Olympic champion David Taylor hired as Oklahoma State’s next wrestling coach, replacing John Smith (2024)

It would be difficult to think the conversation that Cael Sanderson generated when he announced in 2009 that he would be leaving his Iowa State job to become the head coach at Penn State wasn’t among the most — if not the most — jaw-dropping, head-turning news ever in college wrestling.

Until now, when reigning Olympic champion David Taylor, Sanderson’s former Penn State athlete and current Nittany Lion Wrestling Club mentor, decided to leave the NLWC and his business ventures in State College and become the head wrestling coach at Oklahoma State.

Taylor reportedly accepted the job on Monday night, according to Oklahoma State social media. Its Twitter (X) post said: “Welcome to Stillwater, Head Coach David Taylor. Let’s make some magic,” in reference to Taylor’s Magic Man nickname. There is no word at this juncture how much Taylor was offered or how his contract will be structured.

Taylor tweeted this on Monday night: “Forever grateful for my Penn State family, I am looking forward to this new chapter with @CowboyWrestling @OSUAthletics.”

It’s the most high-profile hire since Penn State’s bold move in 2009 and certainly one that few, if any, saw coming. It’s a current wrestling legend replacing a former wrestling and current coaching legend in John Smith, who announced his retirement on April 11. Include enough verbs and adjectives and their combined accomplishments could fill a 300-page novel.

Just like in 2009 when the wrestling world assumed that State College native Rob Koll, a 1988 NCAA champ at the University of North Carolina, would take over at Penn State, the same assumption had been made about Coleman Scott at Oklahoma State. Scott, who was a four-time All-America for the Cowboys after winning three PIAA titles for Waynesburg High in southwestern Pennsylvania, left his head coaching job at UNC last year to become associate head coach at OSU and heir apparent to Smith’s kingdom. Ironically, Koll replaced him.

But plans can change on a dime in the world of athletics. Scott clearly thought going back to Stillwater was the best thing for him, and the OSU job was attractive enough to Taylor to leave his burgeoning M2 Training Center business as well as State College business opportunities owned by him and his wife, Kendra. To top that, ask anyone who Penn State’s next head coach might be — even though at age 44 Cael Sanderson would not yet be discussing retirement — and the answer would be Taylor, now 33.

Taylor came to State College in 2009 after reneging on a scholarship offer from Iowa State and follow Sanderson to Penn State. He began attending Sanderson’s camps in Utah as an 8-year-old and patterned his wrestling and competitive styles after Sanderson. He was a four-time NCAA finalist and two-time champion before beginning his spectacular career on the international freestyle scene.

What comes off as most surprising is that Taylor’s only coaching experience is with wrestlers aged 6-18. Although he has stated that coaching collegiately was in his future, he’s coming in stone cold to a collegiate program that dominated the sport long before Iowa prior to 2000 and Penn State for the past 14 seasons.

Interestingly, the transfer portal for college wrestling closed on May 3. There is a window that gives an athlete 30 days after their coach retires to transfer; recruits also can change their mind. It shouldn’t play a major role at OSU unless some wrestlers who are loyal to Scott would be upset that he did not get the job. A talk show streamed out of Stillwater with over 250 participants seemed to express some trepidation going out of the Oklahoma State family for the hire, which isn’t uncommon.

Who Taylor hires as assistant coaches will be fascinating. Oklahoma State’s current assistants are Scott, Chris Perry and Tyler Caldwell, all OSU grads. Recruiting coordinator Gary Wayne Harding is as well.

Taylor would have a bevy of choices, including longtime friend and Olympian Kyle Dake, who moved to State College from Ithaca, New York, to train with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and join Taylor in business ventures. Dake is currently training for the Olympic Games in Paris.

Taylor also could keep some Oklahoma State ties but If he wants to go slightly younger, he could reach out to Mark Hall at Penn and Vincenzo Joseph and Frank Molinaro at Arizona State, each former Penn State NCAA champions. His brother-in-law, Jimmy Kennedy, an assistant coach under Sanderson at Penn State, also would be an option, among many others with Penn State roots or not.

And even though the portal is closed, the move begs the question of whether a handful of current Penn State wrestlers would go with him to Stillwater, particularly those who forfeited their final year of high school to train with him at M2.

That list includes Levi Haines, Tyler Kasak and Zach Ryder. Whether that would be a wise move is something wrestlers of that stature would have to discuss not only with their families but gauge Sanderson’s opinion as well. Additionally, Terrell Barraclough (165-174) is the transfer portal with one year of eligibility remaining.

That list is simply to show who has had close relationships with Taylor. Sanderson is the one who recruited them and the reason they chose the Penn State program.

Coaches will be able to contact next season’s rising juniors beginning July 1 and the Class of 2026 is incredibly talented, especially on the East Coast. The ripple effect the Taylor move could have is multi-faceted. It could range from little movement, with wrestlers staying put and Taylor concentrating on Midwest talent and an occasional Eastern star, to him being a national recruiter and concentrating on talent-rich states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and the New York/New Jersey area.

Oklahoma State’s main competitors for top recruits, such as Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa State, Iowa and now Arizona State, which is joining the Big 12, likely sounded a collective ‘gulp’ when this news broke.

The dilemma for a high school star is whether he leaves his East Coast-area team and buys into Taylor’s program or whether he chooses to stay closer to home and compete for programs such as Penn State, Ohio State, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech or even Rutgers. But Midwest and West Coast wrestlers who might be lured to Arizona State, Nebraska, Missouri or Iowa now must take a long look at Oklahoma State, and that’s what the Cowboy administration would be hoping for.

As for Smith, it’s like a Dan Gable or other highly successful coaches of that ilk; you never think they’re going to put their coaching shoes at center mat, but they do. Smith won two NCAA titles, two Olympic golds and four World crowns; he is the only American wrestler to win six consecutive World and Olympic championships. He won 100 of his 105 international freestyle matches.

Taylor has wrestled more on the international scene than Smith, winning of 152 of 173 bouts including Olympic gold in 2021 and three World titles. The odds-on favorite to repeat as gold medalist in 2024, Taylor’s bid to do that came to a sudden halt in the USA Olympic Team Trials, losing 3-1 and 4-1 to NLWC teammate and four-time Penn State NCAA champion Aaron Brooks.

How much that defeat altered Taylor’s future plans just might have been answered. Conversely, one could say that Zahid Valencia, a former NCAA champ from Arizona State, inadvertently assisted Taylor in that decision-making process. Valencia had Brooks effectively beaten in the challenge tournament finals but late in the bout was docked a penalty point for grabbing Brooks’ singlet and Brooks ended up winning a match he very likely would not have won.

Had Valencia won, Taylor would have faced him in the best-of-three finals and not Brooks; he has had past success against Valencia and quite possibly would have emerged as the United States’ Olympian. But we’ll never know how that would have transpired and if everything does indeed happen for reason, this scene had a few bizarre wrinkles.

Interestingly, Taylor is still the USA alternate at 86kg and if anything were to happen to Brooks, Taylor would get the call and, thus, would have to remain in training if he wishes to stay on the competitive circuit.

Circle back to the top of this story and it’s a Sanderson moment revisited. Sanderson and his brother, Cody, and best friend Casey Cunningham uprooted their families’ lives in Ames, Iowa, and headed to State College 15 years ago. Taylor followed Sanderson to Penn State and has been part of the program and the town ever since.

The fact that Taylor is choosing to relive that moment says that he, like Sanderson, is ready for a newer, bigger and pressure-filled challenge. The job at Oklahoma State most certainly will be each of those.

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Olympic champion David Taylor hired as Oklahoma State’s next wrestling coach, replacing John Smith (2024)

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