Jeremy Spates attended Norman (Okla.) High School and had plans to wrestle for his father Jack Spates at the University of Oklahoma.
Spates, a state champion and three-time Junior All-American, spent his first year out of high school taking classes at OU and training with the Sooners’ freestyle wrestling team. The plan was for Spates to officially join the Oklahoma wrestling team the following season. That plan changed, however.One of Oklahoma’s top wrestlers at that time was Michael Lightner, an NCAA finalist who competed in the same weight class (141 pounds) as Spates.
“My dad kind of talked me into going somewhere else,” said Spates. “He thought going somewhere where I could do my own thing might be best. My dad was like, ‘Well, what do you think about going somewhere else and then transferring back?'”
So the plan changed. Spates was going to compete at the University of Missouri for Brian Smith, a friend of Jack Spates, for a year and then transfer back to Oklahoma to wrestle for his father. After Spates arrived at Missouri and joined the Tigers, the plan changed again.
“Once I got to Missouri I loved it,” said Spates. “I was part of that building process with Coach Smith. I didn’t end up transferring back, which is a tough discussion to have with a coach and your father.”
Spates went on to become a three-time team captain and All-American for the Tigers before embarking on a coaching career. He spent five seasons coaching under his father at Oklahoma and four seasons under Rob Koll at Cornell. He was named head wrestling coach at SIU Edwardsville in 2013.
Spates, as much as anyone, understands that plans can change and sometimes transferring is necessary to get in the right situation to succeed.
“We deal with transfers a lot,” said Spates. “I think it’s just the nature of the game. It’s tough to make those lifetime decisions when you’re a 17, 18-year-old kid. You’re getting all this information from different schools and you think you know what you want to do for the rest of your life, and then things change over that period. A lot of students decide to change majors, or weight classes, or like my situation where you’re in a weight class with a national finalist. I think it’s a realistic thing in wrestling and sports in general.”
Last season, SIU Edwardsville had two NCAA qualifiers. Both wrestlers, Freddie Rodriguez and John Fahy, were transfers from Division I programs. Rodriguez came from Oklahoma, while Fahy was at Illinois. Spates said he found them through wrestling connections. Most of the transfers to his program come from Division I programs.
“There are a lot of smaller programs around the area, so we get interest from those kids,” said Spates. “But a lot of times if you’re not able to wrestle at the Division I level out of high school a lot of times it’s hard to wrestle at the Division I level after a year or two of college. You do see it, though. For the most part it’s more DI to DI and for whatever reason the fit is not right, coach leaves or maybe the kid is just happy.”
So how does a coach handle a situation when a wrestler wants to transfer to another school?
“My opinion on it is if a kid is really not happy, and you’re not really happy with the kid, how productive is it really going to be?” said Spates. “Do we really want to force a kid to stay in our program because he’s going to help us? If he’s really unhappy, how much is he going to help? In my opinion, it’s more about these kids’ careers than it is about my coaching career. If this is the best thing for a kid, then let’s let him do his thing and do what’s best for him and his family.”
At Cal Baptist, a Division II program, head wrestling coach Lennie Zalesky has had success with Division I transfers over the years. Last season, heavyweight Joseph Fagiano, a former Division I wrestler, became the program’s first-ever NCAA Division II champion. He wrestled at both Hofstra and Indiana before eventually transferring to Cal Baptist to wrestle and pursue an MBA.
This season, two of Cal Baptist’s top wrestlers, Nick Fiegener and Jake Waste, are transfers from Division I programs.
“Neither of them had a very good experience in Division I programs,” Zalesky said of Fiegener and Waste. “So we recruited both of them heavily once we knew they were looking at going to another place. I think sometimes the kids come in and they have that high school camaraderie and it’s fun. Then they leave home and they get in that Division I grind, and sometimes it’s not very accepting and maybe they have a bad experience.”
Zalesky notes that when it comes to transferring there are different rules and regulations based on division and even conference.
“The biggest thing is whether he’s released,” said Zalesky. “If he’s released then you can talk to him and he can wrestle the following year.”
Corey Ruff, head wrestling coach at Lindsey Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky, a program that competes in the NAIA, says transfers have played an integral part in his program.
Recently Iowa State transfer Joe Cozart became a two-time national champion at Lindsey Wilson. Currently on the Lindsey Wilson wrestling team is Cam Tessari, a 2012 NCAA Division I All-American for Ohio State. Tessari is ranked No. 1 in the nation at 157 pounds.
“When you sell Cam Tessari and Joe Cozart on what you can do for them, it makes it a lot easier for everybody to buy in,” said Ruff. “Cozart was the best leader I ever had. He was just a guy who lived the wrestling lifestyle. He did everything right. He kept people accountable. Cam had some troubles. He had a social life when he was at Ohio State. He got swallowed up by the big city. Now that he’s here he’s a 4.0 student and he’s turning into a leader. He’s doing things right. He’s the most coachable guy on the team.”
Ruff believes athletes in smaller, non-Division I programs often times get more support.
“I think in the DI world they want you stand on your own two feet, and if you drown you drown,” said Ruff. “You get a lot more hugs and hand holding here at a smaller school. It’s just a lot easier to succeed. The pressure is a lot less of course. It’s a lot different than wrestling a Big Ten or Big 12 schedule.”
Ruff says there are times when student-athletes express interest in transferring into his program without him doing much recruiting, but usually the more accomplished wrestlers need to be recruited. He’s very picky on which wrestlers he brings into his program.
“You need to have high morals and high character to wrestle in our program,” said Ruff. “I didn’t always believe that. Now that’s an absolute must. You have to have a desire and pursuit of academic excellence. You have to want a college education. Some kids don’t want that. Some kids just want to wrestle. That doesn’t work well for me. You have to have a passion for the sport of wrestling. If you have those three things you’re going to fit in really well here.”
Two seasons ago Lindsey Wilson enjoyed its most successful season to date, finishing third at the NAIA Wrestling National Championships with eight All-Americans. However, Ruff had to cut loose several wrestlers from the program because of off-the-mat issues.
“I didn’t want to win that way,” said Ruff. “We had to take a step back. We were a top five program four years in a row, knocking on the door, right on Grand View’s heals I felt. I realized if I continue that way I wasn’t going to be proud of my efforts and the way I was doing things. I had to shift the culture dramatically. Now that the culture is here I can wholeheartedly tell you that I have 30 human beings that love me as much as I love them, and it makes my job much more enjoyable.”