated want to come back. They bring a level of youth and maturity to it that we as coaches can’t have. They talk to the kids as older peers about the challenges that lie ahead of them. I was very proud to see our 2019 graduates. They’re headed off to college soon, and they took the time to come out here. They’re here the entire camp helping out the little guys, and they’re doing a great job.”

The Patriots got all the technique training they could ask for over the course of the week, but the competition side of the Tiger Style Wrestling Camp in Missouri was still missed. The Mizzou-hosted camp featured 550 wrestlers from 29 states with 40 teams last year.

“We do miss the competition side of it, but we get all technique with Brian here,” Kevin Smith said. “I think in the future I might try to couple this with a trip to a competitive tournament.”

Kevin Smith made the move to Carteret County in 2008, while his youngest boys, Cody and Dustin, were still in middle school. Morehead City Middle School didn’t have a wrestling program at the time, so Smith took the helm.

The next year, Smith was helping West Carteret get its youth club program going and the following year (2010), Dan Varner came back to coach the Patriots and tabbed Smith as his assistant before retiring again in 2014. Smith has led the Patriots to 3A Coastal Conference championships the last two years.

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