Commentary

Cael Sanderson strives for success

Originally Published: January 28, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

You can just imagine what you'd be thinking upon finding out your new wrestling coach is … the guy who never lost a match in his entire college career.

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Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics Cael Sanderson jumped at the chance to help take Penn State to another level.

Mr. Perfect, 159-0. Four consecutive NCAA titles from 1999 to 2002. Athens Olympic Games gold medalist in 2004. You'd have to wonder: How intense is he? Does he breathe fire? And if so, will he consider all of us marshmallows needing to be roasted?

"I watched a lot of his matches," Penn State wrestler Frank Molinaro said of Cael Sanderson, the Iowa State and Olympic legend. "But upon first meeting him, I think a lot of us were intimidated. I didn't know if he was going to be yelling all the time, but he's actually the opposite. He's really level-headed and up front with us. He always has a clear message, but he's also got a sense of humor.

"I was shocked when I heard he was coming here. He was leaving a top school where he'd wrestled, and meanwhile, we were a little down that year. It seemed like a really extreme move for him."

Indeed, Sanderson pretty much shook up the collegiate wrestling world in April 2009 when he left his alma mater, where he'd been head coach for three years, to take over at Penn State. He replaced Nittany Lions alum Troy Sunderland, who had resigned after 11 seasons in which his dual-meet record was 115-90-2.

Sunderland's program had finished as high as third in the NCAA championships, in 2008. But the lack of a national title -- something Penn State has won just once in wrestling, in 1953 -- was a disappointment.

On the surface, it was probably a big surprise to most folks that Sanderson left Ames, Iowa, for any place, including Happy Valley, considering his ties to the Cyclones' program and the fact his wife, Kelly, is from Iowa.

However, Sanderson himself is not an Iowa native; he is from Utah. And his goal was to regularly contend for NCAA team titles, something he felt Penn State was very close to being able to do. Thus, he relocated to State College, Pa.

"I just knew that it was the right move," Sanderson said. "It was a lot of things: The support that I felt at Penn State was what's needed to build the kind of program that I wanted. It is a big school, which should give you an advantage in recruiting in the region, the state and even the whole Northeast.

"And the idea of building something appealed to me. I could see they had all the pieces. Not that they weren't already a good program, but to go even a notch up."

Add to that the fact in the Big 12 there are just five schools with wrestling programs compared to 11 in the Big Ten. Those numbers switch to four and 12 next season when Nebraska joins the Big Ten. The in-league competition at Penn State is second to none in collegiate wrestling. Which feeds into the fans' passion for the sport.

All of that -- along with a natural rivalry that's enhanced even more by Sanderson's presence -- will be on display Sunday when defending national champion Iowa visits Penn State's Rec Hall for a dual meet.

Hard to picture much more going right for a wrestling dual than this: It's sold-out, Sanderson is facing the Hawkeyes … and on top of everything, unbeaten Penn State elevated to the No. 1 ranking in the NWCA/USA Today poll Tuesday after a loss to Lehigh last week dropped Cornell to second. Iowa is No. 8, and while the Hawkeyes' dual-meet winning streak ended at Oklahoma State with a tie on Jan. 16, they still haven't lost a dual since 2008.

"It kind of gets you a little nervous," Molinaro said of anticipating the packed-house atmosphere Sunday. "But at the same time, it's what you trained for and the situation you dream of being in. It's why we work hard and sacrifice so much time; it's a great opportunity to really put us on the map, but also for those people who've been Penn State fans forever to come to the match. It's going to be a special day.

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Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics Frank Molinaro has embraced the new coaching staff's philosophy.

"There are a lot of people that are putting a lot of time into this, as far as setting things up like parking, selling tickets, getting it on TV. There are so many people on board, and so much excitement around Penn State."

It says something about Molinaro -- who represents the type of student-athlete Sanderson wants at Penn State -- that he'd take time to notice and appreciate what an athletic department-wide effort this meet is requiring.

Molinaro acknowledges that the idea of "team" with the Nittany Lions wrestling program wasn't as strong in his freshman season as it's become since Sanderson and his staff, which includes brother Cody Sanderson, arrived.

"Discipline has been the biggest change," said Molinaro, a two-time All-American junior from Barnegat, N.J., ranked No. 5 individually at 149 pounds. "Everyone wants to be a national champion. Before, I don't think we all shared the same goals or were necessarily on the same page.

"Now we're on a team with several guys who are ranked, and we all know we have to do our jobs to take care of the big picture. Nobody wants to let the other guys down. We all have a small part in building to the goal of becoming a national-championship team. If you slack off, you know you might be ruining a chance for the entire team to win."

Eight Nittany Lions are currently ranked in their weight class. Sanderson has been happy with how well the older wrestlers adapted to his system, and with how this year's freshmen have adapted to college competition.

"Frank is very consistent in what he's doing; he's a guy where you know what you're going to get every time he goes out there," Sanderson said. "That's been big as far as him being a leader in the program. It's been important to us, especially last year in our first season here. Having guys like Frank really helped us out."

The top rookies thus far have been Andrew Alton (141), David Taylor (157) and Ed Ruth (174). Alton and Ruth are from Pennsylvania; Taylor is from Ohio.

"When you have freshmen competing like we do this year, things have happened a little quicker than we even may have anticipated," Sanderson said. "But we still have a lot of the season left. We've had some big matches, but all the most important stuff, really, is still to come."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.