'He is Mizzou soccer': Retiring Bryan Blitz remembered for consistency, hard work and generosity

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

Brian first met Bryan within a week of becoming colleagues in early May 1998.

New Missouri wrestling coach Brian Smith was familiarizing himself with Bryan Blitz, who had just finished his second season leading the Tiger women's soccer program. 

"We ended up living like a few doors apart, and our wives Alie (Blitz) and Denise (Smith) just became really good friends," Brian Smith said of getting to know Bryan Blitz's family. "A lot of our kids were the same age. So we hung out all the time.

"Christmas parties in the neighborhood. I would see pictures of our kids hanging out at the pool. And I see his kids now and it's still like, 'Wow, I've known these kids for 23 (years) or whenever they were born, because we were having kids left and right. He has four and we have three."

Fast forward to present day, Smith is finishing his first week as the longest-tenured head coach within Missouri athletics after Blitz's retirement last Sunday.

Missouri head soccer coach Bryan Blitz speaks with members of the media in 2015.

Blitz, the inaugural women's soccer coach, coached at MU for 25 years

This fall and winter will be season No. 24 for Smith guiding the wrestling program. 

While Missouri has changed a great deal since both were introduced in Columbia as head coaches, those differences — such as watching film online and the rise of the transfer portal — affected both programs at the same time. 

More:Mizzou soccer's Bryan Blitz steps down after 25 years as head coach

"It's your peer, and we know what we're all going through, all the struggles and all the joys," Smith said. "My wife loves soccer, so I would go with her and I love watching (Blitz's) team. It's just fun to go watch. I was at the Vanderbilt game this year. And I know they would come watch matches. My wife and his wife still get together all the time.

"It's just nice to have that. It's not just coaching. There have to be relationships, and Bryan has been one that we've been friends for a long time."

Missouri head soccer coach Bryan Blitz addresses his team in 2016 at Walton Stadium.

Former Tiger Thole: Blitz 'incredibly loyal'

Word of Blitz stepping down was kept tight-lipped within the athletic department and the coach's inner circle.

In St. Louis, Nikki Thole, the Tigers' all-time leader in goals scored (61), points (151) and multiple-goal games (17), had no idea of Blitz's intentions. 

"I'm just super happy for him," Thole said during an interview with the Tribune this past week. "He's had a long go with it and a wonderful family that he wants to spend time with. So I could be nothing more than happy.

More:Mizzou soccer's Bryan Blitz at peace stepping away from program

"I am devastated that I didn't go to the game (victory over Kansas) this past Saturday because a few of my friends did and I had already made a previous engagement. And I was just really sad knowing what I know now. Hindsight is 20/20. That's the thing I'm the saddest about, but I'm so happy for him."

Nikki Thole, right, pictured here during a match, was the first All-American in Missouri women's soccer history. Thole, who played at MU from 1997-2000, remains the Tigers' all-time scoring leader.

Thole's memories with Blitz range from dressing up at Halloween as a team and seeing her head coach in a crazy outfit, to FaceTimeing him during a happy hour with fellow Missouri soccer alumni years after graduation.

When Thole's father passed away, Blitz quickly got in contact to check up on his former striker and helped gift a blanket from himself and her former teammates.

"I've always just found it incredibly loyal and amazing that he has stayed there, built the soccer family, built his family and loves Columbia," Thole said. "... I can't put into words because I feel like he is Mizzou soccer. It's going to be very strange when his name is not tied to that from a current-team standpoint."

More:10 possible candidates to replace Bryan Blitz, who's stepping down as Mizzou's soccer coach

Blitz commanded a strong presence in Columbia and the Show-Me State

Blitz's reach with the program went beyond his colleagues and players.

He knew he coached the team for the largest university in the state and did his best to honor that in recruiting and as a Columbia resident. 

"I do think everyone kind of understands his presence within the city," said Wil Ross, a Columbia native himself, who has been Hickman's head soccer coach since 2016. "Just being that constant pillar, that you have a strong Division I program in your backyard, especially on the girls side.

Bryan Blitz

"I think that means a lot to the girls that come through Columbia, whether they end up getting recruited by them or not. Just having that consistent pillar is what a lot of our girls benefit from, just being able to go watch a game, watch a high-level Division I program, watch their success. Watch some of their teammates, if they're playing club in St. Louis, that ended up going there."

Blitz didn't attend many games between Columbia's high schools. But when he was in the stands, Ross would usually turn to his team and point him out. The Kewpies' reaction immediately would take a serious turn every time.

More:Mizzou wrestling rejoining the Big 12 Conference after nine years

Ross coached alongside Hickman and Missouri soccer alumna Janelle Cordia for two years when both were Hickman assistants, and he was head coach of the Kewpies for fellow mid-Missouri prep standout Hannah Larson's entire high school career.

Missouri head soccer coach Bryan Blitz gives instructions to his team during a 2019 match.

Larson was recruited by Blitz, but "fell in love" with Saint Louis early on, per Ross.

"It is kind of a constant reminder to our girls that there are always eyes on you," Ross said. "There are high-level soccer coaches in our backyard that will find you if you're good enough and if you put that work in.

More:Mizzou baseball hopes to build further foundation after victory over No. 21 Georgia

"Janelle, one of the hardest workers I've ever met. Hannah, one of the hardest workers I've ever met. That's not by mistake that they both are amazing soccer players. So it is such a motivational tool to say to our girls, 'If you put that work in and you put that time in, people will find you, whether it's Mizzou, it could be Columbia College, it could be Central Methodist. All these great programs here in Columbia or in mid-Missouri are the best motivational tool for a high school girls soccer player."

Ross pointed to the example of former Battle standout Gillian Schulte being called into Blitz's squad from Missouri's club team when both rostered goalkeepers quickly came down with illness during the fall of 2019.

More:Mizzou makeover: Where things stand for Missouri's 2021-22 basketball roster

She was known to the Tigers' staff after playing in Columbia and was called in under an unusual circumstance. 

The Missouri soccer team huddles at the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Orange Beach, Ala.

Blitz accumulated 254 wins in 25 years with Missouri soccer

Blitz posted a 254-216-39 record in 25 seasons along the Tiger sideline and a 299-260-47 mark in 30 seasons as a collegiate head coach. He spent his first five seasons at Butler, also as the Bulldogs' inaugural coach.

His 25-year head coaching tenure is the fifth-longest in the history of MU athletics, behind John “Hi” Simmons’ 35 years in baseball (1937-73), Norm Stewart’s 32 years in men’s basketball (1967-99), Rick McGuire’s 27-year tenure in men’s and women’s track and field (1983-2010) and Tom Botts’ 26 seasons leading men’s track and field (1946-72).

More:MU notebook: Kylie Deberg earns third All-American volleyball honor

"I heard him on one of the meetings after and he sounded relaxed and good with his decision, and I'm so happy for him," Smith said. "When people say, 'Oh, why would you want to give up coaching?' People don't know the stress. There's other jobs, but it's non-stop. Even when I'm home tonight, it's recruiting, it's what are your athletes doing? We have academics or issues with this. And there's always something going on.

"The crazy thing is he was still calling recruits the other day and helping out and doing things. So he's just a good person. It's great to work with good people who really care about the student-athlete, and he was one."

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

Follow Mizzou athletics with the Tribune’s Tiger Extra newsletter. Sign up at columbiatribune.com/tigerextra for stories, galleries and podcasts in your inbox every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.