The University of Missouri’s wrestling program is returning to the conference it called home for more than six decades with today’s unanimous approval by UM Board of Curators of the program’s affiliate membership in the Big 12 Conference, effective July 1, 2021. The Tigers have wrestled in the Mid-American Conference since Mizzou left the Big 12 in all sports to join the Southeastern Conference nearly a decade ago.
“Mizzou’s wrestling program has always strived for excellence in everything they do, both on and off the mat,” said Darryl Chatman, chair of the UM Board of Curators. “This return to the Big 12 Conference continues that tradition of seeking excellence in competition. MU and the state of Missouri can be proud of the team that will represent us in a conference with some of the best wrestling programs in the country. I’m very happy for our team and wish them and Coach Brian Smith the best as they move to the Big 12.”
Missouri will join Big 12 legacy members Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia along with affiliate programs Air Force, Northern Colorado, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, South Dakota State, Utah Valley and Wyoming in the 12-team alliance. Former affiliate Fresno State eliminated wrestling after the 2020-21 season, and Cal-Baptist will join the league as the ninth affiliate member at the conclusion of its NCAA Division I transition period in 2022-23.
“This is an exciting opportunity for our wrestling program,” said Mun Choi, president of the University of Missouri. “Coach Smith has done a tremendous job in his 23 years leading the program. Like many of our fans, I am very excited to see what the future holds for Mizzou wrestling in the Big 12.”
The league’s 12 wrestling members participate in a regular-season scheduling alliance and compete for the Big 12 Conference championship title and allocated berths into the NCAA Championship. The Big 12 has held its conference tournament at Tulsa’s BOK Center since 2017, and will continue to do so through at least the 2024 event.
Mizzou was ranked fifth in the season-ending 2021 NCWA Coaches’ Poll, ahead of Big 12 members–No. 6 Oklahoma State, No. 13 Iowa State, No. 15 Northern Iowa, No. 19 Oklahoma and No. 25 Wyoming. West Virginia, Northern Colorado and North Dakota State received votes.
“The Big 12 Conference has a rich and storied wrestling tradition, evidenced by the 50 NCAA team championships and more than 300 individual champions its teams have produced. This was an opportunity that Coach Smith and I did not believe we could pass up when it presented itself earlier this year,” Mizzou Director of Athletics Jim Sterk said. “Year in and year out, the Big 12 is one of the nation’s premier wrestling conferences, and we believe it is the natural home for Mizzou Wrestling from both a competitive excellence and geographic standpoint. This move also strengthens our program and will better prepare it for achieving its goal of winning an NCAA team championship.
“While we are excited to return to the Big 12, we extend our gratitude to the Mid-American Conference and Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher for allowing Mizzou Wrestling to compete as an affiliate member the past nine years,” he added. “The MAC welcomed our program, and provided rewarding and meaningful opportunities for our student-athletes to compete for conference titles and NCAA Championship bids, and for that, we are grateful.”
Prior to Smith’s arrival as head coach in 1998-99, Mizzou had never finished higher than third in the conference standings, but by his fifth season at the helm, Smith led the Tigers to the first of three runner-up finishes at the Big 12 Tournament. Following its third runner-up Big 12 finish in 2011, the Tigers broke through to claim their only Big 12 Conference wrestling team championship in 2012, its final year of league membership.
“Our nine years in the MAC were great for Mizzou Wrestling, as we competed at the highest level in program history with nine-straight conference titles and placing in the Top 10 at seven NCAA Championships,” said Smith, a six-time MAC coach of the year honoree. “The MAC’s administrators and coaches are first-class individuals who were always looking to grow the sport of wrestling, and I enjoyed the opportunity to work with and compete against them over the years.
“I never thought that moving back to the Big 12 would be a possibility for Mizzou, but I’m appreciative of the leadership and vision that President Mun Choi and Jim Sterk provide and their willingness to help make this day a reality for our program,” Smith added. “Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Senior Associate Commissioner Bob Burda were instrumental in making this happen for Mizzou. The Big 12 has an outstanding wrestling tradition; having the opportunity to return home is so special for our current and past student-athletes who have helped make Tiger Style what it is today.”
In nine seasons of Mid-American Conference (MAC) affiliate membership, Mizzou won nine-straight team titles, including the 2021 crown when it scored a MAC Tournament record 188.5 points, 59.5 points more than second-place Central Michigan. All-told, Tiger Style produced 40 individual conference champions, six Tournament Most Outstanding Wrestlers, six Conference Wrestler of the Year honorees and six Freshman of the Year winners over their highly-successful nine-year league run.
“We have received outstanding support from our administration during my time here, and that is a key reason we are able to annually challenge for conference and NCAA championships,” Smith said. “Their understanding and belief in Tiger Style is critical to our success. With our entire line-up returning for the 2021-22 season, coupled with a return to the Big 12, Mizzou fans have a lot to look forward to.”