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The Impact of College Transfers
Photo: In 2016, Joey McKenna (then competing at Stanford) traveled 3,000 miles to beat an old New Jersey rival Anthony Ashnault of Rutgers for third place at the NCAA Championships in New York City.
(The following is the first part of a story that ran in WIN’s 2017-18 Season Preview issue. To read the rest of the story, subscribe to WIN by calling the toll free number 888-305-0606 or click here.)
When Ohio State chose Tom Ryan as its head wrestling coach in 2006, it had a lot to do with what the native of Long Island, N.Y., accomplished at Hofstra over a ten-year period that saw his Pride capture six consecutive conference championships.
But Ryan — who led the Buckeyes to the school’s first-ever NCAA title in 2015 and three runner-up spots over the past 11 years — also knows his chance of coaching at such an elite program in the Big Ten may not have happened if he did not make a very personal decision in the spring of 1989.
That was when Ryan — coming off a 2-2 performance at the NCAA Division I Nationals while wrestling for Syracuse — chose to leave the upstate New York school and transfer to the University of Iowa, where Ryan eventually earned two All-American finishes — including a second-place finish in 1991 — and paved his way to a successful coaching career.
“One of the main reasons I got hired at Hofstra was because of my connection to (legendary Iowa coach Dan) Gable,” said Ryan. “I was a disciple of someone who was regarded as the greatest wrestling coach of all time and involved with an organization that was elite. Hofstra felt I could project into its program what I learned at Iowa.
“Then fast forward 11 years later, (Ohio State offering him the head job) also came back to my connection with Gable. The Gable connection drastically changed the course of my life.”
Wrestlers transferring to different schools have always been part of the sport, but perhaps never more than this winter when several highly-ranked programs benefited … and suffered … after several highly-ranked wrestlers decided to exchange their singlets for another school’s color.
That includes two juniors who are expected to start for the Buckeyes this winter after representing two other schools last March at the NCAA championships: 141-pound Joey McKenna, who competed in two Nationals and claimed third place for Stanford in 2016; and 165-pound Te’Shan Campbell, a two-time national qualifier and 2017 ACC champion for Pittsburgh. They are now part of a team that features a wrestler ranked at all 10 weight classes.
“When you factor Joey and Te’Shan coming in, there is a legitimate chance we could beat the likes of Penn State for the national championship,” admitted Ryan, knowing he needs more depth in Cleveland, in March to top the Nittany Lions, who have won six of the last seven NCAAs and return all five national champions this season.
Penn State will also benefit from a transfer in 133-pound Corey Keener, a three-time national qualifier from Central Michigan, who will end his college career closer to his hometown of Schuylkill Haven, Pa.
But the Nittany Lions also got some bad news this summer when Nick Suriano — who qualified for the 2017 NCAAs as a true freshman, but was unable to wrestle because of an injury — chose to return to his native New Jersey and wrestle for Rutgers.
In most cases, wrestlers are able to compete immediately for their new schools. But when it comes to transferring to a school within the conference, those wrestlers are expected to sit out a year.
Suriano’s decision to transfer to another Big Ten school — “I wasn’t happy there,” Suriano told NJ.com — and Penn State’s decision to make the Paramus, N.J., native sit out this season did not sit well with some, including in the social media world where each side voiced its opinion.
In the end, the Big Ten announced it had granted Suriano a transfer waiver and he will be able to immediately compete for the Scarlet Knights, including Jan. 28 when Rutgers plays host to Penn State.
Ryan faced a similar situation when Syracuse — which eventually dropped wrestling in 1998 — did not give him an immediate release to wrestle right away for the Hawkeyes in 1990; a redshirt season that saw Ryan beat Oklahoma State’s Pat Smith, one year before he lost to the Cowboy in the 1991 NCAA finals.
“When I left Syracuse, where my brother was my teammate and roommate, it was a bit of immaturity on my part because I up and left,” said Ryan. “But I did not want to be on my death bed wondering if I reached my genetic potential.”
Ryan, who also serves as the president of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, admitted that “the rich get richer” because of transfers. He also said the sport must decide if current transfer rules are good for the sport and pointed out the NCAA created a subcommittee to examine this problem.
“(Dealing with transfers) is very complicated,” said Ryan. “If you are one of the institutions that people are leaving, it’s a bad thing. If you are an institution, where kids are transferring to, it is not a bad thing.”
“There are a lot of factors,” said Ryan. “Someone might be homesick. Someone may have a hard time cracking the starting lineup. My take is that coaches must create deep relationships with their wrestlers. They must connect with them.
“The three Cs are critical: you have to be confident in knowing what you want; you have to have character; and you have to have connection. If you are connecting with them, and you are doing everything you can for them, that’s all you can do. If a wrestler leaves and those three things are in place, there is not much you can do about it.”