Penn State Head Wrestling Coach Cael Sanderson is in the conversation of the greatest college athletes of all time. While wrestling at Iowa State, he tallied 159 wins without suffering a loss, the only collegiate wrestler to ever do so. He was a four-time NCAA National Champion and a three-time Hodge Trophy winner as the most outstanding wrestler. He also won a gold metal at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
Sanderson’s dominance was so impressive that Sports Illustrated named his achievements the second most impressive college feat in history, behind the four world records set by Jesse Owens over a span of 45 minutes.
Now as the head coach at Penn State, he has guided the Nittany Lions to seven of the last eight team NCAA National Championship titles. His overall success is unmatched among all collegiate sports.
When Sanderson made the move to Happy Valley from his alma mater in 2009 he saw the potential in the university to grow. “If we do things the right way, with a lot of hard work and a little luck, we can really create a dynasty here,” said Sanderson in a 2009 interview with Kellie Goodman of WPSU.
A dynasty is precisely what he has created here in State College. With the seven team titles in addition to a loaded 2018 lineup that is in a great position to see the top of the champion’s podium once again.
How has Cael Sanderson created so much success in the sport of wrestling? It begins with his father, Steve Sanderson. Watching his father build a stellar high school program in his hometown of Heber City, Utah, Sanderson grew up to love the sport of wrestling. Living with his two brothers, Cody and Cyler, wrestling was a staple in their way of life. This family was a major component of Cael Sanderson’s success as a wrestler at Iowa State. They helped keep him focussed and motivated to be atop the podium year after year.
Now here at Penn State, he is joined by his brother Cody, an assistant coach on the staff. His brother Cyler was a wrestler for the duo at Iowa State and made the transition to Penn State to wrestle his senior season with his family.
Sanderson has continued to learn from his father during his time at Penn State. “I still ask him for advice on a regular basis. I think I’m a guy who is really similar to him, at least I want to be, in that I want to get a lot out of these guys. I want them to be competitors and guys that go out there and fight,” said Sanderson in his WPSU interview.
Sanderson’s goal of coaching the sport of wrestling is not to simply win the most championships; he wants to make an impact on on those he coaches and have them go into the world and make a positive impact. His coaching staff works to instill values and principles into their wrestlers that they will carry with them far after they leave Penn State. But, in order for their wrestlers to accept these values, Sanderson must embrace these in his own life.
Over his time as a wrestler as well as a coach, he has remained humble through all of his success. It would be easy for Sanderson to boast his accomplishments and knock the competition down. Instead, coach Sanderson is the first to compliment the competition and discuss areas in which himself and the team need to improve.
Along with this humble nature comes knowledge. “It’s comforting knowing you have someone who knows the ins and outs of the sport,” said Nittany Lion sophomore Devin Schnupp when asked about what it feels like to have coach Sanderson in his corner during matches. Sanderson is able to offer an incredible amount of wrestling advice to his wrestlers that is nearly unmatched at the collegiate level. This provides Penn State with an incredible advantage over other programs.
With coach Sanderson at the helm of the Penn State wrestling program, the future looks strong. The work ethic that is instilled into the team and mentorship that he and the coaching staff provides is what makes Penn State special. Any speculation of Sanderson pursuing another opportunity to coach such as Olympic training or another collegiate program can be put to rest. “I plan on finishing my coaching career here at Penn State,” said Sanderson. His loyalty is to the Blue and White.
Even with such a storied past, the future looks just as bright for Sanderson. He has continued to work his lineups and strategically redshirt wrestlers in order to create the best chances to win championships. Recruiting classes continue to show promise year-after-year for the Nittany Lions, largely in part due to the opportunity to be coached by Sanderson.
The sport of wrestling will likely never experience another undefeated wrestler at the collegiate level. Sanderson is a rare breed among athletes, and we are all witness to his domination.
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