True freshman 15: History of true freshman NCAA champs

Myles Martin celebrates after winning the NCAA title as a true freshman at 174 pounds (Photo/Tony Rotundo,

The finals of the 2016 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships were labeled by large numbers of wrestlers, coaches, fans and journalists to be the "most exciting" and "best ever." They were also one for the history books -- and not just because they were the first to be held in New York City at the famed Madison Square Garden.

The 2016 NCAA finals were historic because they saw the crowning of only the 15th true freshman wrestler to win a Division I title: Myles Martin of Ohio State.

When you consider that the NCAAs have been held since 1928 -- and realize that hundreds of men have won at least one individual title in 86 editions of the Nationals -- the fifteen men who achieved that honor in their first year of college are in rarified territory. In fact, by the time NASA stopped putting men on the moon, more had set foot on the lunar surface than had won an NCAA title as true freshmen.

I wish I could claim to have figured this out the "moonwalkers/first-year mat champs" equation on my own. Instead, I must give credit to Jim Kalin, who did the research, and shared his list of the fifteen fab freshmen in a feature article simply titled "The 15" in the August 15 issue of Amateur Wrestling News.

Kalin, recipient of the Dellinger Award as the nation's best wrestling journalist in 2009, emphasized the rarity of a first-year student winning an NCAA D1 title at least twice in his historical feature ... first with the fact that a greater number of astronauts have strolled on the lunar surface than a true freshman claiming college wrestling's greatest individual championship. Or, if that weren't clear enough, Kalin emphasized his point thusly: "True freshman national champs are wrestling's version of a Bigfoot sighting. Tartare-rare."

Realize that true freshmen have not always been allowed to wrestle at the NCAAs. In fact, that was the case for the first two decades of the Nationals ... and for another two decades, roughly from the late 1940s through the late 1960s. All-time greats such as Oklahoma State's Stanley Henson, Oklahoma's Dan Hodge, and Iowa State's Dan Gable were not allowed to wrestle at the NCAAs in their first year of college. That was the rules back then.

There have been only two times when first-year students have been eligible for varsity competition: during a small window of eligibility for a couple years immediately after World War II ... and since 1969.

That said, in those two time-frames when freshmen could compete at the NCAAs -- nearly 50 years in all -- only fifteen managed to nab a title as a true freshman.

Dick Hutton
If that weren't amazing enough, dig this: four first-year collegians did it in 1947. Three were baby-faced freshmen, fresh out of high school, wrestling for colleges in the state of Iowa. The fourth was a hairy-chested World War II vet in his mid-20s originally from Amarillo who wrestled in Oklahoma. The kids: Dick Hauser and Lowell Lange, both of Cornell College of Iowa that won the team title at the '47 NCAAs ... along with Bill Nelson of what was then Iowa State Teachers College (now University of Northern Iowa). Hauser was champ at 121 pounds; his teammate Lange claimed the title at 136 ... while Nelson won the 165 crown. The Army veteran: Dick Hutton, heavyweight for Oklahoma State, an eventual four-time finalist who came incredibly close to becoming the first four-time NCAA champ.

Fast-forward a quarter of century to the next set of first-year collegians to win individual titles. Pat Milkovich, 126-pound champ for Michigan State at the 1972 NCAAs (at 17, the youngest wrestler ever to win a title) ... the following year, Clarion's Don Rohn took home the title at 134 ... then, in 1979, Darryl Burley of Lehigh, at 134.

The 1980s had only one champ who made Kalin's ultra-exclusive list: Matt Reiss, 167-pound titlist for North Carolina State at the 1980 NCAAs.

Lincoln McIlravy
It would be an entire decade before another true freshman would snag a title. At the 1990 NCAAs, Pat Smith of Oklahoma State won the first of his four national titles. Three years later, Iowa's Lincoln McIlravy won his first of three NCAA championships at the 1993 NCAAs.

In the new millennium, five collegians won NCAA titles as true freshmen: Oklahoma's Teyon Ware in 2003 ... in 2006, Minnesota's Dustin Schlatter ... Cornell University's Kyle Dake in 2010 ... in 2014, Missouri's J'den Cox ... and Ohio State's Myles Martin this past March.

Kalin's four-page freshman feature is liberally sprinkled with great photos of these highly accomplished mat champs ... along with fun facts and rich details that will dazzle your friends, confound your frenemies, and perhaps even help you win a bar bet or two. For all these reasons, "The 15" is must reading.

Can't get enough Jim Kalin? He has written a brand-new book, "Mustang", which chronicles the storied Maple Heights High School wrestling program in suburban Cleveland and the coach that put the Mustangs on the map, Mike Milkovich.


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dbestsport (1) about 5 years ago
Please confirm, but I think (I admit, I may not have al the data prior to WWII), that only 27 freshman in all have won NCAA titles.
Granbyman (1) about 5 years ago
MSU website > "Milkovich's journey incredibly started as a walk-on at MSU, and less than a year later, he became the youngest NCAA Champion in history at 18 years and three months when he won his first national title as a freshman in 1972, defeating Illinois State's Chris Quigley in the final, 4-2. To this day, Milkovich still holds the distinction of being the youngest wrestler to ever win a National Championship."
coolbeans (1) about 5 years ago
Good article. All true freshman should have had the opportunity to become a NCAA champ if they can make the team. Oh and by the way. There have been thousands of bigfoot sightings for hundreds of years. Apparently you are also unaware of the secret space programs (SSP). Thousands of humans have walked on our moon since the 1930's Thousands still live on our moon right now. Look it up.
brianmcguinty (1) about 5 years ago
Only 12 astronauts have walked on the moon. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John W. young, Charles Duke, Gene Cernam, harrison Schmitt
engineerlehigh (1) about 5 years ago
Even more impressive is that 1/5 of these true Freshmen have Lehigh Valley, PA ties.