Mr. Cowboy: How John Smith said goodbye to Oklahoma State wrestling

Mr. Cowboy: How John Smith said goodbye to Oklahoma State wrestling

John Smith climbed through windows and ran stairs to achieve OSU wrestling greatness, which was celebrated Monday as he retired as the Cowboy coach.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Apr 16, 2024, 1:00pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Apr 16, 2024, 1:00pm CDT

Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.

STILLWATER — Sometimes walking through Gallagher-Iba Arena, John Smith will gaze at the stairs on the east side.

The stairs he would run at 2 a.m., because somewhere in Russia it was 4 p.m., and he hated the Soviets, and he couldn’t stand to think the Russian wrestlers were working out while he was resting. So Smith would climb through an old Gallagher Hall training room window, which he often cracked open earlier in the day, and start running those steps.

Smith hated those steps. He wouldn’t run them all year long. Just in the six to eight weeks before big competitions.

Decades later, even in the middle of matches while coaching OSU for 33 seasons, Smith would catch his eyes wandering to those eastside stairs.

“Such a long memory over a lot of years,” Smith said. “Six years. It gave me the edge. We’re all looking for that edge. It gave me the edge”

The ultimate Cowboy, Mr. OSU Athletics, America’s most decorated wrestler for more than three decades, finally lost his edge Monday.

The man who conquered all those witching-hour stairs didn’t even make it down the aisle of the Boone Pickens Stadium team room. As family and friends and colleagues rose to their feet, applauding in honor of a 40-year Cowboy, Smith stopped and wiped his eyes.

He looked over at his mother, 90-year-old Madeline Smith, and said, “Hey, Mom, you can’t start crying.”

Before his retirement press conference even began, Smith was stopped by emotion. Powerless to go on. Smith finally knows how his rivals felt when he was winning six straight world or Olympic gold medals, mostly with a low-single-leg takedown that turned him into a wrestling phenom and eventually the ultimate OSU icon.

Usually stoic, often plain-spoken, always committed to doing what was right. Nothing pretentious about John Smith, right down to his name.

He’s the greatest of Cowboys. The ultimate champion and a 33-year coach who led OSU to five NCAA team titles? In a sport near and dear to all things Stillwater?

Who can match that legacy? John Smith is Henry Iba and Bob Kurland combined. Smith trumps Eddie Sutton and Mike Gundy and Mike Holder.

OSU athletic director Chad Weiberg told of being a junior-high kid, his dad on Paul Hansen’s basketball staff, and going to wrestling matches at Gallagher, sitting on the old wooden bleachers, circa 1985, and watching Smith compete. 

Weiberg didn’t know much about wrestling, “but even with that, I knew then that I was watching greatness,” Weiberg said.

“Fast forward to now, and through the years, when we would have regular meetings about normal things, he would get up from the table and he would leave the office and I would be like, ‘Holy hell, that was John Smith.’”

The only athletic statues on campus are Barry Sanders and Boone Pickens. Smith should be next (should have been first?), but it might not be wise to put it up while Smith still is walking Planet Earth. He’s liable to reach in on one of those bronze ankles and send it toppling to the ground. The Soviets know the feeling.

But Smith didn’t spend Monday talking about his effect on OSU. Smith spent Monday talking about OSU’s effect on him.

“I didn’t make it, it made me,” Smith said of his alma mater. “I got to be a part of something that was incredible. 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.

“I sure didn’t start that, but I for darn sure helped to keep it. I feel really blessed that my whole career here — as a young kid, as a student-athlete and as a coach — I feel blessed that I’ve been a part of something that I get to always be a part of.”

Smith, 58, talked of walking into Gallagher Hall at age 10, when his first hero, older brother, Leroy III, had signed with OSU and launched the Smith family’s Cowboy roots. Along the Gallagher halls hung ancient photos of past Cowboy champions, sitting in 30-cent frames.

“Most beautiful thing I ever saw,” Smith said.

Those old-timers, some of whom Smith was blessed to meet as part of OSU’s unmatched wrestling tradition, motivated him that he, too, could get his picture on the wall.

Old Gallagher Hall — renovated in 1987 to Gallagher-Iba Arena, then expanded in 2000 — became Smith’s second home, to go with that house on 14th Street in Del City, where Leroy II and Madeline Smith raised 10 kids.

In that house, Smith learned aggression with his brothers and discipline from his parents.

Years ago, former OSU athletic director Harry Birdwell told me that of all the coaches he encountered over decades of Cowboy interaction, the coach he could count on the most to always — always — do things right was John Smith.

On Monday, I asked the ultimate Cowboy from where he got that trait.

“Right over there,” he said, pointing at Madeline Smith.

He calls his mom a “rattlesnake.” He means it.

Leroy II, who died in 2019, and Madeline raised their kids in the Catholic faith. 

“It’s easier to be successful when you know there’s something way better than yourself,” Smith said. “My mom and dad taught us how to keep the balance. So that balance is the difference.”

At OSU, Smith ended up coaching two of his brothers, two of his sons and three of his nephews. When the Cowboys’ passionate fan base occasionally would get riled up at their coach, Smith was unwavered.

“When you’re growing up in a family of wrestlers, and you’ve got a rattlesnake for a mother, and my nephews or my sons or my brothers are losing and you’re the coach … you can’t say anything that she hadn’t said,” Smith said.

Anyway, old Gallagher became Smith’s second home. He’d go up for his brother’s duals, even slept there during summer camps, learned to fine-tune his wrestling skills under then-OSU coach Tommy Chesbro.

Chesbro helped Smith develop that low-single-leg, a move that Smith holds in reverance.

“He really gave me the vision of skill and technique,” Smith said. “If he didn’t give me that vision, there would not be a low-single-leg. That’s literally — for those of you that know — bought me everything. It’s bought me my house. It’s bought me my barn. It’s bought me my other barn. It’s bought me my beautiful truck. The low-single-leg paved my way. Literally, they couldn’t stop it.

“It was that vision that Chesbro gave me. What a man. What a great man.”

Oklahoma State University wrestling coach John Smith poses for a photo during OSU Media Day at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla., Friday, Oct. 26, 2007. BY MATT STRASEN, The Oklahoman ORG XMIT: KOD

John Smith at OSU Media Day in October 2007 (Matt Strasen/The Oklahoman Archives/USA Today Sports Network)

Smith speaks truth. He stopped his flood of memories to bash his beloved university for firing Chesbro.

Then-athletic director Myron Roderick, himself a former NCAA-title-winning OSU wrestling coach, fired Chesbro in 1984 after back-to-back national runnerup seasons and an active 43-dual winning streak.

“Silly things are done sometimes,” Smith said. “The most silly thing that ever happened here at Oklahoma State was losing him as a coach.”

That’s John Smith. No corners cut. No gloss allowed.

Smith’s final few seasons have been less than stellar. The Cowboys have fallen competitively, and some off-mat issues have plagued the program.

But the 2024 season was better; OSU rose to the No. 2 ranking, was a tremendous dual team and attracted more than 14,000 fans for a showdown against Iowa. The Cowboys were not a robust tournament team and placed 10th nationally in the NCAAs, but the roster is fortified, and Coleman Scott should have a fighting chance to revive the OSU glory.

Scott, a former Cowboy NCAA champion, returned to Stillwater a year ago as Smith’s chief lieutenant and is the presumptive choice to succeed him.

“I think everybody sees John as intense, and every part of his competitiveness comes out,” Scott said. “We get to see that other side a little bit.

“His heart’s bigger than anybody ever knows. This guy will take care of you, care for you, never going to falter on any of that. And that’s the biggest thing I can take away from him. His heart’s there, always.”

Smith admitted he’s been thinking retirement. The new reality of name/image/likeness and the transfer spirit that has spread across all sports has weighed down many a coach. 

“I don’t know if I could ever stand up here and say, after finishing 10th and you’re Oklahoma State wrestling, you had a good season,” Smith said. “I don’t think I could have done that five, 10, 20 years ago.

“It was time. Maybe I’m getting softer. You gotta be intense. Most of my mistakes as a coach is when I let my guard down. Start feeling sorry for student-athletes, usually it’s a bad thing. But the way the world of college athletics is right now, you better not be too intense on ‘em, they’ll run off and cry. That is true. Every coach out there knows it. I’ll just say it because I’m leaving.”

Smith said his mission for several years has been to get the program back into a stronger position. Any school outside the Big Ten — heck, any school outside perennially potent Penn State — will be hard-pressed to challenge for an NCAA championship.

But Smith believes the program is back on solid ground.

There are people like Madeline and Leroy Smith, still raising kids to do right. And in the royal building we once called Gallagher Hall, there are ancient photos to view, windows to crack and stairs to climb.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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