NCAA Wrestling: Smith Looks Confident

There were seven coaches sitting on the podium Wednesday afternoon as selected head coaches answered questions from the media on the eve of the 2006 NCAA Wrestling Championships in the Ford Center in downtown Oklahoma City. The coaches included Mark Johnson of Illinois, Mark Manning of Nebraska, Joe McFarland of Michigan, J. Robinson of Minnesota, Jack Spates of Oklahoma, and Greg Strobel of Lehigh. The other coach - and the one all of the others were watching - was Oklahoma State's John Smith.

Smith, the greatest wrestler in U.S. history, is the coach of the three-time defending champions and his Cowboys are a favorite to win it again this time in his hometown. Smith even joked about a statue in front of his high school in nearby Del City saying he felt the sculptor cheated him on his arms, making them too skinny. Rival Minnesota coach J. Robinson, who brings in this season's top-ranked team in the Gophers, said he thought the sculptor made Smith's arms too big. Robinson and all the coaches know that Smith's arms are big enough for another trophy and that is their fear.

Minnesota has eight wrestlers in Oklahoma City. Illinois has all 10 of its starters. Michigan, Lehigh and Oklahoma are loaded in number too.

The Cowboys have four returning individual champions back, along with a returning All-American and two other wrestlers with the potential to score big among their nine qualifiers. Every coach on the podium said that OSU is the team to beat, and Smith is not denying that favorite role. It is a role he relishes for his team.

"We have had a lot of adversity this season," said Smith. "I think our returning champions came in thinking they would go unbeaten and win it again, but they found out that wasn't going to be the case. I think all of them have taken on the adversity head on and I like the way we have worked for this. I still don't think we have wrestled our best this season and that is a good thing because I am looking forward to seeing it in Oklahoma City at the NCAA."

It is also huge that the Championships are in Oklahoma City for the Cowboys Johny Hendricks, who is seeded second but should be the top seed at 165 pounds. He grew up just 10 miles away from the Ford Center, and ran and trained on many rainy days pushing for the chance to win a national title in front of the people he cares about the most.

"Sure, I have always thought of this, winning the NCAA in my hometown," said Hendricks. "There is nothing that can ever take anything away from the first time you win it, but winning it in your hometown in front of all your friends and family is real close. I can't wait to stand on that podium. It will be a big thrill to look up in the corwd and see so many people you know."

The ingredients are there for Oklahoma State to win number four. Smith even hinted since the NCAA Championships are in Oklahoma City for the first time since 1992 this could be the last time he coaches OSU in an NCAA Championships held so close to home.

"That's a long time, 14 years, and I may not have the chance to do this again," Smith said of coaching in the NCAA Championships in his home state. "I'm not trying to start rumors, but I believe that we have a great opportunity to do this and we had better do everything in our power to take advantage of it."

Cowboy fans have three hopes this weekend at the Ford Center: first, that OSU wins; second, that the NCAA Championships come back to Oklahoma a little sooner than 14 years from now; and finally, that the 37-year-old Smith is around coaching the Cowboys many yeaers to come, and again when the NCAA Championships return to Oklahoma City.

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