Top of the Heap

A savvy coach and a big-name transfer from Iowa have Oklahoma State rolling toward a third straight title
January 24, 2005

As the country's most dominant heavyweight, Steve Mocco hasn't made subtlety part of his approach, on the mat or off. Witness the shock waves the two-time All-America and 2003 NCAA champion sent through college wrestling last summer when he transferred from Iowa to rival Oklahoma State. The Cowboys went from the preseason No. 1 to being one of the strongest teams in recent memory--a fact underscored on Sunday, when Mocco and his new mates flattened the Hawkeyes 26-12 in Stillwater. Mocco won his match 4-0 over freshman Matt Fields, who seemed intent solely on keeping the score down. "It was frustrating because I wrestled a man who wouldn't wrestle me," said Mocco. "That's what people do to me today."

Few opponents relish the prospect of facing Oklahoma State, which has replaced Iowa as the sport's leading power. The Cowboys have won the last two NCAA titles and, with four wrestlers ranked No. 1 in the country (chart, below), should add a third straight this spring. "Right now," says Tom Brands, a former Olympic gold medalist and Iowa assistant who's now coach at Virginia Tech, "there's OSU, and maybe eight other teams competing for second."

The architect of the program is 39-year-old coach John Smith, the most accomplished U.S. wrestler ever. A two-time NCAA champ for the Cowboys at 134 pounds, the native of Del City, Okla., also won four world and two Olympic titles. Defying the stereotype of the American wrestler as a muscle-bound grinder, the slender Smith was a technical master. His signature move was a low, single-leg takedown that was as quick and lethal as a rattlesnake strike.

When Smith took over full time in Stillwater in 1992, he brought his finesse game with him, and Oklahoma State quickly earned a reputation as the Juilliard to Iowa's school of hard knocks. His approach made the Cowboys an elegant and fun team to watch, but the results were mixed. The Pokes won a national championship in 1994, then watched in frustration as Iowa ground its way to six straight titles. Despite a 141-15-3 record between 1995 and 2002, the Cowboys never finished better than second in the NCAAs.

Smith realized he had to stop modeling all his wrestlers after himself. "John had a style that was unique, and he was the best in the world at it," says his younger brother Pat, a four-time national champion at OSU who's now a Cowboys assistant. "Early in his coaching career he taught that style. Eventually, though, he saw that not everybody was going to wrestle like John Smith."

No Oklahoma State wrestler better exemplifies Smith's growth as a coach than senior Chris Pendleton, the 2004 NCAA champion at 174 pounds. Pendleton arrived in Stillwater as a lanky, 149-pound finesse wrestler but Smith made him gain weight and become more physical. Now Pendleton is perhaps the country's best all-around grappler.

Three of Smith's former wrestlers--Daniel Cormier, Eric Guerrero and Jamill Kelly--made last year's U.S. Olympic team, and all are part of the staff in Stillwater. For Mocco, who covets a gold medal, Smith's strength in developing Olympians was the key factor in his decision to transfer. "I realize I have a long way to go," says Mocco, who redshirted last year. "But I feel I've become a better wrestler."

With his success as a coach as well as an athlete, Smith has begun to attain the stature once reserved for Olympic great--and former Iowa coach--Dan Gable. But Smith doesn't want to hear about it. "What we've done the last two years, for me, it's wonderful, but it's history," he says. "Let's move forward. You're only as good as your last match or your last tournament." ■

House of Pain

Gallagher-Iba Arena is home to four of the country's No. 1-ranked wrestlers, three of whom should return to OSU next year.


Name Weight Class 2004-05 Record
Zack Esposito 149 Jr. 17-0
A high school teammate of Mocco's in N.J., he was an NCAA finalist last year
Chris Pendleton 174 Sr. 16-1
Lost only match this season, by a point to No. 7 E.K. Waldhaus of Oklahoma
Jake Rosholt (right) 197 Jr. 17-0
The two-time All-America was 2003 national champion at 184 pounds
Steve Mocco 285 Jr. 17-0
The country's most feared wrestler has won 51 straight over two seasons
COLOR PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES HEAVY DUTY   Mocco (in orange) is 17-0 as a Cowboy, including an easy win over Fields. COLOR PHOTOGEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES