Sanderson hopes to have same success on sideline
As Iowa State's newest head coach, Cael Sanderson hopes to bring home the one title that escaped him in college: the team title.
Cael Sanderson's achievements on the wrestling mat are the paramount of athletic immortality.
With such an impressive résumé of dominance, it's hard to believe Sanderson has any regrets about his illustrious career. However, Sanderson is haunted by the one that got away: the NCAA team title.
"Winning a team title would have been enormous for me and the whole Cyclone nation," Sanderson said. "Winning as a team is more important than winning as an individual. That was the goal from the beginning."
Sanderson and the Cyclones came close. In 2000, Sanderson's brother Cody took the mat with ISU's title hopes on the line. For Cody, a senior at the time, the equation was simple: Win and bring the NCAA wrestling title back to Ames for the first time since 1987. He lost in overtime.
When Cael Sanderson, 27, was introduced as the Cyclones head wrestling coach this past March, he told anyone who would listen that the program would be brisk in its return to glory.
"Iowa State wrestling has such a strong tradition," Sanderson said. "I expect to take this program to the top where we are competing for a national championship every year."
Sanderson's transition from athlete to coach is hardly complete. However, in only a few months on the job he has noticed subtle changes.
The butterflies that once swarmed in his stomach before he entered the ring are no longer there, replaced by the mental weight of a managing a team. Gone are the days of sweat-soaked saunas; ever-present are the nights spent in the film room formatting plans of attack for the Cyclones.
"That is part of the fun. I am not getting out there and battling physically," he said. "There are so many things you have to focus on as a coach that it is hard to look back and think about anything other than what your current mission is."
Sanderson takes a hands-on approach to coaching. Each practice, he tries to spend one-on-one time wrestling with a few of his players; attempting to pass on the lessons learned in a lifetime of pinning peers.
"That is the benefit, I can let them feel what I am trying to show them," Sanderson said. "It's the best part of coaching these guys, I can go out there and show them and have fun wrestling."
While his ability on the mat might be a bounty from beyond this earth, coaching runs in the Sanderson's blood.
Both his grandfather and father coached wrestling in Utah. The latter has transformed Wasatch High in Heber, Utah, into a national power, largely behind strong performances of his four sons, all of whom went on to wrestle at Iowa State.
Cody Sanderson was the head coach at Utah Valley State before joining Cael in Ames this spring.
"We love the sport and we love to coach," Cody said. "Working with young men, being able to sit in their corners and watch them compete. It's something that has gone on for three generations [of Sandersons] now."
After winning the gold medal in 2004, Cael Sanderson came back to Ames and spent two years working under the legendary Bobby Douglas, including one year as an associate head coach, before taking the helm of the Cyclones.
"ISU is exactly where I wanted to be," Sanderson said. "They were real loyal to me and my family. Coach Douglas was a great teacher for me. There was just no place I wanted to be other than Ames, Iowa."
When Douglas retired after the 2005-06 season, ISU AD Jamie Pollard made his second head coaching hire.
"I joke and say it was either going to be Cael as the head coach or the AD will be let go," Pollard said. "Cael is a very bright individual that is very motivated and is a champion. He knows nothing less than being on top of his game."
A few months after taking over the head post, Sanderson brought in Cody as an assistant.
"He trusts me," Cody said. "He knows that I'll do everything that I need to do to make our team successful. And he knows that I have the same type of philosophy that he has, so we can really work together as a team."
Sanderson's youngest brother, Cyler, will be a redshirt freshman wrestler for the Cyclones next season. The fourth brother, Cole, who is older than Cael, is in graduate school at ISU.
"My family really likes ISU," Cael said. "It's a tough thing, to send your kid off to school and hope they get taken care of and treated fairly. I know my dad appreciates it. The fact that he sent four of his sons to ISU says something."
The Sanderson name should bring excitement back to Ames and will certainly be a boon to the Cyclones' recruiting. However, it also will come with expectations of success.
"Wrestling historically is one of ISU's most successful programs," Pollard said. "It's the sport that a lot of fans recognize as a national power year in and year out. Because of that, we need to be the best we can."
Sanderson says he will be his toughest critic.
"There is a lot of expectations, between the tradition of the program and what I did in college," he said. "But the bottom line is no one is going to put more pressure on me than myself. I want to win right away, and I expect to win right away."
Sanderson's immediate goal will be to lead the Cyclones to the Big 12 title. However, the Cyclones' ascension to the top won't be complete until they win the national title.
"It would be real special," he said. "And the great thing about that is, it would be real special to a lot of people. And that is why we are working all day. We can see the end from the beginning."
Brendan Murphy is a college sports intern at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy.-ND@espn3.com.