STILLWATER — John Smith has a bust in several Halls of Fame around the world, but the one he will enter this year has a little more meaning for the Oklahoma State wrestling coach.
One of the legends in the sport of wrestling – both as an athlete and as a coach – is being recognized by his home state with its highest honor.
Smith — a two-time Olympic gold medalist, a four-time world champion, a two-time NCAA individual national champion and a five-time national champion coach — was announced Thursday as a member of the 2020 Class of the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
“I think, you know, being raised in Oklahoma — my mother being from Oklahoma, being raised from Oklahoma, my dad being raised in Oklahoma — I think it's always something in the back of my mind that, you know, these are bigger to me than being inducted into the International Olympic Hall of Fame — which is all over the world — or winning in the world trophy or the Sullivan Award,” said Smith, who was a two-time Oklahoma high school state champion.
“These things that you get at home, have always been more valuable to me — being in this Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame — because this is home. I think this is probably one of the of greatest honors that you can receive as a citizen in the state of Oklahoma, and for that reason, it was always something that I hoped one day that I could be a part of.”
And it’s because of the deep family routes in Oklahoma that also makes the moment a littler bittersweet.
The announcement of his induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame comes just over a year since the passing of his father, Lee Roy Smith Sr.
“I think my dad would appreciate this more than any,” the Cowboy wrestling coach said.
The significance of his place within this new Hall of Fame also hasn’t been lost on Smith.
All of the stuff he’s previously been inducted into were sports-centric — such as the International Olympic Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He is going into one that has a variety of Oklahomans across all industries.
Last year, Tulsa native Steven Largent was inducted. A former University of Tulsa wide receiver, Largent went on to have a of Hall of Fame career in the NFL — a seven-time pro bowler who held all the major receiving records when he retired in 1989.
After his NFL career, Largent represented the state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1994 until 2002.
“With this one, it's not about just athletes, this is about entrepreneurs and Senators and House of Representatives and board of regents and professors, people in the medical field and entertainment field,” Smith said. “So, I’m humbled that I’m going in because of wrestling.”
The Del City native who invented the low single leg — a wrestling move widely used to this day — is the first wrestler to receive the honor in a state widely known for its wrestling tradition.
He will go into the Hall before the man who made Oklahoma State (previously known at Oklahoma A&M) synonymous with wrestling in Ed Gallagher, who coached the wrestling program for 24 years, winning 11 national team titles during that span.
“It feels a little weird for me, because I have mentors that have done so much, and mentors I never met that like Coach Gallagher and Coach (Art) Griffith (who coached Oklahoma A&M to eight national titles), between the two of them guys, what they did has motivated many generation of wrestlers to become great,” Smith said. “So, it does feel weird being the first person inducted in the sport. I think there's a lot of people that paved the way, and hopefully one day we might see them in, as well. So, I’m humbled to be the first.”
Smith is regularly regarded as one of the best wrestlers ever — and the best American wrestler — winning an unprecedented six-straight World titles from 1987 to 1992 (capped with his second Olympic gold medal at the ’92 Barcelona Summer Games).
But it’s what he has done from the edge of the mat as the head coach at his alma mater since 1991 that Smith wants his legacy in Oklahoma to be about.
During his nearly 30 years as the coach at Oklahoma State, not only has he led the winningest NCAA athletic program to five national championships — and 32 individual national champions — but he has grown an ever-expanding coaching tree.
There are nine current Division I wrestling programs that are led by Cowboys who were a part of Smith’s program, and countless assistant coaches and high school head coaches who learned under Smith at Oklahoma State.
“I’m probably being inducted a little bit more because of my credentials as a wrestler, but really your impact is much greater as a coach,” Smith said. “… Your imprint on the sport, I think, is so much greater as a coach than it ever is as an athlete.
“John Smith, four-time World champion, two-time Olympic champion, period. As a coach, having a legacy of coaches out there taking over programs — a number of head coaches, a number of assistant coaches — people that have gone into a lot of different fields. Your imprint on people is so much greater, and it should be.”
Other members of the 2020 class include Gary Batton, Terry Stuart Forst, Francis Rooney, Stephen M. Prescott, Charles Dennis Cresap, Calvin J. Anthony and Martha Burger.