OSU wrestling: Smith juggles building dynasty with limited scholarships

OSU Wrestling vs. Oklahoma 5

Oklahoma State's wrestling coach John Smith watches the action on the mat during OSU wrestling match vs. Oklahoma on Dec. 9, 2018. 

Coaching is easy for John Smith. 

The rest of his job? Not so much. 

Each year Smith, Oklahoma State’s wrestling coach, has to find a way to piece his team together with limited scholarships. The NCAA allows 9.9 scholarships per team in college wrestling. In comparison, Division 1 football programs have 85 full-ride scholarships. 

It’s a real challenge,” Smith said. “And it’s the worst part of my job. I hate it. Coaching’s easy. I hate that I have to cut someone, that I have to take some money away from someone, which I don’t do very often unless they’ve broken team rules. I hate to say no to walk-ons that say, ‘Hey, can you help me next year?’ They’ve been in the room every day busting their tails and they’ve added a value to our program and I gotta say no.”

Smith said having 9.9 scholarships forces OSU to put an emphasis on recruiting in-state athletes while also having multiple walk-ons. Smith said he and his staff stack wrestling scholarship money with academic money if the wrestler has good grades. He said he spends about 300 hours figuring out how he is going to distribute money for scholarships each year. 

Smith said Derek White, who is No. 2 at heavyweight, was a walk-on when he came to OSU. White wrestled his first two seasons at Nebraska before transferring. 

Smith also used Pat Smith, his brother, as an example. Pat Smith was the first wrestler to win four NCAA titles. Smith said he didn’t think Pat Smith was ever on full scholarship. 

“It’s a constant challenge, making it all work,” Smith said. 

Zack Esposito is in his 10th season as an assistant for the Cowboys and won a national title in 2005 at 149. Esposito is from Three Bridges, New Jersey, so he faced the challenge of paying for out-of-state tuition and fees, which have continually climbed during the past 10 years. The number of scholarships to give out, 9.9, has stayed the same despite higher tuition. 

“Even just a difference in 10 years at OSU, our out-of-state tuition has basically increased close to $1,000 every year,” Esposito said. “So, 10 years ago it was about $10,000 cheaper to come to OSU if you’re out of state.”

In 2009-10, out-of-state tuition and fees at OSU was $16,555.50 for 30 hours of classes, according to okhighered.org. Now, that number has risen to $27,130, according to OSU’s website.

Esposito said he never knew what percentage of scholarship he was on, but he knew how many classes he could take and how much money he would have to live on each month. 

Smith said the cost of out-of-state tuition makes it crucial he and his coaching staff know what they are getting when they offer an out-of-state wrestler. 

“You can’t make mistakes,” Smith said. “You make mistakes, it’s gonna show. We’ve made mistakes. You’re not gonna coach 28 years and get the right ones all the time. We’ve been pretty good on our choices. I will say, our in-state athletes have really been a real treat for us. Our local athletes that we’ve signed in the last three or four years have been really important to us.”

For Oklahoma native Kaden Gfeller, it didn’t matter who offered him, and how much it was. His mind was made up where he wanted to wrestle. 

“There’s probably other places that offered me more, full rides and what not, but really at the end of the day it came down to wrestling for coach Smith,” Gfeller said. “I didn’t even take any other official visits. I’ve always wanted to wrestle under coach Smith. I knew there was a lot of other good coaches, but in my opinion, the one that was gonna win me a national title was coach Smith. It really wasn’t a hard decision to make.”

The Cowboys have 19 wrestlers from Oklahoma on their roster, including six from Stillwater. Doug Chesbro is in his 31st year as coach of the Stillwater High School wrestling team where he has coached 29 individual state champions. Chesbro said the limited scholarships available in wrestling makes it tough on athletes, and sometimes pushes them away from the sport. 

“If you have an offer to go to a football program, who wouldn't take that full scholarship rather than just getting their books paid for?” Chesbro said. “You go play one of those other sports and you get it all taken care of. The money itself makes a decision for some of these kids."

Smith said being fair is tough when dealing with 9.9 scholarships. 

“It’s never fair,” Smith said. “Ultimately, you just hate that, at times, you don’t want your integrity in question with your student-athletes. Because really, there’s guys that’ve been national champions for Oklahoma State that’ve been on 40 percent scholarships and guys that might not have made the team on 50 or 60 percent because they came out of state.

“It’s not a fair system, and because of the system the way it is, I work really hard to make sure my athletes know I’m trying to make it as fair as I can. It’s really tough.”

For Tyler Caldwell, who is in his second season as the Cowboys’ recruiting coordinator, scholarships played a big role in his college decision. 

Out of high school, Caldwell wanted to wrestle for OSU, but it had no scholarships available at his weight. He went to OU, but after two years decided to transfer to OSU, where he was an All-American twice at 165.  

“We have a lot of kids that wanna come to Oklahoma State, but we may not need their weight,” Caldwell said. “That’s kind of the situation I was in when I was coming out of high school. They had guys at my weight. I ended up going to OU and after two years there I took an Olympic redshirt and things opened up here where I knew Oklahoma State had a need at my weight and I was looking to make a change. It worked out. It’s all part of my journey.”

Smith said he and his staff have missed out on many guys because of a lack of scholarship money but said everyone has to deal with it. 

“For us, when you’re going out and recruiting somebody in the East Coast and they have eight programs that’re offering them a full ride, and we’re offering them about 60 percent, you’re not going to win those guys,” Smith said.

Although Smith said dealing with scholarships is his least favorite part of his job, he said it isn’t all negative and teaches his wrestlers discipline. 

“We do without,” Smith said. “A lot of our guys do without a lot of times. Nobody’s on full scholarship, they’re not getting a big fat check every month. That’s not happening. They gotta manage their money, they gotta be smart with their money.

“We got a chance to help guys really grow and develop some skills and some habits that they will have to live with when they graduate.”