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College Update for December 13: Missouri moves to No. 1 and other historic news

By Jason Bryant

For the first time in school history, the University of Missouri holds a place atop the national wrestling landscape.

The Tigers received nine of a possible 12 first-place votes when the USA Today/InterMat/NWCA team rankings were released on Tuesday, while second-place Minnesota garnered three.

Coach Brian Smith's team isn't foreign to the top five, but the Tigers became only the 11th different college in NCAA wrestling history to hold the top ranking by a major national wrestling publication.

It's quite a change from when Smith first stepped on the Columbia, Mo. campus.

"It wasn't in the best shape," said Smith of the program during his first year. "That first year we won like one match at the Big 12 tournament and ended the season with about nine kids."

"We had to start from scratch and the whole state didn't believe in the program," said Smith. "The kids from nine years ago until today have built the program and now everyone knows about it."

Smith did have lofty goals when he was hired, and unlike some snickering Journalism School students, thought it was attainable.

"I said in my first interview, I came here, not just to coach, but to win the Big 12 and compete for a national championship," said Smith.

The feeling about wrestling has also changed.

"My first dual at Missouri, we had like 50 people there," recalled Smith. "Now we have 3-4 thousand going to be showing up - it's exciting."

It's been less than 24 hours since Missouri was officially placed at the top of the wrestling elite, and Smith has been busy ever since.

"I just got done answering probably 100 e-mails," said Smith.

One thing Missouri hasn't had working in its favor is a "name" coach on the staff. Smith believes its not about the facilities or the names on your staff, but about the hard work. It sounds cliché, but he believes in hard work and finding the right kind of kids that will thrive in the environment.

"It's about getting your hands dirty and working hard," said Smith. "Lee Pritts was committed to me when he was here and (Bart) Horton has been committed to me the entire time."

"We sold kids on a vision in the early years. When I talked to the Jeremy Spates' and the Kenny Burlesons and the Ben Askren's, we sold them on being our first national champion," said Smith.

Many feel that Minnesota is still the favorite come March, but losses by the Gophers and Oklahoma State, both which have been ranked #1 prior to this week The Tigers bested two ranked teams (Central Michigan and Michigan State) to move them to the top spot.

Smith drives home the point of hard work, but when asked about what's changed since he took over, he simply replied that nothing had.

"The biggest thing I'm proud of is that we haven't changed," said Smith. "We're blessed with more talent now, but we haven't really changed."

"We mapped it out. Promote the program, booster clubs and get this thing going," he said. "We have it all now, but we're working the same."

Another newcomer to the top three is Hofstra of the Colonial Athletic Association. Many have been clamoring about the Pride's shot at being ranked #1.

Crack detective work by Jay Hammond, Ron Good and Denny Diehl revealed that only two teams outside of the Big Ten and Big 12 had ever been ranked #1, and one of those teams, Penn State in 1991, is now in the Big Ten leaving Arizona State as the lone team outside of a wrestling power conference. ASU was #1 back in 1987, so there are current NCAA wrestlers that weren't even born when that happened. Each of those rankings were provided by Amateur Wrestling News.

First-year coach Tom Shifflet found his cupboards full after he left UNC Greensboro after previous coach Tom Ryan departed for Ohio State. Hofstra spanked Penn State 24-10 on Sunday.

Smith, who was replaced by Shifflet as an assistant at Cornell when Smith left for Columbia nine years ago, believes this has a positive impact on wrestling.

"I think it's good for the sport," said Smith. "Even when you see it in college football - the Boise States, and Wake Forest winning the ACC, it's excitement for the sport."

"In wrestling, it was Oklahoma State and Iowa, then Minnesota came in and they were the newcomer. Anytime there's more competition, it adds to the excitement."

"There are five, six, seven or eight teams that have a chance to win it," said Smith. "That's going to get more media attention from outside the wrestling media."

"There's a lot of teams that can win it from a lot of areas around the country - that's what's good for the sport."

What a mess
There isn't a single thing anyone can do about the mess that's been created at 174 pounds in the InterMat/NWCA/NWMA Individual Rankings. After Missouri's Ben Askren, there's been a level of inconsistency rarely seen.

Askren's beat Matt Herrington of Penn and Keith Gavin of Pittsburgh in the finals and semifinals in Las Vegas, but after Askren, there's ups and downs all over the place.

With Alton Lucas of Hofstra beating previous #2 James Yonushonis of Penn State, Ken Robertson of Eastern Illinois losing to Northwestern's Nick Hayes and just countless wins, losses and inexplicable matchups, does anyone really want to be #2?

More history
Since we're on the Missouri kick, let it be known that Ron Good of Amateur Wrestling News and Jay Hammond were also in on the research that explained how Max and Ben Askren are the first set of non-twin brothers to hold the #1 ranking at their respective weight class since Mark and Dave Schultz of Oklahoma held the top spot at 167 and 177 back in February of 1982.

Exam time put to good use
Expect a slow week in collegiate wrestling, as many colleges and universities are putting their first semester finals as the first priority. Many college coaches will be busy this weekend, but recruiting, as the Beast of the East in Newark, Del., gets underway on Saturday at the Bob Carpenter Center on the campus of the University of Delaware.

The Beast, and last week's Ironman, is a huge draw for college coaches to see talent first hand in a meat-grinder atmosphere.

The Ironman finals had several wrestlers that had already committed to wrestle in college next year including champions Chris Sheetz of Upper Perkiomen (Bloomsburg), Boris Novachkov of Fremont (Cal Poly), Kellen Russell (Michgan) and Eric Medina (Maryland) of Blair Academy, Mikey Benefiel of Montini (Northwestern), Chris Honeycutt of St. Edward (Edinboro) and Cody Gardner of Christiansburg (Virginia Tech).
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