COLUMBIA, Mo. – Brian Smith’s coaching career is still going strong after 30 years, but he has never encountered a time quite like this.
The Missouri head wrestling coach has never been away from his regular routine for this long. It’s been more than five weeks since Smith has been near the mats of the Hearnes Center.
His world – like all of ours – has been put on hold by COVID-19.
Throughout his career stops, including Cornell, Syracuse and Missouri, where Smith has coached since 1998, he has won over 400 dual matches. Now Smith is trying to improve the Tigers and get ready for the future, all while adhering to social distancing.
Smith and his family are well. The coronavirus, however, has been on his radar since before it even reached the United States as he considered not only his program but his personal health.
“It’s crazy because in February I remember talking about this stuff to my staff and saying, ‘I don’t want this to affect our team and this and that, and hopefully this doesn’t affect the nationals.’ I’ve been following this story for a long time,” Smith said of the disease.
“If anybody’s going to get sick,” he continued, “it’s going to be me. I’ve had upper respiratory problems and I’ve had pneumonia so many times and I’ve had all these issues with breathing. So for me, I’ve got to be really careful.”
Smith dealt with lung problems and asthma throughout his childhood. He told the Columbia Daily Tribune in November 2017 that doctors put him in oxygen tents and, once, when he was in first grade, an oxygen cage because he kept climbing out.
Smith was in and out of the hospital as a child, and eventually his family moved to Florida so he could be in a warmer climate. His health has steadied over time, and he had a successful wrestling career of his own at Michigan State.
Now he is married and has three children, but those health concerns still play a factor in his life and have been very present in his mind over the past month.
Smith and his family are taking precautionary measures to prevent the virus, or any disease, from entering their household.
“I’ve been really careful,” Smith said. “I have an amazing wife (Denise) that literally wipes down everything and we get groceries delivered and she wipes every bag and every package, her and my son, before they even put it in the fridge. She cleans every door knob and everything with bleach wipes every day.
″... And we don’t have visitors in the house. She had a couple friends over the other day and they sat in the backyard, but they were like 10 feet apart. She’s really unbelievable to me because she knows that she’s really worried about me getting sick. I’m blessed to have her because every day, there’s something being done with the house being cleaned and taken care of.
“So I just know that’s a part of my entire rest of my life and I’ve got to be cautious of these things.”
Smith is spending more time than usual at home, going on long walks with Denise and working his way through several books he wants to finish. His current choice: “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie.
Brian and Denise were empty-nesters until the outbreak started, but their daughter is now working from their house in Columbia instead of reporting to her New York City office.
Although Smith isn’t going into his own office, he still works on what he can to further his wrestling program.
One of the biggest tasks now is staying in contact with his athletes and staff. There are Zoom calls during which Smith has brought in Tiger alumni such as J’Den Cox and Ben Askren. Current wrestlers have come up with workout challenges to keep themselves in shape while in quarantine.
Three weeks have passed since the NCAA decided not to give winter sport student-athletes another year of eligibility. Missouri’s season ended before eight Tigers could compete at the national championships, including seniors Connor Flynn and Dylan Wisman.
“I’m disappointed with the way the NCAA communicated it and kind of put it at the end of a paragraph at the end of the story,” Smith said. ”... A lot of people didn’t even pick up on it. Everybody thought they had kind of tabled the winter sports and they just put it at the end of an article and didn’t really say anything about it, which to me is disappointing because that’s a lot of athletes that have committed their lives, too.
″... I was getting calls from people that, ‘Oh, I don’t think they made a decision on it, I think they’re still waiting on it,’ because nobody really understood that paragraph there. So it’s frustrating to me, but then you have to move forward.”
Looking ahead, Missouri is tentatively scheduled to open its home schedule next season with national powerhouse Virginia Tech coming to Columbia.
The 2021 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships are scheduled to take place at Enterprise Center in St. Louis next March.
“We have a lot of talent coming in and it’s exciting,” Smith said of his team. “We have a couple No. 1 recruits in the nation coming in. We’ve got some kids that are second or third in the nation coming in with all sorts of accolades, which is nice, too. But they still have to come in now and start over and battle through.
″... Having this time where it actually slows down a little didn’t affect us any (with recruiting) because we were really ahead of the game. And that’s a credit to the kids that are in the program, coaches in the past and the coaches that I have now that kids want to come to Mizzou. So it makes it a little bit easier in the recruiting process to get kids committed.”
Smith is developing an action plan for the six NCAA qualifiers who will return to his team next season.
But for now, social distancing is in the forefront of his mind. Smith remembers in 2007 when the flu affected around 30 of the 35 wrestlers on his roster.
He’s doing all he can to prevent anything similar to that spread now, and his team is listening.
“I always get really nervous in January, February, March-time because the flu hits society in general every year,” Smith said. “And our guys get flu shots, but in the sport of wrestling, it’s not taking away from other sports, but it’s a high level of combative training. And some of them are cutting weight. So there’s always that worry about them getting sick.
“There’s a lot of body contact, where you put 35 guys in a room and they’re battling and it gets hot and sweaty, and so if you wanted to spread a cold, it would be an easy way and it’s happened to our team. ... I’m always conscious of that.”