On the eve of last Saturday's finals of the NCAA championships in Chapel Hill, N.C., Oklahoma State's Pat Smith was giving the back of his hand and the curl of his lip to talk that he might be on the verge of becoming the greatest college wrestler in history. "That sounds kind of silly," he said.
That talk sounded less silly the next day, after Smith had whipped Michigan's Sean Bormet 5-3 in the 158-pound class for his fourth NCAA title. Never before had a wrestler won four individual NCAA championships. Thirty-six competitors had won three apiece, and six of them reached the finals a fourth time only to lose. Yet despite the hoopla over his crowning achievement, the 23-year-old Smith, who has gone 98 matches without a loss, remained unconvinced that statues should be built in his honor. "Just because I did something no one else has ever done doesn't make me the greatest," he said. "I appreciate it when people say it, and I don't mind them saying it. I'm very proud of myself. But I can't put myself above all the others."
Until now, when aficionados talked about the giants of college wrestling, they invariably mentioned Oklahoma's Dan Hodge (46-0 between 1955 and '57), Oklahoma State's Yojiro Uetake (58-0, 1964-66) and, above all, Iowa State's Dan Gable (118-1, 1968-70). Smith, who finished with a 121-6-2 record, is quick to add to that list his brother John, now the Oklahoma State coach. John Smith won two NCAA crowns as a Cowboy wrestler, then went on to win four world titles and two Olympic golds.
To be sure, some observers share Pat Smith's reluctance to consider himself the greatest. They point out that the sport's earlier stars could win no more than three NCAA titles because they had only three years of eligibility. Until 1972 freshman eligibility rules changed back and forth, but since then freshmen have been continuously eligible.
Others cluck that Smith's weight class isn't the toughest and that he frequently wins on points rather than pins. These are faint criticisms. Smith is deadly quick. He can ride an opponent endlessly, he can wrestle from underneath, he's terrific on his feet. He is, simply, a wrestler at another level. Said Gable, the coach at Iowa, after watching Smith—one of 10 kids from a Del City, Okla., family—narrowly defeat Bormet: "There was a lot of adversity in the air. But he knows how to win."
It's an inherited trait. Brother Lee Roy won an NCAA crown at Oklahoma State in 1980. Next came John and his two titles, in '87 and '88. Now Pat has four, and soon it will be kid brother Mark's turn. A senior at Del City High, Mark is regarded as the nation's top schoolboy wrestler. He's still undecided whether he'll enroll next fall at Oklahoma State or Arizona State, where Lee Roy is the coach (SI, Feb. 14).
Pat hasn't lost since his freshman year, when Iowa State's Steve Hamilton defeated him. "Losing that match taught me a lot," said Smith Saturday night. "It was good because that loss rejuvenated me. It made me hungry to win. Real hungry."
Sitting in the Dean Smith Center, enjoying the afterglow of his triumph, which also helped lift Oklahoma State to the NCAA team title, he sounded as if he might be interested in where he stands in wrestling history after all—and not just collegiate wrestling. "When my career is over," he said, "I would like for people to say, ' Pat Smith is up there with the great ones.' " They will.