I planned on publishing this after the national tournament to gain a better understanding of the team and potential over the next few years. But alas, COVID-19 thwarted my plans.
So during quarantine, I've been working on the future of #Tigerstyle. I'd love feedback, criticism, debate, whatever. But without sports, we have plenty of time to discuss what it will take to get us a national championship.
Introduction: Mizzou wrestling is the top program at the University and has been for several years. If you made a Mount Rushmore of Mizzou Men’s athletes, J’den Cox and Ben Askren would be absolute locks. The current problem facing the team is stagnation. Here is our placing at the NCAA tournament over the last five years: 6th, 6th, 5th, 6th, 4th. By all means, we are one of the top programs in the country. We have young studs like Brock Mauller and arguably the Top Pound-for-Pound wrestler in the world with Mr. Cox. We have a good problem: Finding a way to go from a Top 5 program to a national championship.
Coach Brian Smith, in his 22nd year, has won everything. Individual national champions, Hodge Winners, National Duals Winner, Olympians, all-time attendance records and the list goes on-and-on. The one thing missing is a NCAA National Title. This is a report from yours truly and how I think Mizzou can achieve that. The competition is absolutely brutal with traditional powers like Iowa and Oklahoma St. along with new challengers with Ohio St., Penn St. and Cornell providing a tough landscape to stand atop the podium.
Mizzou can get there, I fundamentally believe that, but it’s going to take a combination of financial support, Olympic success, top recruiting and great coaching. Let’s go through strengths & weaknesses.
Coaching - The past year has seen some of the biggest changes at #Tigerstyle in several years with Coach Smith replacing both his top two lieutenants in Alex Clemsen - hired as Maryland head coach - and Joe Johnston - promoted to assistant HC at Air Force - moving on to new ventures. Mike Eierman also moved from Missouri RTC to another RTC in the Northeast. We replaced them with Tyrel Todd and Kendric Maple, both extremely accomplished guys. Maple, especially, was a big time hire. He took the same position at Mizzou that he had at Nebraska and Coach Smith said he put on the full-court press to lure him.
Oh, and we added notable alum Dom Bradley as another coach to help develop Zach Elam and make one last run at the Olympics. Todd is highly regarded as a recruiter with national ties and brought in multiple Top 15 overall recruits to Purdue; a school with virtually zero advantages over us. While change is hard and how the coaches gel over the next few years is TBD, we needed a change. The old coaching staff has gotten us to the edge, but not over it, for whatever reason. Mostly one….
Recruiting - Everyone’s favorite topic! So I’m aiming to keep this section relatively short because I’ve thought, read and listened to how wrestling recruiting works. Basically, it’s much different than basketball and football. The main reason is Mizzou has a max 9.9 scholarships to work with. Yes, you read that right. So there are 10 starters every season, but only 9.9 scholarships. Pretty easy to deduce not every wrestler is on a full-ride. Sure some are, but many are some type of reduced scholarship. But, here’s the good thing: Wrestling recruiting is much more straightforward than basketball or football. Unlike football where the top kids rarely compete directly with each other, or basketball with its flawed AAU system, wrestling recruiting is pretty clear. The top kids travel all across the country competing against each other at major tournaments. Depending how they place, they are ranked roughly in that slot. Now of course there is projection, consideration of behavioral or academic problems and higher value placed on speciality weights (Think 125lb and heavyweight). But it’s much easier to understand than other sports. So where does Mizzou stack-up? Improving, but not there yet.
What’s really changed over the last several years in college recruiting is that the upper-echelon of kids has really separated from the tier below them. What do I mean? The #1 ranked kids in their respective classes and weights are becoming more valuable because the distance between #1 and #2 is widening. I don’t have an exact reason for this, nor have I heard any convincing argument explaining this, but I believe it has to do something with the top kids being identified earlier. With that identification, they are sent to international competitions, get hands-on coaching from top amateur and college coaches and are generally becoming ultra blue-chip or Six Star recruits onto themselves. No one has taken advantage of that arbitrage better than Penn St. Don’t worry, I’ll get into recruiting versus our top competitors later, but I wanted to lay the groundwork.
The good news is Coach Brian Smith recognizes that and has made major progress. At the end of last season, Coach Smith and roughly a dozen folks sat around and brainstormed how to reach the summit. The consensus was securing more ultra elite recruits. Recruiting rankings are hard to find more than a decade ago, but during the last 10 years, Mizzou has gotten 1 ultra elite recruit: J’den Cox. To be more specific, before this current recruiting haul, Mizzou has only gotten 1 Top 30 recruit, which was Cox.
Coach Smith turned Mizzou into a power by taking unheralded or overlooked recruits and turning them into national champions. Think Lavion Mayes, Drake Houdashelt and Mark Ellis. That’s changing starting next year. We are signing the #2 recruiting class in the country, including two #1 recruits, and that follows the 2018 recruiting class that ranked #7 in the country. It’s a big sign that Mizzou is seen as a national power and recruits are noticing.
Here’s a great illustration showing the Big Board rankings of the top recruits in Mizzou history:
Keegan O’Toole - #2 (Incoming freshman)
J’den Cox - #7
Rocky Elam - #15 (Incoming Freshman)
Jaydin Eierman - #35
Daniel Lewis & Alan Waters - Both around 35-40 depending on the ranker.
Josh Edmond - #41 (Incoming Freshman)
As you can tell, when Mizzou has gotten top recruits, they have panned out. Now they are getting three bonafide studs in Rocky, Keegan and Josh. Particular, Elam and O’Toole, both guys have elite ability and along with the 2018 class, provide Mizzou with Top 100 recruits at every single weight. Keep scrolling to see where I think these guys will wrestle and what my expectations are for them.
Prestige - Similar to football and basketball, certain programs have blue-blood status that attracts donors, coaching and wrestling talent. Those traditional programs start with Iowa and Oklahoma St. Others, like Oklahoma, Iowa St. and Minnesota have for different reasons dropped over the past decade. While those programs have suffered, Mizzou, Cornell, Ohio St. and especially Penn St., have filled their place.
To me, prestige is an intangible quality with tangible results. What do I mean? When I say Ben Askren & J’den Cox, those two are bigger than Mizzou wrestling, but represent them. They are the tangible product of #Tigerstyle and something people can articulate on why Mizzou is a elite spot for wrestling. That doesn’t count the doctors, lawyers, national champions, engineers, teachers, etc. that forms the Mizzou wrestling family and the support system.
But ultimately for prestige, you need royalty, and Mizzou wrestling has arguably two of the most impactful wrestlers of all-time in Askren & Cox. That gives us a lot of name recognition and ability to recruit nationally. John Smith at Oklahoma St. is seen as the greatest American wrestler and uses his name along with Oklahoma St. history to grab nationally ranked recruits from New Jersey to California. Penn St. with Cael Sanderson does the same thing.Coach Brian Smith doesn’t himself have the gold medals and Mizzou was a bottom-dweller for years, but now with Askren & Cox, we are a prestigious college wrestling program.
University Support - This is where Mizzou really shines. People can complain about our conference (I have more on the topic below), but joining the SEC provides us a monster budget to fully support the wrestling program. Not much needs to be said, but even some schools in the powerful Big Ten don’t have the same support as Mizzou wrestling. From a budget perspective, I struggled to find accurate numbers, but we are clearly in the Top 7-10 from an annual budgetary standpoint.
Facilities - I wish I could show this video, but it’s paywalled. Nevertheless, trust me when I say Mizzou has upper-echelon facilities. We have a dedicated weight-room and training facility, which few programs nationally can say. We have SEC money paired with a good donor base, equaling zero issue here. The only way I could Mizzou improve in this area is if the university bulldozed the Hearnes Center and constructed a dedicated wrestling facility similar to the softball fields. But honestly, that’s probably not possible and wouldn’t guarantee that the facilities upgrade would significantly enhance the program.
Conference - This negative has softened in the last year. Adding a bunch of Pennsylvania and East Coast schools to the MAC was a great choice and really enhanced the conference. The real issue is the growing dominance of the Big Ten. Big Ten wrestling is like SEC, ACC and Big 12 football combined. And that’s not an exaggeration. Kids want big crowds and top competition and that works against us. There is nothing we can realistically do. Yes, would the Big12 allowing us to rejoin as a wrestling program help, probably. But even the Big12 schools have dropped off besides Oklahoma St. Of the Top 10 ranked teams this season, 5 were in the Big Ten. So far, joining the MAC hasn’t impacted us and Coach Smith schedules the top programs across the country. Look at this past year, we wrestled Oklahoma St., Iowa St., Cornell, Lehigh, Virginia Tech, Arizona St., Northern Iowa and several good MAC schools. The issue is as the Big Ten dominance grows, the conference is attracting more top-end recruits and it becomes a virtuous cycle. Outside of individual teams doing well in other conferences, it’s hard to see use mitigating this weakness.
Homegrown Talent - This is a negative and positive depending on your vantage point. As a negative, Missouri simply doesn’t produce elite talent year-in and year-out like Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey or California. Coach Smith has done a remarkable job sealing the borders and allowing very few top kids leave the state. Even those who leave like Connor Brown or Connor Flynn typically transfer back after a few years. The positive news is that the state of Missouri has really improved from a high school perspective over the past 20 years and is beginning to produce those upper-echelon kids. This year alone, 5 kids were Top 100 recruits, including 3 in the Top 25. That’s awesome. But there are currently no Top 25 kids for the 2021 or 2022 classes. Basically, Missouri wrestling talent is similar to basketball/football in that we produce elite kids, but inconsistently and talent is sporadically distributed throughout the state.
Conclusion: I’ve included a chart projecting line-ups over the next few years to better illustrate my last point. I believe Mizzou will be a national championship caliber team in 2021-2022. The team will consist of 7 upper-classmen and 3 super freshmen in O’Toole, Elam, Edmond and potentially Hawks. In many ways, it will resemble the 2014-2015 team that was a healthy mix of seniors and talented youngsters. Next year - if Coach Smith redshirts all incoming freshmen - will be a year to watch the development of Hart, Zach Elam, Kent and Mocco. Big questions include how does Connor Brown look at 125? Can we find a 125lb wrestler that can earn points at nationals; something we haven’t had since 2016. Overall, with our recruiting improvement, top marks in facilities, prestige, coaching and university support, I truly believe we are right there. Is our competition fierce? Absolutely. But we had a chance in 2014-2015 and I believe the next few seasons will provide another opening to get that elusive national championship.