On April 17, 2009, Penn State Director of Athletics Tim Curley signalled a paradigm shift in the landscape of collegiate athletics with a stunning announcement. He sent tremors of shocking proportions through the wrestling world and he set the Penn State wrestling program on a course that many around the country feel could shift the powerbase of wrestling in the United States eastward.Read More Watch Video
Tim Curley named national wrestling legend Cael Sanderson as Penn State’s 12th head wrestling coach on that day and immediately, the nation looked East. As Sanderson left his alma mater of Iowa State and moved himself, his staff and three families to Happy Valley, the nation’s high school wrestlers took notice and a roomful of already dedicated Nittany Lion grapplers smiled, cheered and geared up for a new direction in Penn State wrestling.
The 29-year old Sanderson came to Penn State after three extremely successful years as the head coach at his alma mater. Sanderson’s teams did not finish any lower than fifth at the NCAA Championships and never had a wrestler not qualify for nationals, getting 30 of 30 grapplers through to the championship tournament.
In 2007, Sanderson’s rookie campaign, he led ISU to a 13-3 dual meet record and the first of three straight Big 12 Championships. An NCAA Runner-Up finish in Detroit capped off a wildly successful year as the Cyclones crowned one national champion and Sanderson was honored as Big 12 Coach of the Year, National Rookie Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year. The next year, Sanderson led ISU to a 16-4 dual meet mark, another Big 12 title and a fifth place finish at nationals. Iowa State’s seven All-Americans in 2008 were the most at the school since 1993.
In 2009, Sanderson’s team went 15-3 in duals, won its third straight Big 12 title and took third place at the NCAA Championships in St. Louis (just 12 points out of first place). The Cyclones also crowned another national champion. In three years at Iowa State, Sanderson’s teams went 44-10, won three conference crowns, qualified all 30 wrestlers for nationals, and earned 15 All-America awards and two individual national titles.
His first season at Penn State was extremely successful. Sanderson led Penn State to a 13-6-1 dual meet record, much improved over the prior year’s 8-12-2 mark. After a year outside the top ten, Sanderson led the Lions back to their place among the nation’s elite with a ninth place finish at the NCAA Championships and a No. 10 final dual meet ranking from the NWCA Coaches. Sanderson picked up three more All-Americans (including a national finalist) and a Big Ten Champion (in younger brother Cyler Sanderson).
In 2011, Sanderson guided the Nittany Lions to its first-ever Southern Scuffle Co-Championship (2010-11) and its first Virginia Duals Championship since 1991 (2010-11). In guiding Penn State to a 6-1-1 conference mark, Sanderson equaled the most Big Ten dual meet wins in Penn State history in just his second year at the helm of the Nittany Lions (Penn State won six Big Ten duals in 1998). Sanderson led Penn State to the school’s first ever Big Ten Championship on March 5-6 and was named 2011 Big Ten Coach of the Year. Saving the best for last, he led the Nittany Lions to the 2011 NCAA National Championship in Philadelphia on March 17-19, Penn State’s first since 1953 and Sanderson’s first as a collegiate head coach.
As a wrestler, Sanderson established himself as the most dominant collegiate competitor in NCAA history. In four years, Sanderson never lost. From 1999-2002, Sanderson posted a 159-0 career record (going 39-0, 40-0, 40-0 and 40-0); won four individual National Championships; won four Most Outstanding Wrestler awards at the NCAA Championships (the only wrestler in NCAA history to do so); became the first freshman in NCAA history to win the O.W. honor and won three Dan Hodge Trophies as the nation’s best collegiate wrestler (also a collegiate first). He wrestled his first three years at 184 and then moved to 197 as a senior.
The four-time All-American’s four-year streak of perfection was called the No. 2 most outstanding achievement in collegiate sports history by Sports Illustrated and the NCAA called his final win (in the 2002 NCAA 197-pound championship) one of the NCAA’s “25 Defining Moments” for its Centennial celebration. His wrestling career culminated in 2004 when the Heber City, Utah, native won the 84 kg Olympic Gold Medal in Athens, Greece.
After graduating in 2002, he spent 2003 and 2004 as a special assistant in the athletic department at Iowa State before joining the ISU coaching staff as an assistant coach in 2004-05. He was promoted to the assistant head coach position the next year and then became the Cyclones’ head coach for the 2006-07 season.