A family tradition
Chris Perry looking for second consecutive national title
OKLAHOMA CITY -- An NCAA championship in wrestling without a member of the Smith/Perry clan is almost like peanut butter without the jelly or Disney without Mickey Mouse.
It goes back five decades.
Lee Roy Smith, suiting up for Oklahoma State, was a national champion at 142 pounds in 1980. Seven years later, John Smith won the first of his two NCAA titles for the Cowboys. At the 1994 NCAA Championships, Pat Smith, with older brother John in his coaching corner, became the first four-time champion in NCAA history. Another Smith, Mark, was a two-time All-American at the end of the 1990s.
Mark Perry Jr. started his high-school career at Stillwater High, but finished at the prestigious Blair Academy in New Jersey. At Iowa, Perry Jr. won national titles in 2007 and '08. In 2006, as a sophomore 174-pounder, he brought home a bronze medal from an NCAA championship tournament.
This week at the 2014 NCAA Championships, Chris Perry hopes to add to an already full trophy case; he already has, claiming top honors at 174 pounds at the 2013 NCAA Championships. Finishing his collegiate career among family and friends, Perry, the top seed at 174, is going to lay it all on the line.
“If you’re not excited right now, then I don’t know what is going to get you excited,” Perry said. “This is what it’s all about. This is what we work toward. I feel better than I’ve ever felt, and I’m ready to go.
“I already got what I came for, which is a national title, and I’m ready to add on. I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been. I have a lot of experience in this game.”
Representing one of wrestling’s top family names has been more of a blessing than a burden. Four state high-school titles with just one career loss meant expectations were out of this world.
As a redshirt-freshman 184-pounder, there was disappointment -- two wins to reach the quarterfinals, then two consecutive losses and the dreaded “DNP” next to his name. His second season included a trip to the semifinals and eventually a third-place medal. At the 2013 NCAA Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, Chris Perry won three consecutive overtime matches and battled his way to the 10th NCAA title for the Smith/Perry clan.
“Chris has had a real passion for wrestling for as long as I can remember,” said Lee Roy Smith, executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame & Museum in Stillwater. “He has really embraced the sport, always enjoyed the training and coaching and everything it takes to be a champion. He has those intangibles that champions have to get your hand raised.
“For me, personally, watching my nephews have success in this sport has been really enjoyable. There is nothing like having somebody close to you on the mat … it really keeps you connected. It’s also kept me young.”
With Lee Roy a former coach at Arizona State, Mark Jr. an assistant at Illinois and Mark Sr. a former assistant under John Smith, there is plenty of coaching advice to go around. Throw in Cathy, a rumored champion of most holiday gatherings, and you have a roundtable of wrestling aficionados.
“You have to take bits and pieces, you can’t try and take it all,” Chris Perry said. “Coach Smith has been with me through this journey day in and day out. My dad and my brother, they know me personally pretty well, but at the same time they don’t get to see me every day in the room.
“Actually, most of the advice is really the same, about staying focused and wrestling hard, nothing too big or dramatic. Coleman Scott does a good job of keeping me pretty mello, of making things funny, because he knows I get pretty worked up at times.
“I really would not be here without all the support I have gotten.”
“What Chris has done is find ways to get his hand raised time and again,” said John Smith, also a two-time Olympic gold medalist. “He has brought a work ethic that is required in our sport and something our family can really be proud of.”
Winning a second title will not be easy. A lot of water must flow under the bridge before a chance to wrestle on the big stage one last time. Perry and Oklahoma’s Andrew Howe, a sixth-year senior, have been the top two men at the weight class all season. In December, Howe, a national champion in 2010 while at Wisconsin, beat Perry. The two met again in an epic Big 12 Conference finals bout that will be remembered by all in attendance at tiny McCasland Fieldhouse. Especially, Chris Perry, who won 3-2 on riding time and performed a high-wire act down the stretch.
Fans, and the clan, would like nothing better than to see Round 3.
“I can’t even begin to think about that,” Perry said.
During Wednesday’s news conference, he summed up what everybody should be thinking heading into another star-filled national tournament: “You can’t make a match that is not yet a match.”
Many have thrown out terms like “end of an era” or “the last of the Smiths or Perrys in wrestling.”
Take note: Joe Smith just finished his junior year of high school at Stillwater High. He is a three-time state finalist and two-time champion.
First things first, however. With five wins during the next three days Chris Perry, ironically, would tie Pat Smith on the Oklahoma State all-time wins list.
• Oklahoma State's Perry shines at Big 12s