John Smith spoke with the media earlier this week for the final time this season. His comments were interesting, to say the least. You can watch the video and read some of the comments here.
“I think years like this helps you really reevaluate things,” said Smith. “We need to think about NIL. We need to think about what direction we can go in. I’m behind in it. I’ve avoided, I didn’t like it, you know, and it’s here. It’s not going to change. … You’ve got to be a little ahead of it a little bit. I’m behind it. It’s my fault. The portal, a lot of things.”
This year the Cowboys finished with their second-worst NCAA tournament finish in program history.
My DMs on social media are filled with comments asking how the Cowboys got here and what can they do moving forward to fix things? I wrote a piece in February exploring some of the contributing factors to why OSU is in its second-longest NCAA title drought in program history, but to expand on that a little I thought I’d dissect this season a bit and look at what the Cowboys could reevaluate this offseason.
The number one factor for Oklahoma State’s struggles in this specific season has been injuries. You can’t lose an NCAA champion to a midseason car accident and have any realistic shot at repeating the performance from the prior year. You also can’t have multiple All-Americans fighting through injuries into the postseason and expect them to wrestle at the level they’re capable of.
Although injuries certainly aren’t all controllable, this does raise some questions about why Oklahoma State can’t ever seem to stay healthy in the postseason. In the past 10 years, there are so many Cowboys that struggled with injuries it’s hard not to feel like something may be managed wrong with it. Alan Gelogaev’s injury woes played a factor in multiple seasons where the Cowboys were NCAA title contenders. Albert White, Josh Kindig, Preston Weigel, Boo Lewallen, Wyatt Sheets, Travis Wittlake, Anthony Montalvo and many more have had similar struggles.
Although the staff and team can’t directly prevent every single injury, there has to be some level of evaluation as to why Oklahoma State can’t seem to stay healthy and what could be adjusted to make that happen.
2. NIL and Transfer Portal
John Smith openly stated that he’s going to look at NIL more, and though he’s called the transfer portal “a joke,” it is another piece I’ll include here because it ties in. It’s something OSU has to dive into to be successful in the new landscape of college wrestling and college sports.
If you go back and look at last season, Iowa finished first, Penn State finished second and the Cowboys finished third. This year Penn State jumped back into first, Michigan took second and Iowa fell to third.
Was this a case of Penn State and Michigan getting back in the room, evaluating things, outcoaching and outworking Oklahoma State and Iowa and taking them over? That’s what some would like you to think, but that’s not even remotely the case.
OSU and Iowa suffered injuries to their NCAA champions, which can’t be ignored, but what these two teams did to overtake Iowa and OSU is they both went out and grabbed NCAA champions and All-Americans off the transfer market.
Penn State really didn’t improve dramatically at any single weight compared to last season with wrestlers they already had in the room. Their guys that won last year did it again, and their middle-of-the-road guys stayed roughly the same. But they went and grabbed an All-American graduate transfer with some eligibility left at 125 and a former NCAA finalist off the transfer portal to slot in at 197.
Michigan, in many spots in their lineup, took a step back from previous seasons. Their HWT went from being a finalist last season to finishing fifth this year. The 141, who is a former All-American, didn’t place. But they went out and brought in a former NCAA champion to slot in at 125 and got another transfer from a top 197 that allowed them to switch up their lineup and become a bit stronger across the board. They didn’t outperform, outwork, or outdo the Oklahoma State or Iowa coaches. They did their work on the transfer/graduate market. And OSU coaches have to do that if they want to keep up in the current wrestling landscape.
3. Wrestling Promotion
I’ve said this for three years now. You can go back to an article I wrote in 2018 to dig into some of the numbers that reflect what I’m talking about.
But OSU just does not “push” wrestling like it should. Again, you can look at the data in the article, but minimal social media promotion, minimal staffing for their wrestling media team, and much more just isn’t something that’s going to get the word out about your program. It’s not a hard product to sell if you just put a little effort into that element of it.
I don’t know how Smith changes this since it’s not really directly under his control, but it has to improve.
4. Regional Training Center
I’ve actually talked to a number of people directly involved in this, and I would expect to see some things improve on this front soon. But this is something that OSU is behind on comparative to the Penn States of the world. Penn State has six Olympians training on its campus right now, and OSU doesn’t have any.
You go back 20 years ago and the start of OSU’s four-straight NCAA titles, there were three training in Stillwater via the Gator Wrestling Club. It’s impossible to say that those guys didn’t help OSU during their run. The RTC needs to be on a footing where top guys train in Stillwater. It helps recruit and gives programs elite training partners for their athletes. In the current landscape of college wrestling, a healthy RTC is crucial. But again, I do think we’ll see more movement on this soon.
In closing, I’ve seen banter on Twitter, some directed at me, saying that people are “haters” or aren’t “Loyal and True” for criticizing the finish to this season and the current NCAA title drought. That’s simply not the case. Few people, and certainly no true “fans,” are out here criticizing the efforts of the coaches or athletes. No one thinks they aren’t giving their best effort.
But as Smith is saying, some things need to be reevaluated. And I think for fans, it’s refreshing to hear that, and I hope that it will improve moving forward.
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