photo courtesy of John Sachs; Tech-Fall.com
Earlier today, 2018 NCAA champion Seth Gross announced that he will be transferring from South Dakota State to Wisconsin, to finish his collegiate career. His move made me wonder whether how much of a precedent there was for NCAA champions who transferred after winning a title, and then how did their career’s finish. Answering the first question, this type of situation has not occurred very frequently, only four times within the last 30-plus years. Of the four wrestlers that have been in this situation, only one went on capture another NCAA title and none did so as seniors. These four all had different situations that would lead to their transfers, each of which we will detail below.
The most recent member of this group is Jason Tsirtsis, who wrestled for the majority of his career at Northwestern. Jason was the top recruit in the high school Class of 2012 and was the only one on this list to have earned his national title as a freshman. In 2014, Tsirtsis topped the Big Ten conference which provided him with the fifth seed at the NCAA Championships. Jason’s low scoring defensive nature combined with a bit of luck helped carry him to an NCAA title in a tournament where his most significant margin of victory was three points in the opening round. Tsirtsis would require extra time to win his NCAA quarterfinal, semifinal, and national championship bouts. His quarterfinal match victory came over 2013 NCAA champion Kendric Maple (Oklahoma), while the semifinal win came at the expense of the top seed, Drake Houdashelt (Missouri). Jason’s magical run concluded with a 3-1 sudden victory win over Josh Kindig (Oklahoma State), which made him Northwestern’s first freshman national champion. His sophomore year came up a bit short of the high expectations set by his initial season Evanston, when he was third at the NCAA Championships. As a junior Tsirtsis’ production fell off to a fourth place in the Big Ten and he missed the NCAA podium entirely. Before that season, Jason and his family dealt with some personal tragedy, and that obviously affected him during the 2015-16 junior campaign. After his grades suffered, as well, Jason would make the decision to transfer to Arizona State, where he was given the 2017-18 season to complete his eligibility. While he could not get back to the level he was at as a freshman and sophomore, Tsirtsis was able to finish his career as an All-American by edging Boo Lewallen (Oklahoma State), 2-1.
Andrew Howe was one of the top recruits from an impressive high school Class of 2008 and jumped into the Wisconsin lineup right away and became an immediate title contender. Also a freshman Big Ten champion, Howe was given the second seed at the 2009 NCAA Championships. Howe advanced from his portion of the NCAA bracket, while the top half exploded and 12th seeded Jarrod King (Edinboro) emerged from the wreckage. King would go to defeat Howe and become one of the most unlikely NCAA champions of his time. The next year though, it was all Howe. Andrew went undefeated as a sophomore and earned his first and only NCAA title. In 2010-11, Andrew was joined at 165 lbs by the 2009 NCAA champion, Jordan Burroughs (Nebraska) who had redshirted the previous year after competing at 157 pounds. Burroughs defeated Howe in a highly anticipated Midlands final and the prevailing wisdom was that the two would meet in the NCAA finals. That dream match was interrupted by Tyler Caldwell (Oklahoma) who won a marathon match with Howe in the NCAA semis. After that season, Howe left Wisconsin with the intent to follow former assistant coach Donny Pritzlaff to Michigan. When strict Big Ten transfer rules prevented the move, he joined another old assistant coach, Jared Frayer, at Oklahoma. Howe ended up sitting out two seasons, one for an Olympic redshirt and second as a normal redshirt. He returned in 2013-14 and wrestled a series of matches with Bedlam rival Chris Perry (Oklahoma State). Andrew won the first round of action in their dual meet while Perry evened the score at the Big 12’s, and then downed Howe again at the 2014 NCAA finals. Howe would finish his career as a four-time NCAA All-American, never finishing lower than third.
While Paul Donahoe was a high caliber recruit, he was not quite at the level as the other three wrestlers in this group and he took more time to develop. Donahoe started for Nebraska as a freshman and was the tenth-seeded 125 lber at the 2006 NCAA Championships. Paul had a strong showing before his elimination in the Round of 12. As a sophomore, Donahoe shocked the wrestling world by upsetting undefeated, Sam Hazewinkel (Oklahoma) in the NCAA finals, 3-1 with a takedown in sudden victory. Hazewinkel, who has finished third at the previous three NCAA tournaments, had majored Paul 12-3 in the Big 12 finals, less than two weeks prior. In 2007-18, Donahoe proved that his NCAA championship as a sixth-seed was no fluke by winning his first Big 12 crown and taking third at nationals. That’s when it starts to get strange. The following offseason featured a series of events which resulted in Paul’s dismissal from the Cornhusker team after he reportedly received improper benefits related to him selling an iPod given as a gift from the Big 12 Conference and his posing for an adult website. Donahoe would get a second chance from Edinboro where he went undefeated during the 2008-09 regular season and was the top-seed at the NCAA Championships. Paul ran through an impressive group of opponents (Obe Blanc, BJ Futrell, Rollie Peterkin, and Anthony Robles) to set up a date with Cornell’s Troy Nickerson in the NCAA finals. In one of the most unique endings to an NCAA finals match, Nickerson was awarded a point during the tiebreakers after Donahoe locked hands and that ended up the difference in a 2-1 win for Nickerson.
Arguably one of the biggest recruits in the modern era of wrestling, Steve Mocco chose to attend Iowa after a storied career at Blair Academy in New Jersey. Mocco’s brute strength and physicality made him an immediate national title contender for the Hawkeyes, as a true freshman during the 2001-02 season. That is when he had the first of his many battles with Tommy Rowlands (Ohio State). The two would meet at in Big Ten and NCAA competition for most of the next four years, along with some fierce battles for World and Olympic teams. Early on, it was the taller, more athletic Rowlands who got the best of Mocco in the Big Ten finals and NCAA finals, the latter of which featured an unmemorable 1-1 rideout. The next year Mocco was utterly dominant and he went undefeated to capture his first NCAA title. After that season, Steve would redshirt to focus on qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Games. Mocco would never return to Iowa State, instead choosing to transfer to their bitter rival, Oklahoma State. Steve would become the icing on the cake for an OSU lineup that would go on to win the 2005 NCAA Championship by 70 points. Mocco was joined by four other teammates who won NCAA titles and he was awarded the Hodge Trophy after amassing his second undefeated campaign. As a senior, Mocco’s 2005 finals opponent Cole Konrad had caught up to him, defeating him in the unofficial All-Star Match and then pinning him at the National Duals. It was more of the same in the NCAA finals as Konrad captured his first title and prevented Mocco from becoming the first three-time heavyweight champion since Carlton Haselrig (Pitt-Johnstown) did so from 1987-89 (Kyle Snyder would be the first to match the feat from 2016-18). Mocco finished as a two-time NCAA champion and four-time finalist and remains one of the most intimidating figures ever to step foot on a college mat.