The broader sporting world is filled with cautionary tales, and Cael Sanderson knows it. Everywhere you look, there are examples of successful athletes who have had trouble translating the glory of their playing days into coaching or the front office. Matt Millen won three Super Bowls as a player. As a Lions executive, he's lucky if his team wins three games in a season. Isiah Thomas? Michael Jordan? No comment necessary.
So the natural question for Sanderson is this one: How is he going to be different? As a college wrestler at Iowa State, he was the best there ever was. He wrestled in 159 matches and won 159 matches, taking home four NCAA titles in the process. He won an Olympic gold medal in Athens. To watch him on the mat was to see poetry in motion; he was so skilled and so far ahead of opponents both mentally and physically that they often didn't stand a chance.
But exuding greatness and teaching it are two different things. When Sanderson accepted the head coaching position at his alma mater in March, he was 27 years old and just the sixth head coach Iowa State has had since 1916. He not only had the expectations set by his predecessor, Bobby Douglas, Sanderson also had his own flawless precedent to fuel expectations.
"I understand that, and I've heard many stories about coaches who try to have athletes do what they did, but I don't do that," Sanderson said. "I'm big on the fundamentals and the basics of the sport. We rehearse them every day, and that's what's going to help our guys improve. I help them individually with techniques, but we're staying fundamental. It's been a good adjustment, and it's definitely a lot different, but I'm attacking it just like I would competing."
Leave it to Sanderson to take a somewhat complicated question and turn it on its side, then flick it away. He did it to would-be challengers at Iowa State for four years. Why would it be any different now? The Cyclones, after dual meet losses to Iowa and Minnesota in early December, had perhaps their best all-around showing in their most recent competition, winning the Midland Championships Dec. 29-30 and soundly defeating rival Iowa in the process.
Sanderson does have examples of successful athletes turned coaches to draw from in the wrestling world. Legendary Iowa coach Dan Gable, now back as an assistant with the Hawkeyes, and John Smith, who coaches four-time defending NCAA champion Oklahoma State, were both standouts in the NCAA and Olympics like Sanderson.
"I think there is a considerable amount of pressure. You look at other wrestlers like John Smith and Dan Gable, who have had some pretty amazing coaching careers, too," Sanderson said. "But that's one reason, too, that I'm at Iowa State. I know there's pressure and expectations. Our wrestlers and administration, they expect to contend for a national championship in the first place. That's exactly what I want do."
So far, Sanderson is keeping a professional distance from both Gable and Smith, who are both at rival programs. Iowa State has a dual at the end of January with Oklahoma State. Sanderson has seen Gable already this season, and the two had a heated moment during the dual between the Cyclones and the Hawkeyes, which Sanderson now shrugs off as being "all in fun, really."
Instead, Sanderson has leaned heavily on Douglas, who coached him at Iowa State, and his brother Cody, who was the head coach at Utah Valley State before returning to Iowa State to be the associate head coach under Cael.
"It's a really good staff, and Coach Douglas left me a great team," Sanderson said. "I rely a ton on Cody. He's really good in pretty much all areas. He's been a head coach for three years, and he started a program from scratch, so there's some priceless advice there."
Sanderson acknowledged he wants to win "sooner rather than later," but he has put no timetable on contending for or possibly winning a national championship. The upcoming National Duals (Jan. 13-14 in Cedar Falls, Iowa) will give him a good read on where his team stands this season.
"When we can win a national championship, I don't know," he said. "There are a lot of factors that come into play. We want to win as soon as possible for the fans and the athletes. And we're training to win now."
Listening to Sanderson, you hear the calm confidence he always exuded as a wrestler. Indeed, it appears his toughest transition into the world of being a head coach has been outside of work. A talented artist who majored in graphic design at Iowa State, Sanderson said Douglas -- a very animated man, to say the least -- was his favorite subject to draw. These days, Sanderson admits, he does not spend much time drawing or painting.
"That's one thing I've learned, being the head coach -- it's a little tougher to clear your mind and relax and do other things," he said. "Maybe that's why I should be doing it. But I haven't spent a lot of time with art lately. Hopefully in the future, I'll be able to."
He has managed to sneak in some time playing the PlayStation 3 he got for Christmas. Of course, in the next breath Sanderson mentioned that he and his wife, Kelly, are expecting the birth of their first child in February. He said that will likely help him "find some balance" outside of wrestling, but it surely means even less time for other things.
"We're really excited," he said. "It's a lifestyle change, for sure -- probably less PlayStation -- but that's cool."
The couple doesn't have any names picked yet, but they know it's going to be a boy. Perhaps the final question for Sanderson was a little naive: Will he be a wrestler?
"Shoot, I don't think he has a choice," Sanderson said, laughing. "I think I'll get him into wrestling as a recreational thing. If he loves it or likes it, I'll support him. There are a lot of great things wrestling teaches you that I'll want him to learn."
"At least that's what I'm saying right now," he added. "I'll be preparing him to get that singlet and wear it proudly."
And then a whole new set of expectations will be born. But if Sanderson has proven anything in his short time as a head coach, it's that a legacy doesn't have to be a burden.
Michael Rand is a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.