Damion Hahn, head wrestling coach at South Dakota State, has a wrestling resume that speaks for itself. A two-time NCAA champion and four-time All-American as a competitor at Minnesota, Hahn quickly became one of the nation's top assistant coaches at Cornell, where he spent 12 seasons and helped the Big Red to eleven top-10 finishes.
In April of 2018, Hahn was hired as head wrestling coach at South Dakota State. In his first three seasons, Hahn has had 10 NCAA qualifiers, including 2021 All-American Clay Carlson. The Jackrabbits went 12-6 in Hahn's second season and have placed as high as fourth in the Big 12 under Hahn.
MatBoss recently caught up with Hahn to discuss the SDSU wrestling program, recruiting, wrestling facility, changes at Cornell and Missouri entering the Big 12.
You're entering your fourth season as head wrestling coach at South Dakota State. The program has improved every year since you arrived. Is the SDSU wrestling program where you thought it would after three years?
Hahn: I didn't know what to expect. When I left Cornell 3-4 years ago we were in a situation where we were recruiting top classes, were a top-10 program and really vying for championship trophies. Leaving that and going to South Dakota State, I knew what could be done. I really saw the similarities. When did I think that would kick start and happen? I was a little unsure. But I felt taking that leap of faith, bringing that knowledge from Cornell and my background from Minnesota, I knew we would be on the right track, I knew we would make progress. Now you're looking at three years down the road, our incoming recruiting class was ranked at 10th in the country. We have things moving in the right direction. And you're getting buy-in and getting everybody on the same page. Change is hard and I think we kind of got through some of that, that first year, some of those growing pains and we're moving in the right direction.
Clay Carlson became an All-American last season at 141 pounds in only his second season in the lineup. How was he able to make such a big jump in one season?
Hahn: I think just him as a person, how he lives and handles his life is super important. He is very passionate about everything that he does. Not only just his athletics, but his academics as well. He has 3.9 GPA, Animal Science major. His first year in the lineup he didn't make the national tournament. He was right there on the cusp of making it, didn't make it and then he comes in this year and has a great year. Everything he did, from training, to competing, to preparation. Everything was right up there with any of the best wrestlers I've ever had the pleasure of being around. He's very focused. You know what you're going to get every single time he steps on that mat. He's going to give it every single ounce of energy he has. If a guy is willing to go battle seven minutes with him, it's going to be a fight. I don't feel like there's enough guys that are going to do that. And he's going to go out there and he's going to do what he wants to do later in those matches, and that's what he was able to do and become an All-American.
Cade DeVos has had a strong summer in freestyle. He was a runner-up at the UWW Junior Nationals. He won a gold at the Junior Pan Am Qualifier. He was obviously a big recruit coming out of high school. At-large qualifier last season. What is his potential?
Hahn: I've been saying it since he got to the program … Cade's special. He's able to do some things that guys can't do. He has length. He has the ability to hit re-attacks. I think Cade is extremely special. He's got four more years with the COVID year. So technically he's a freshman again next year. So that's kind of scary. But he's a special one. And I got high expectations for him, as he does himself. He went 157 for us last year. And he kind of grew a little bit over the course of the year. He's over six foot tall so 157 was a tough pull for him towards the end of the season. So he wrestled 163 pounds, or 74 kilos, in the summer and felt a little bit better. Came home with the Pan Am gold. So we're going to kind of evaluate some things with him coming into this year. I could see him on the podium and fighting for a national title. That's how good he is. Getting him at the right weight class is going to be important and just making him feel good. When he's on, he's tough to beat.
Tanner Sloan was ranked in the top five for most of the season. Obviously, he didn't have the postseason he wanted. You said before the national tournament last year that he was good enough to win a national title. What does he need to go to contend for a title?
Hahn: Right now he's got to get healthy. At the start of last season he was saying how his shoulder was bothering him. We started doing rehab and kind of watching it. It just gradually got a little bit worse throughout the remainder of the year. He started with the taping strips and then he started wearing a brace in practice. Ultimately it became wearing a brace the remainder of the year. We got it checked out and he had surgery right after nationals. So he's recovering now, getting things back to normal. Tanner has the tools. There's not a question in my mind. Sometimes as athletes we do have doubts. When we're thrown with adversity our mind can do some crazy things. With him having a shoulder injury towards the end of last year, that kind of played little tricks on him. He kind of doubted himself at times. I think now that we got that taken care of and we can get him back on track mentally, I think he can contend for a national title. The kid is good. He's got all the intangibles needed to be a national champion. So for him, I believe getting him healthy, getting his mind right. And putting him in those situations to keep getting tested throughout the remainder of this year or this upcoming year, just keep getting him tested and getting mentally prepared to win national title.
COVID obviously changed the recruiting calendar in 2020 and part of 2021. I believe June 1 things went back to normal. Has it been nice to get back to a normal recruiting calendar?
Hahn: In some ways, yes. My favorite part about recruiting is I like to get in a home, sit down with mom and dad and their son and do this face to face. That's where you can see the reactions. That's where you can get kind of that that personal touch. Doing it over the phone is difficult. Doing it over Zoom gets old. I wish some things would kind of change with the recruiting cycle because wrestling is unique. Unlike most sports, the collegiate season has a start and a stop. But we're recruiting year-round. Once we get done with the collegiate season, we jump into freestyle and Greco. And so you talk about competition, you talk about recruiting, there's rarely any downtime, per se, when it comes to recruiting. I enjoy it. It's fun. But I wish there were periods of time for our student-athletes that are off limits, that coaches can't hound them 24/7. There's really none of that. So I feel for the kids a little bit. This is what we do. This is our job. This is how we make a livelihood. But it's fun. I enjoy getting to know people. I'm a people person so this is one of the most fun parts about the job.
Has COVID changed the way you recruit now after restrictions are being lifted?
Hahn: I don't believe there's anything better than face-to-face contact. I really believe that. I think what COVID has taught us is to be creative and think outside the box. We will use some of our Zoom calls mainly for that first initial contact to be able to gauge our levels of interest and see if this is the right type of individual we want to bring into the program. But I still feel getting on the road and getting into a home is the most important thing. And maybe that's a little old school. I still like when our recruits get a handwritten letter from our staff. That's important. It's one thing to shoot over a text message or an email, but when you take the time to personally write a letter to a kid and they get it in, I think that matters. So as great as technology is -- and it could really help and change some things -- there's always that nostalgic thing where you open the mail and have a handwritten letter … or you show up at a kid's house. Those things are important. It shows effort. And sometimes effort is what you need.
Much of your roster is made up of Midwestern kids. How much do you look outside the Midwest?
Hahn: We look everywhere. I never stepped foot in Brookings, South Dakota, until I took this job. And I wrestled in Minnesota. I knew more about Fargo because of Junior Nationals than I ever did about South Dakota. For us, our hotbeds are Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. They know about the area. They're familiar with that region of the country. You get on the phone with guys from coast to coast and they're not familiar with the agricultural industry and how the landscape looks. It's a different type of kid that you're talking to and sometimes it could be a little bit of culture shock. You can find Brookings, South Dakota, in every part of our country. We're a small town … when the students are in session, 35,000. We're a tight-knit community. There are places like that all over the United States. I think when people look at it, for parents, they want to make sure their kids are going to a place that's one, safe, two, a place that coaches and administration are going to look after their kids. So it's easy for these Midwestern kids that we look at. Brookings is a familiar place. I want to branch out. We're in Ohio. We're in upstate New York. We got a couple of kids from California. So I want to keep branching out and really building and spreading our brand because I think Brookings is a phenomenal place for the support, the community, I mean, raising a family. It holds all the values that we have as a program. And that blue collar mentality. It's a great place. They support their athletics, especially wrestling, and you get a great education. So it's a good situation.
Your 2021 recruiting class was ranked 12th in the nation by InterMat. What excites you about the class?
Hahn: Out of all the kids we brought in, only one of them took an official visit. We did this all over the internet. So that's kind of crazy. We were able to get kids to want to come to South Dakota State without taking an official visit. It's kind of a neat thing that we're able to build these relationships with these kids and be strong enough to take that leap of faith. That shows that we're connecting with these student-athletes on another level. So that's unique. You look at the class as a whole and I think we have a lot of special kids in this class. You look at how they wrestle and some of the accolades that they're bringing into South Dakota State. This is a class that's going to make an impact. This is a class that is going to step in right away and command leadership. They're a bunch of studs. They're going to push some of the guys that we have on the team, some of the upperclassmen. And we want that. We're trying to raise the standard, raise the bar every single year. If we're being complacent then we're in the wrong business. I think wrestlers have that mindset. We want to be the best in everything that we do. I think this class is going to be the class that's going to really change some things for us and really get us to where we want to be. I want to be a top-10 program. I want to be contending for trophies, year in and year out, All-Americans and national champions on the podium every year. I think that this is a program that can do that. This is a class that's going to help us get there. So it's a pretty special one.
In December, it was announced that plans were approved to move forward with a $4 million on-campus wrestling training facility. What is it going to be like?
Hahn: This facility will forever change the landscape of South Dakota State wrestling. It will be the nicest facility in the Big 12. It will be a top-five facility in the entire country. It's going to house everything from locker rooms to academic space to team lounge to nutrition to cardio weights. Our practice area is going to be in there. It's going to be a one-stop shop. We want to create an environment where kids don't want to leave and don't have to leave. This is our home. Our offices will be in there. So it gives us more interaction, just seeing our kids on a daily basis. I mean, some of these universities are set up where coaches offices are in building A and the wrestling room is downstairs somewhere or on the other side of the building and the locker rooms on another side, the training room is over there where this is all housed under one roof in one location. And it gives our student-athletes and us the ability to have that interaction. Whether it's stopping by to grab a shake or stopping by to study, relax in the lounge or stopping by the office to say hi, it's something that we had when we were at Cornell. I saw how it changed everything. I remember how it was when I was in college. I was only in the wrestling room when we had practice because it was kind of off the beaten path. And we were working out twice a day. So you're trying to get in class and get ready for your next workout. So whether they're coming in and kicking a soccer ball or getting an extra lift, or getting some technique, this building is being built to be used. I want it used all the time. So nobody wants to leave. You build this culture of everybody wanting to be around, everybody wanting to build upon the successes that we're having, and that's what this building is going to do.
You spent 12 years at Cornell as an assistant coach and associate head coach. Obviously, there were some major changes to that program this year with Rob Koll leaving and taking the Stanford job and Mike Grey being promoted to head coach at Cornell. How will those changes impact the college wrestling landscape?
Hahn: I think they're great. Nobody wants to see someone like Rob leave, especially the Cornell alumni. He spent 30 years in that program and really changed the game. I recently had a conversation with an individual. I said, 'I believe Rob Koll is the greatest mind in college wrestling' You look at what he's been able to do. Coming from Cornell with no scholarships, the academics and how he's been able to build and change a program is absolutely amazing to me. And being able to see it first-hand, maybe I'm a little biased but I don't care. The man is a mastermind. So when you're part of it you don't want to see some somebody leave that. I'm sure there was a lot of mixed feelings. I think it's absolutely amazing because I know what he brings to the table. For Stanford, there's only bright things in their future. I can tell you that because I know Rob. He's going to do something amazing out there like he did at Cornell. It's very similar academically. Athletically, it's probably on a different level. But very similar structures. I'm excited for him. I really, really am. I think he's the absolute best. And then you have Mike. Mike takes over the program at a place he's been for a long time. I coached him and then we were on staff together. It's awesome. They have a familiar face, someone who cares deeply about the program and is going to do everything in his power to keep that standard and raise it. I think both programs are in good hands.
It was announced in April that Missouri will be reentering the Big 12 Conference as an affiliate member. What are your thoughts on that?
Hahn: It's great because now we have even more competition. When I heard they wanted to get back into the Big 12 I kind of scratched my head a little bit. I love Brian Smith. Brian is one of my mentors at the Leadership Academy. He has a better pulse on his team than anybody. But I kind of scratched my head a little bit saying, heck, they were qualifying 10 guys to the national tournament every year. And they would compete against the best all year round. What was the thought process of coming back into the Big 12? I don't think it's notoriety. They're a top program. From my understanding what it boiled down to is kind of that preparation. Being at that conference tournament and having that those challenges he felt were only going to help his team be better prepared to win a trophy and potentially a national title. For us, it's awesome. For our conference, it's great. I think Missouri is one of the best programs in the country. Missouri is a perennial powerhouse. If you're not a wrestling person and you hear Missouri, that's not the first thing that comes to your mind. But I love it. I think it's great for us and the Big 12. We're going to reap the benefits right away. We have a dual scheduled with Missouri this year.