Mike Chapman: Cael’s PSU impact predicted by his first champ

Updated: March 30, 2011

By Mike Chapman

If you like and respect history, you can mark down April 17, 2009, as one of the biggest moments in the past century of college wrestling. That’s the day Penn State officially announced the hiring of Cael Sanderson as its new head coach.

What a payoff that date has been for Penn State sports!

But the fact is that Cael has been making history ever since he first exploded on the college wrestling scene as an Iowa State Cyclone a dozen years ago.

Penn State mentor Cael Sanderson joined Dan Gable, John Smith and Tom Brands as former NCAA and Olympic champions to also capture NCAA Division I team championships as a coach. (Ginger Robinson photo)

He won his first NCAA title in 1999, on his way to fashioning the greatest record in collegiate wrestling history. After hanging up his singlet in 2002 with a 159-0 record, even Sports Illustrated recognized his accomplishments by ranking his career mark as the second greatest feat in the history of ALL collegiate sports!

Now, he’s making history again — this time as a coach. And, frankly, it looks like he’s just getting started.

After leading Penn State to the Big Ten team title several weeks ago, he was voted the league’s coach of the year — making him the only person ever to be named “Coach of the Year” in both the Big 12 and the Big Ten!

After a drought of nearly six decades, he is only the second coach to guide an Eastern school to the top of the entire collegiate wrestling world. Penn State captured the only other title in 1953, under coach Charlie Speidel.

In an effort to provide some perspective, Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer came up with the best line of the historic weekend: “It has been 58 years since Penn State had won a national wrestling title, so long that perhaps only Joe Paterno could recall it.”

Sanderson’s arrival on the Penn State campus made a huge impact all over the entire state, and across the East. It’s often been said that “A rising tide lifts all boats,” and the proof of that old saying is obvious. Looking back at the WIN issue of November 6, 2009, it was interesting to see this quote from a Nittany Lion wrestler in a story written by Jeff Breese.

“Cael coming to Penn State has given Pennsylvania a whole other spark …. a reason to put your guts and soul into the sport and try to wrestle for Penn State. There is no such thing as excuses anymore.”

That was Quentin Wright talking … and he put those words into action the last four weeks of the season. He entered the NCAA tournament at 184 pounds with a 16-6 record and the No. 9 seed, yet emerged as Penn State’s only NCAA champion. He wrestled like he believed what he had said two years earlier: “no excuses.”

That’s what having a Cael Sanderson in your corner (on and off the mat) can do for you.


THERE ARE SOME interesting similarities between the 1953 and 2011 seasons. Both NCAA meets were held in Pennsylvania: the 1953 tourney at Penn State and this year’s tourney in Philadelphia.

Three of the top four teams from 1953 were back in the top four this year. In 1953, Penn State was first, Cornell third and Oklahoma State fourth. Oklahoma, second in 1953, was 16th this year while Iowa, third this year, wasn’t even in the top 25 in 1953.

Penn State had just one champion both years: Hud Samson at 191 pounds in 1953 and Quentin Wright at 184 this year. Both years, PSU had five wrestlers earn All-American honors.

But there the similarities will end. After the historic 1953 season, the Nittany Lions did not climb back onto the top stand for 58 years. You can bet your bottom dollar that Penn State will be back on top again soon; in fact, they will be the overwhelming favorite to repeat in 2012.

But don’t get the idea that it will be an easy road for the new kings of college wrestling. Iowa, Cornell, Oklahoma State and Minnesota won’t be conceding a thing. Tom Brands, John Smith and J Robinson have all been to the mountaintop and like the view, while Rob Koll has come close enough to know what it must feel like. Coaches Barry Davis of Wisconsin and Mark Cody of American are anxious to join in the fight.

All are proven winners with as much inner fire as any coaches in the long history of the sport. The Division I college wrestling scene has not looked this exciting for years, if not decades!


Random thoughts about the 2011 tournament

• My wife, Bev, and I sat in the Wisconsin section during the tournament, with Mike and Debbie Howe, the parents of Andrew Howe. It was fun getting to know them and learning more about Andrew, a true warrior who did a superb job to place third at 165 pounds after coming back from a crushing hamstring injury in January. It’s hard to imagine Andrew could even walk to classes with that type of an injury, let alone compete just two months later in the Big Ten (which he won) and the NCAAs!

• Seated in the row in front of us was Jim Jordan and his wife, Polly. A two-time NCAA champion for Wisconsin (1987 and ‘88), Jim is now a United States Congressman from his native Ohio. His son, Ben, was on the Badger team and wrestled in the tourney at 174 pounds.

• The tournament received tremendous coverage all week long in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper, but once again was almost ignored by USA Today in the March 22nd edition. While USA Today carried page after page of photos and stories on college basketball, it gave the finals of the wrestling tourney just two small paragraphs in Monday’s edition, buried on page 8 under a small story on women’s hockey.

• The WIN Magazine Memorabilia Show had large crowds all three days and was part of the NCAA Fan Festival for the first time. Kurt Angle, two-time NCAA champion from Clarion University who was an Olympic gold medallist in 1996 and is now a pro wrestling superstar, had long lines on Saturday. The star attraction on Friday was Dan Henderson, a two-time Greco-Roman Olympian who is now a mixed martial arts star.

• Coach Bobby Douglas was at the WIN Show with his new biography, written by Craig Sesker, and sold all the books he brought. Bobby and his wife, Jackie, were surprised and delighted by the huge crowds at the Show.

Seven of the 14 different former Hodge Trophy winners appeared together at the WIN Magazine Memorabilia Show in Philadelphia. From left were Jayson Ness of Minnesota (2010), Les Gutches of Oregon State (1996), Ben Askren of Missouri (2006 and 2007), Kerry McCoy of Penn State (1997), Steve Mocco of Oklahoma State (2005) and Mark Ironside of Iowa (1998). Standing in front was Brent Metcalf of Iowa (2008). (Ashley Van Kley image)

• Seven of the 14 Dan Hodge Trophy winners signed autographs at Friday’s session and posed for a photo. They were Les Gutches (1996), Kerry McCoy (1997), Mark Ironside (1998), Steve Mocco (2005), Ben Askren (2006, 2007), Brent Metcalf (2009) and Jayson Ness (2010).