Bradley Central High School wrestling head coach Ben Smith has 22 reminders of just how big the Bears’ wrestling family is every time he walks into his office inside the wrestling room at BCHS, where 22 state championship trophies line the walls of the tiny space.
Smith, who is heading into his fourth year as the latest “Papa Bear” of the storied Bradley wrestling family stepped into the Bradley Central family of wrestlers behind legendary coaches Turner Jackson and Steve Logsdon.
Since taking the job, Smith has dedicated himself to maintaining, growing and returning the program to the top of the heap, in the style of his mentors.
“It’s humbling to sit here as the head coach of Bradley wrestling. I never thought I would be here. I knew I wanted to be a wrestling coach and I knew I wanted to be a wrestling coach at Bradley, but with Heath (former BCHS and Cleveland coach Eslinger) and those guys that were in the pipeline ahead of me, I never thought I’d be here. Well, here I am.”
“What got me here is Bradley wrestling. I’d like to think I’d be a success in whatever venue I went into whether it was an architect, businessman or whatever, but whenever I started down the path to be an educator and to be a wrestling coach per se, I never wanted to leave Bradley wrestling. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Steve Logsdon and the footsteps of Turner Jackson. And at the time, Heath was big in my life and I wanted to follow in his footsteps and maybe come back and be his assistant.”
The Bears wrestling family began in a rather happenstance manner when Jackson got a call from then-Bradley head football coach Louie Alford after a job Jackson thought he had at Red Bank High School fell through at the last minute.
Alford made the call after star Bears football player Jeff White left the program for Cleveland, where there was a wrestling program.
“Jeff went to Cleveland because of wrestling, and finished third in the state his senior year. The people here at Bradley said they weren’t going to have that anymore, not so much because of wrestling as so much as losing a football player. That’s why I got a job at Bradley, because they didn’t want to lose anymore football players,” Jackson said through a smile.
“We weren’t very good when I first got here. We weren’t much of a family because nobody wants to be a part of a family that’s getting whipped. We beat Cleveland, finally, Steve’s (Logsdon) junior year in ’83. The family really started building when we got the kids’ club going and we started winning a little bit; people saw we cared. The family has gotten bigger. With 22 state championships the family has gotten bigger. Everybody wants to be a part of that family.”
Jackson eventually turned the reins over to Logsdon, who had won the first-ever individual state championship for the Bears, and led the team to its first state team championship in 1994.
“When he showed up, there was no foundation set. The foundation he set is the foundation I got to reap the benefits from. Everything was in place pretty much. He and I worked together on the ideas about the kids club and making it a little better. (Walker Valley head coach) Alan Morris was a big part of that. It started that family atmosphere,” said Logsdon. “Alan was preaching to the kids at a very young age using the same terminologies and same ideas we were going to use through our middle school and high school programs.”
Smith decided early on when he came home from college he wanted to help the program in any way possible. He said Logsdon and Jackson helped shepherd him through high school, and college nurtured and groomed him to be a coach by teaching lifetime fitness and wellness and educated the up-and-coming leader on being a year-round example.
“When it became kind of clear I was going to come back and coach here, from the mentorship of getting a job to making the transition to be an assistant, then head assistant — I’ve never left the village, per se, of Turner Jackson and Steve Logsdon. I’m lucky to have them in my life, I’m lucky to have them near me on a daily basis,” he said.
The building and maintenance of a successful program begins when the wrestlers are at a very young age. Handlers of the young athletes must take care in order not to scare away any potential Bears from becoming future family members.
“If they can sit still and listen, we will start them at 4 years old. We don’t want to start them too early and burn them out too early. We’re going to beginners’ tournaments and having fun and playing. We do games that teach them a stance and they don’t even know they are in a stance,” Smith explained. “We are really kind of getting our kids to a point where they understand the core fundamentals and they like it so when they walk through the doors at Lake Forest or even Ocoee Middle or Cleveland or wherever they go, they are going to wrestle great. We want them to have an understanding of, this is fun, this is enjoyable, and know a little about what they are doing.”
For the last three years, former Bear Ryan McDermott has headed up the Bradley Pride Kids Club, with Brent Belcher and Chad Laxton, who were also Bradley wrestlers, helping to coach the youngsters as well.
After leaving the entry level, the building and maintenance continues at the middle school level where Smith places the young athletes in the hands of Lake Forest head coach Ryan Ensminger, and assistants Ethan Hames and Jacob Bailey — all former Bradley wrestlers.
“At the middle school level I try to instill everything Bradley wrestling is all about and teach them the fundamentals and basics of wrestling and the Bradley style of wrestling. I mainly try to get the family environment started at the middle school level. That way the brotherhood is already there when they get to high school,” said Ensminger.
The Bruins coach also said the building of the family is probably the biggest thing he tries to instill in his athletes.
“The family atmosphere is huge, it’s everything. That’s probably our biggest success, because we are so close with one another. We know to push each other in the practice room but we take up for one another outside it,” he said.
After leaving Lake Forest, if a wrestler chooses to continue wrestling and to attend Bradley Central, he will step onto the mat under the guidance of Smith, who simply carries on the building of the family that has already been started at the lower levels.
“I’m expecting these guys from the time they walk through the door to understand their behavior off the mat and in the classroom lives up to Bradley wrestling standards. Those are all minor things to them compared to wrestling but they are big things for me that will make big differences. You don’t see many wrestlers who are jerks in the classroom,” said a serious Smith. “I expect them to have pride in themselves and pride in the program. I expect them to understand that by the time they get here, it’s a game changer. I was never the best wrestler and I’m not the best coach and I can’t control that. But what I can control is my work ethic and I expect them to understand if they are going to put on the Bradley wrestling singlet and walk around the school thinking they are going to be a Bradley wrestler they had better be ready to work.”
While hard work, very hard work, is the daily routine for the wrestling family, Logsdon said strong character and a desire to make good decisions outside the wrestling building are key to the success and continued growth of the wrestling family.
“The life lessons we teach these kids are far more important than double leg takedowns. The big lessons I learned in wrestling were not in wrestling, they were in life,” the former Bears coach stated.
“Everybody likes to win. Sometimes when you are successful people want to villainize you. I don’t apologize for winning or being successful on the wrestling mat, but that’s not what we’re about. I think when you make good decisions, winning just comes. When you make decisions with discipline and character, winning is a product of those decisions. That’s what a good program teaches a kid, how to make good, informed decisions.”
Smith said he is merely carrying on the family tradition.
“From the time I came into this program it’s always been “Character, Pride, Intensity.” We’re a family. Steve and Turner have always told me we’re a family, we’re a brotherhood, a band of brothers,” he said.
The winning atmosphere and circle of family created by Jackson and Logsdon have been a large factor in more people coming into the program as interested parents and fans.
“We’ve also gotten more people involved and we have more coaches. When I started it was just me and ‘Chief’ (the late Bill Robertson). Steve came along and helped me in the ’90s. The more people you’ve got, the better. You’ve got a lot of people coaching little kids getting the interest going and wrestling is huge around here now. Everybody wants to be a part of it,” said Jackson.
Smith emphasized he does not want his wrestlers bragging in public or social media. He expects them work quietly back to the top while keeping their noses to the grindstone. The coach said learning to work is what is going to get many young men through life when they leave Bradley wrestling and Bradley High School.
“I expect them to be humble. I would hope they have enjoyed the ride and they understand the amount of sacrifice that went into each one of them from us, and to return that with a level of loyalty and reverence in that respect. But most importantly on top of that I expect them to go out into the community and be good bosses, good employees, good husbands, good fathers and to pass on what was started with coach Jackson and coach Logsdon,” he said. “Bradley wrestling is its own thing — it’s humbling. I can’t believe I’m the coach of this program sometimes.”
The Bears wrestling family has made its way across the country and into institutions of higher learning and in a plethora of gyms and classrooms across the country. Logsdon is immensely proud of all the young men he has seen make their way into society as better people for having been part of Bradley wrestling.
“I’m proud of our kids going to Princeton, Columbia, Duke, UTC and so many other colleges, and graduating. I’m also proud of all the coaches that have come out of this program. We have head coaches at Lake Forest, Tullahoma, UTC, Ooltewah, Walker Valley and Ocoee Middle. These coaches that are at these programs looked at coach Jackson and me and said maybe they can do that,” he said.
“One year we went to a match at UTC. Coach Eslinger was coaching UTC, it was his first year, a Bradley wrestler was in the lineup, the guy refereeing the match was a Bradley guy and the guy who sung the National Anthem had been a Bradley wrestler. It was pretty cool to look around and go, ‘Bradley guy, Bradley guy, Bradley guy, Bradley guy. This is cool.’ At a college match, I was real proud of that.”
All total 17 Bear wrestling alumni are currently coaching wrestling programs at the middle school, high school or college levels, while a pair of 1996 state champions are the current head baseball (Travis Adams) and football (Damon Floyd) coach at Bradley.