An Oral History of the Day Cael Sanderson Turned College Wrestling on Its Head
Before Penn State wrestling could start its 59-dual winning streak, rattle off eight NCAA titles in nine years, or justify the marketing slogan “Wrestling Lives Here,” a surprise coaching hire sent shockwaves through college wrestling.
Ten years ago today, Cael Sanderson stunned the wrestling world when news broke that he was leaving his alma mater Iowa State to take the reins at Penn State. It was inconceivable at the time, considering his legendary college career with the Cyclones and the investment they had made only three years before in naming a 27-year-old head coach over a successful, well-tenured leader. What was more inconceivable was the potential of what this new partnership could accomplish.
Sanderson traveled east in pursuit of fertile recruiting grounds, better administrative support, and the opportunity to awaken what he’s described as a “sleeping giant.” It was a match made in heaven for the Nittany Lions and a worst-case scenario for other teams around the country. The greatest college wrestler of all time was joining one of the greatest athletic programs on the greatest wrestling hotbed in the world.
This is the story of how he sparked that evolution and ignited a dynasty that would change college wrestling forever.
Part I: All these things were in place and no one could understand why Penn State hadn’t won a national championship since 1953.
Photo by Elissa Hill/Onward State
Penn State was in a rut before Sanderson arrived. The long-underwhelming Nittany Lions were coming off an 8-12-2 dual season and a 17th place at the 2009 NCAA Championships. Just the year before, Penn State had placed third at nationals. However, that finish stands as an outlier and was the product of a remarkable run where everything seemed to work out in the Nittany Lions’ favor. The team hovered around .500 under head coach Troy Sunderland and had only one other top-five finish in his 11 years, placing as low as 35th.
Given Penn State’s rich tradition, central location among the world’s best high school wrestling, and strong athletic department, these struggles baffled alumni, fans, and administrators, and created a bit of unrest among them. A change was coming, and it needed to be one that could shake things up.
Frank Molinaro, Penn State wrestler (2009-2012): Every year, we were within striking distance of winning the Big Ten Championships, but not a favorite. At the time, we were still kind of duking it out with teams like Minnesota, Iowa, and Ohio State. Nationally, we were right around a top-ten team, but by no means a juggernaut. We had a third-place finish two years before Cael got there, but the next year was just a very bad year.
Dan Vallimont, Penn State wrestler (2007-2010): The program was in a good spot, but it wasn’t in as good of a spot as it could be. We had some guys who weren’t maximizing their potential, but that’ll happen in any program. I think we had some really, really good guys who just didn’t quite get to where they needed to be. Some guys were getting into trouble outside the wrestling room or not getting their grades done correctly. I don’t know how the administration looked upon it, but I’m sure it wasn’t fondly. We came off such a great year my sophomore season. Coming off that year, we had really high expectations and didn’t live up to them. I guess that kind of gave the administration what they needed as far as moving forward and looking for a new coach.
Christian Pyles, FloWrestling senior editor: The thought was, “Look at Pennsylvania wrestling. Look at the brand that is Penn State as a university. It doesn’t add up to the success or lack thereof.” Even though they got a trophy in 2008, even then it was clear that they weren’t gonna win a national title. It was kind of like they were underperforming, but you can only do so bad at Penn State. You can only go so low.
To put it succinctly, it wasn’t an optimized program. They had talent, but weren’t getting enough of the Pennsylvania elite or the most out of the guys they had. It was certainly a solid program, but nothing that was going to threaten the upper echelon.
Guy Cipriano, former Penn State wrestling beat writer, Centre Daily Times: You were thinking, “What’s going on here? Why are Edinboro and Cornell outpacing Penn State at NCAAs year after year when they don’t have the same talent base or resources?” There was a nice following, and you could see wrestling mattered at Penn State, but it just wasn’t computing. It was a program that was under-achieving, to put it nicely.
Jeff Byers, Penn State wrestling radio broadcaster: [Building the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex in 2006] was a big step forward, no questions asked. With that came added expectations and pressure to win. When nice amenities are part of the equation, you better start producing. A variety of factors played into it, but they didn’t [start winning].
Cipriano: It was always viewed as a sleeping lion. For years, people had said facilities were holding Penn State back, but then they got the facilities. They had a fully funded staff and the freestyle program, so guys could continue after college. All these things were in place and no one could understand why Penn State hadn’t won a national championship since 1953.
Part II: Everything you’d want in a head coach, he’s all of that.
Photo by Elissa Hill/Onward State
After Penn State and Sunderland parted ways, a five-person committee of athletic director Tim Curley, associate athletic director Jan Bortner, Ira Lubert, Dave Joyner, and faculty representative Scott Kretchmar launched a highly-publicized national search for the Nittany Lions’ next coach. The overwhelming task of sifting through a loaded group of candidates became a whole lot clearer when Sanderson’s name entered the ring. His storied career on the mat and small-but-mighty sample size in the coaches’ corner spoke for themselves. His unimaginable track record during the last 10 years has justified the splash made by Penn State Athletics and exceeded the expectations anyone had when he was hired.
Ira Lubert, Penn State wrestler (1970-1973), Penn State Trustee: Tim Curley called me and said he was going to do a national search for his new wrestling coach and asked if I’d be on the committee. I was thrilled to be on it. Tim knew of my passion for wrestling, so when he asked me to be on the committee, I took that as a positive. I said that if we were going to get another coach, we were going to get the best we can get. Tim seemed to be very supportive of that.
Dave Joyner, Penn State wrestler (1970-1972), Penn State Trustee (2000-2011), Penn State athletic director (2011-2015): Without revealing names, there were a lot of phenomenal coaches and unbelievable people interested in the job. It was national, not just from the Northeast. Fate led us to what we have, and I don’t think anyone’s complaining.
Rich Lorenzo, former Penn State wrestling coach (1979-1992): We had one heck of a field of people interested, I mean, you know, Rob Koll, Kerry McCoy, Pat Santoro, Timmy Flynn. You could pick five or six of the best coaches in the country and they all were interested in looking at this job — not saying that they would’ve taken it. But then Cael came into the mix.
Cipriano: Cael Sanderson was one of those guys who you thought was off-limits. He had wrestled at Iowa State, and Iowa State made a bold move a few years earlier to force out Bobby Douglas so they wouldn’t lose Cael the way they lost Dan Gable in the ‘70s.
From what I understood, Cael wasn’t even on Penn State’s radar. Apparently, it was him who reached out to Penn State. No one will ever know the whole story, but from what I heard, there were some things at Iowa State that he was unhappy about and he saw tremendous potential at Penn State. It was just as much him being proactive and looking to take his next career step as it was Penn State wanting Cael.
Pyles: I believe he didn’t feel like he was administratively supported enough and thought he’d have it better at Penn State, which happened. And this is probably why he reached out initially.
Joyner: Cael would’ve been on the top of anyone’s list. I don’t kiss and tell, so I don’t want to go into details, but it was all done in an honorable and ethical way. By not answering it, my answer probably gives it away.
Lubert: It was a group decision. You read [Cael’s] resume, and it’s incredible. It wasn’t hard to see he was one of the two or three greatest wrestlers ever and a great record as a head coach even as a young guy. I attended every interview and there were some great candidates, but after talking to Cael, he was my pick. I was convinced. He could be a great, great person to come into Penn State. He had a great value system and the right credentials. Everything you’d want in a head coach, he’s all of that.
Not everyone on the committee knew that he was truly committed to us. Some thought he might be doing this to get a better position or more money from Iowa State. I asked him, “Why would you want to come to Penn State?” He said there’s four things you need: “Good college reputation, Penn State has that in spades. Good geographical area to recruit from, there’s no better area than where Penn State sits in the middle of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Maryland. Good facilities, you have a state-of-the-art wrestling room. Great fan and alumni support.” I came away from hearing him say this, thinking those were the four raw materials and what he brought was the fifth thing: the leadership. That combination of those five things has built this dynasty.
Byers: I had been on some radio show or podcast in the weeks leading up to the announcement, and they asked me who I thought it might be or if I had any insight. I said, “I really don’t, but I think that Penn State, with the money they have to offer, and if they’re looking to really make a big splash, it wouldn’t surprise me if they got anyone other than John Smith, Tom Brands, and Cael Sanderson. Obviously, those three are all well-established where they’re at. Anyone else, it’s entirely possible.” Of course, within a week or two, I had to eat my words. I just didn’t think Cael would leave. I thought he was set at Iowa State. It was his alma mater and they were knocking on the door each of his three years. I had no idea he was even an option.
Molinaro: I didn’t find out they were considering hiring Cael until they announced they had already hired him. They kept it low-key and no one talked about how he was coming out here to visit or how they were going after Cael Sanderson. It was more that we found out once he got the job, which if you know Cael, it shouldn’t surprise you.
Vallimont: Nobody came and told us that they were looking into bringing Cael Sanderson. It was moreso just people hearing rumors that Cael was in town or that so-and-so is interviewing. It was a lot of hearsay. The one day Cael was supposedly on campus, none of us were really sure, so we were joking around all day while walking around campus that we were going to find Cael. We weren’t too sure if he was here or not, so we were all texting each other, “Did you see him?” “No, did you see him?” It was a lot of speculation and people reading on the forums about who might be interviewing.
Cipriano: I’ve heard that Penn State was prepared to introduce [Rob Koll] and had a verbal agreement lined up before Cael was interested in the job. Right before they were about to announce [Koll] was going to get the job, I was told by some reputable people in the wrestling community that Cael Sanderson was talking to Penn State. I thought, “Cael Sanderson? No way. He’s established himself at Iowa State and has a top-three team coming back. This is beyond crazy.”
I made a few more phone calls and some other people started reaching out to me, so I wrote a 300- or 400-word story in the Centre Daily Times the next morning that Penn State was interested in Cael Sanderson. Later that day, it was announced he was hired.
Byers: My gut feeling was that Rob Koll was the guy. I think that if they did not work out an agreement with Cael, I think Rob was Choice 1B. But to get Cael was obviously a seismic hiring. It was stunning. I truly could not have envisioned it.
Molinaro: [Hiring Sanderson] showed how committed they were to making Penn State the best possible program. When you go out and get a Cael Sanderson, it shows how serious you are. You don’t go out and get a Cael Sanderson if you don’t have the resources or the fans or location. All those things need to be right.
Lorenzo: Timmy [Curley] fell in love with wrestling. He was supportive of hiring Cael, he was supportive of letting us do things, build the facility, raise the money, and we raised money to build it. Not too many sports are capable of doing that or able to do that, but at the time, it was like wrestling and football could do that, ‘cause we just had the following.
Joyner: The facilities don’t make the coach, but they assist in recruiting, give you the room to get after it, and help a wrestler grow. The combination of great facilities and a great coach is the perfect combination for success. Tim had a great vision when he made the investment in the wrestling room and went out to get the best coach we could find.
Lubert: Part of an athletic director’s job is to talk to alumni and former athletes. My sense is [Curley] got enough feedback where he felt we have an opportunity to take Penn State to the next level. He was smart and loyal enough to Penn State to care and know that there was so much passion for wrestling, even though it’s not football or basketball. He wanted to do the right thing and recruited Cael. Tim doesn’t get enough credit. He was the leader who brought Cael here.
Byers: There had been a bit of a clash at the time between [Sunderland] and the administration in terms of the vision for the program. I don’t know in retrospect if one was righter than the other, but what the coaches were fighting for, Cael now has. I’m not saying if Troy got what he was asking for, he’d be winning eight national titles in nine years, but I think he was on the right track as far as long-term vision. [Administrators] were making an investment, but what they weren’t ready to do was re-examine the way they were going about business. They were much more willing to do that under Cael than they had been under the previous couple regimes.
Pat Donghia, Penn State wrestling sports information director: From Tim Curley to Dave Joyner to Sandy [Barbour], every athletic director we’ve had has noticed the benefit of supporting the student athletes to the fullest, not just wrestling. Knowing that you have a department that wants you to succeed and give these student athletes every opportunity to succeed on the mat, in the classroom, and in life and expects that of you — you can’t put a price tag on that.
Sanderson (blog on April 23, 2009): I have taken the job because of the long-term opportunity and limitless potential of Penn State wrestling. When I say opportunity, I am not talking about money. I have answered many questions where people are speculating that I got a million-dollar contract (don’t know where that came from) or something ridiculous like that. The truth is that the offer I received was less than a 10 percent increase from what I made last year.
Dan Gable, former Iowa wrestling coach (1976-1997) and winner of 15 NCAA team titles: I wouldn’t admit that if I was coaching the Cyclones, but in reality, it’s called the Hawkeye State. Part of Iowa State’s motivation is to make it the Cyclone State, but sometimes instead of being tough and a hard worker, you look at the big picture.
Willie Saylor, FloWrestling managing editor: [Sanderson] went from being the other school in Iowa, with a population of, I don’t know, 3 million people, to being at the flagship university of the Northeast, at least in sports.
Pyles: I think he saw the potential in Pennsylvania with the high school wrestling. I don’t know how much it was about getting away from other big powers, because [Penn State] and Ohio State are always competing for a lot of the same guys. It’s just easier to get guys from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. And if you clean up there, then you’re set. It’s all about proximity to the best talent, and the best talent is east.
Cody Goodwin, Des Moines Register wrestling writer: No amount of money was going to keep Cael around once that job opened and they approached him about the opportunity.
Sanderson (blog on April 23, 2009): The opportunity to step in and awake a sleeping GIANT is exciting. I know ISU will always be at or near the top. I feel terrible that I didn’t accomplish what I said I would do at Iowa State and that was to win the national championship. That alone almost made me pass on what I feel is a better opportunity for my family.
Jamie Pollard, Iowa State athletic director (statement on April 17, 2009): It is a difficult day for all Cyclones as we cope with the departure of a truly outstanding and accomplished student and coach…During the last week, Cael and I talked numerous times and we had several in-depth and personal discussions about this decision. Those talks included me asking what, if anything, could we do to keep him at Iowa State. I also asked President Geoffroy, [women’s basketball coach] Bill Fennelly, and [men’s basketball coach] Greg McDermott to reach out to Cael and they all did so. In the end, Cael said that he appreciated everything Iowa State and our fans had done for him but he believes winning a national championship will be easier at Penn State. He said the high school talent in Pennsylvania and surrounding states is the best in the country and the kids in that area grow up wanting to wrestle for the Nittany Lions. He also said their overall athletics department resources are the best in the country.
Jeremiah Davis, former Iowa State Daily writer (column on March 21, 2011): Sanderson sold out the school, fans, and community that made him who he is. Yes, he sold out. Without Iowa State — and Bobby Douglas coaching him for that matter — would Sanderson have gone undefeated as a wrestler, then been given his first head coaching position at a Big 12 program? I just don’t think so.
Goodwin: The lasting impact with large portions of the fan base is that a lot of people still blame Cael for the way the Iowa State program kind of fell off, which was always interesting to me, because five or six years in, [new coach Kevin Jackson] had time to get his guys in the room. It’s always funny to me to listen to people still blame Cael, even after five or six years and because he supposedly emptied the cupboard and took all the recruits with him. They look at Penn State and say, “Man, what would have happened to college wrestling if that had happened in Ames?”
Cipriano: There was no secret about what kind of potential [Penn State] had. It was like everyone knew where the oil was, but no one had been able to drill for it, so this wasn’t all Penn State alums and Tim Curley actively pursuing the best possible coach out there. This was the best possible coach out there actively pursuing Penn State.
Sanderson (New York Times article on November 28, 2009): It’s like if I was a football coach with a chance to go to Texas where all the great players are, where they have the best facilities, and where the fans support you to this incredible level…I don’t only want one [title]. I want a bunch of them like the University of Iowa. I believe I’m in the right place for that to happen.
Part III: My mind was blown. At the time, it was earth-shaking.
Photo courtesy Penn State Athletics
The announcement that Sanderson was coming to Penn State caught the wrestling world off guard. “Cael to Penn State” was only one of an endless stream of outrageous and hard-to-believe rumors on the message boards. It just happened to come true in a surprising turn of events. No one expected Sanderson to leave Iowa State. His arrival came with high anticipation among wrestlers and fans alike as everyone involved began to think: Is this when things are finally going to change?
Molinaro: I remember I was on Cherry Lane, sitting in my apartment when my cell phone rang, and it was Cael Sanderson. I stopped everything I was doing. I had never talked to the guy in my life. I was really excited. I knew there was so much to be learned from him, so for me, it was a blessing. I thought that this is what I signed up for, and now they’re bringing in the best collegiate wrestler of all-time, so I felt really grateful for Penn State going out and getting the best.
Pyles: My wife’s a choir teacher, so we were on some trip on this enormous passenger bus. I was on my phone looking at message boards and then I started getting all these texts: “Cael to Penn State.” My mind was blown. At the time, it was earth-shaking, because it was so out of nowhere. What that means for first, [Cael] to leave his alma mater and then, to go to Penn State, your mind just wandered to “Man, what does he see here? What kind of potential is there?”
It was something where if he can get the guys, he could turn them into a title contender. No one was predicting eight out of nine, but at the time, it was a huge deal. It was seismic when it happened.
Saylor: I remember it vividly. I was working at the doctor’s office, and I got the news, and I immediately called [former Penn State All-American wrestler] Jamarr Billman, who’s now the head coach of Easton High School, and I said, “Dude, Cael Sanderson just took the job at Penn State,” and he was like, “No way, that’s crazy, that’s going to change a lot of things.”
Byers: I remember reading the release and my jaw hitting the floor. I didn’t know what was gonna happen would happen, but I obviously knew this was a game-changer. I had always thought Penn State was going to break through and win a national title, but I felt pretty confident that within the first three to five years, Cael would have Penn State in a position to seriously contend. I obviously didn’t think that in the second year, he’d be dominating the sport.
Vallimont: It was a little bit of shock in a good way. Cael Sanderson just seemed like too far of a stretch. When his name started being in the rumors we heard, it was kind of like “Ehhhh, we’ll see.” And then sure enough, it happened. It was a shocked excitement or maybe a shocked anticipation.
Bubba Jenkins, Penn State wrestler (2007-2009): As far as the wrestling team goes, we were getting the Michael Jordan. We were getting that dude on the Wheaties box who won the Olympics and one of the best wrestling minds to ever step on the mat to one of the best breeding grounds for the sport. You could see that recipe was going to be amazing. My first reaction was, “This is a great: great mind and a great, great wrestler.”
Matt Dernlan, former Penn State wrestling assistant coach (2004-2011): Everything you see Penn State doing now, you immediately knew that was a possibility when Cael took over. When you have a passion for a program and you want to see it excel at the highest level, you knew that was going to be unleashed when Cael came on board. I was just excited to see Penn State ascend to the position that I always thought it could be and that’s as the most dominant program in the country. Now they’re well on their way to being the most dominant program in the history of college wrestling.
Cipriano: There was a public press conference about it at Rec Hall the next week, which was kind of odd, and 500 or 600 people were there. It showed a burning desire from the Penn State community and maybe even the state’s wrestling community to make this program what it should be.
Molinaro: It was probably also a no-brainer for Cael, especially after he showed up to the press conference with all those people and how excited they were. It was a big indication that wrestling is really important in State College.
Vallimont: There was about as many people [at the press conference] as there were some of our home matches. I wouldn’t say we didn’t expect it, because as soon as we knew he was hired, it was the big news. It was cool to see how quickly everyone rallied around Cael and what the future of the program could be. That was exciting for sure, especially going into my senior season.
Joyner: Penn State wrestling fans are phenomenal. It showed by how they were all out there. And it’s never stopped during the last ten years.
Byers: After that introductory press conference, the two things that stood out and still resound today are: He said, “I just want kids to reach their full potential and wrestle to the best of their abilities, but everything that’s in place here at Penn State, we ought to be winning national titles and in contention pretty much every year.” He was just saying that matter-of-factly. The other thing was his genuine humility.
Sanderson (introductory press conference on April 20, 2009): My plans are big, and my vision is big, it is just a matter of getting it done. I don’t want to stand up here and talk a lot. I just want to get started and we will see what we can do…We’re just going to build on the legacy of Penn State. My goal is to compete for the national championship every year. It’s real simple.
Gable: There have been two critical moves. When I left Iowa State to go to the University of Iowa, all of a sudden, it created another big atmosphere of competition and took the Big Ten to a whole new level. It had always been the Big Eight, but now we had another effective conference. When Cael left Iowa State and went to a more heavily populated state and region, there were more masses. He went from a state of 3 million people to a state where probably 3 million people live in one town. All of a sudden, he was affecting the masses in a dramatic fashion in terms of numbers.
Cipriano: I wrote a column after Cael was hired called “The Day College Wrestling Changed,” and I got a lot of nasty emails from Iowa fans saying I didn’t know what I was talking about. Things changed that day. This was the person who was going to be able to not only wake up the sleeping lion but make it ferocious and something its competitors didn’t want to go near.
Part IV: Crap, five national titles out of the two of them. That’s really good.
Photo by Noah Rogers/Onward State
From the day he arrived on campus, Sanderson had his work cut out for him in crafting a competitive Big Ten roster out of what was left of an underperforming and undisciplined team. He started by constructing a formidable coaching staff, headlined by his older brother Cody Sanderson and close friend Casey Cunningham. Next, he needed to win over a returning core of All-Americans, which wasn’t difficult considering their excitement upon his arrival. But his biggest accomplishment was keeping No. 5 overall recruit Ed Ruth committed to Penn State and getting No. 1 overall recruit David Taylor to follow him to Happy Valley after originally signing with Iowa State.
Pyles: Immediately, you’re like, “Okay, well this shift has implications beyond Cael. Who’s coming with him? What’s his staff going to look like? More importantly, where’s David Taylor going?” Your mind’s going 1,000 miles an hour because there’s all these variables in play, but I was most concerned with who was coming with Cael and would he get the guys they had to stay.
Dernlan: The remainder of the staff from [former head coach Troy Sunderland] that stayed on with Cael was myself, Troy Letters, and Aaron Anspach. I think he wanted to talk to the holdovers on staff to get a sense of how they aligned with his vision for the program. I guess our visions were similar to what Cael’s was. From a continuity standpoint, it’s good to have someone familiar with the program and its nuances. It seemed like a logical fit for what he was looking for and building.
Byers: Talking with him those first few weeks, he was very adamant that Casey and Cody were big parts of the equation here and that Penn State was hiring that group as a team, not Cael. There’s no doubt in my mind that [Cody and Casey] could be extremely successful on their own. I think Cody, Casey, and now Jake [Varner] appreciate the opportunity to grow as coaches. It’s not something where Cael just says he’s taking care of things. It’s more like if they want to do something or examine some aspect of the program to improve, he tells them to go for it.
Cyler Sanderson, Penn State wrestler (2010) (New York Times article on November 28, 2009): It wasn’t much of a decision. I was going with my brothers.
Molinaro: Having Ed and David to start that class, it’s a lot of pressure because of the expectations on both coming into college. But crap, five national titles out of the two of them, that’s really good. Anyone would be happy with that as a coach.
Pyles: After Cael left [Iowa State], David reopened his recruitment and did some visits and ended up at Penn State. My impression all along was that he was going to Penn State. If he wanted to go from Ohio to Iowa State, it wasn’t to be a Cyclone. It was to wrestle for Cael Sanderson. That doesn’t change if he’s at Iowa State or Penn State. Cael was David’s hero, and he wanted to wrestle for him.
Saylor: I think David was a huge vote of confidence for Cael. David was THE guy in high school wrestling – a superstar. Everybody knew him, everybody wanted him, every kid in the country wanted to be like him or beat him, and his unrelenting commitment to Cael, I think, was a huge sign to everybody. David stands as a symbol for what Cael can do as a coach and a mentor, and I think if you’re gonna have this mad scientist create a product, that’s Cael and David’s embodied what he can do when, you know, master meets teacher.
Sanderson (press release on June 9, 2009): David Taylor is the kind of athlete any coach would be proud to work with. We are welcoming an outstanding young man to our program that is as committed to academic excellence and his community as he is to succeeding on the mat. He is an impressive person and I am confident that our fans will enjoy watching David’s career unfold.
David Taylor, Penn State wrestler (2011-2014) (Allentown Morning Call article on February 19, 2014): I think I would have done well at Iowa State and I’d probably have been happy there…But I just know that this is the right place for me. I am just so happy that it worked out this way. It’s not just the wrestling — I mean, I have great teammates and great coaches and workout partners — but it’s the whole situation. I just love everything about Penn State, and everything is working out really great…I try to pick up things from everyone — not just [assistant coach] Casey [Cunningham] and Cael but Dylan [Alton], [Ed] Ruth, Quentin [Wright] and really, everyone on the team.
Pyles: He just got dropped into an ideal wrestling environment for someone that wanted to dominate. He was able to get enhanced in so many ways. He got as close to optimized as one can be. As a result, he lost three matches in four years and won two Hodge Trophies. It was this kind of perfect environment Cael created to get way better way faster.
Molinaro: When Cael first came to Penn State, Coach Dernlan stayed on staff for a few years before getting the head coach at Binghamton. He was kind of the guy who brought Ed in, so it was easy for Ed to stay.
Plus, it was a really good training situation for Ed. He had Casey Cunningham to work out with every day and Coach Cael, because he was big enough to roll with those guys. Ed really took to the coaching staff and the challenge of getting himself good enough to compete with Casey and Cael. It got the best out of him, having someone who could whip him for a while.
Pyles: I remember reading at the time, Ed apparently didn’t know anything about wrestling as a fan. He didn’t know who Cael was or what he did. There was a quote that was like, “I didn’t really know anything about him, but then I wrestled with him and said, ‘Man, he’s pretty good. I’ll stay.’’’ He had this feeling that he had to feel this guy out, but he was wrestling the greatest folkstyle wrestler to ever live.
Sanderson (media availability on November 1, 2017): We didn’t recruit him. He was already signed at Penn State. I like to go in and test the guys a little bit and wrestle them and see how long they’ll wrestle me for. Will they be competitive? Will they fight me back? He wrestled me, it had to be an hour, and I’m thinking, “Alright, Ed. It’s time for me to go home.”
Ed Ruth, Penn State wrestler (2011-2014) (Allentown Morning Callarticle on February 19, 2014): [Taylor] almost got me [to commit to Iowa State in the first place]. He was really convincing. I was like, “Oh man. Oh geez.” He was like, “Don’t you want to reach your full potential?” I was like, “Yeah, I really do.” Everything he said, he made me believe it.
Taylor: I just remember saying, “Man, you know how good we could’ve been if we were on the same team?” It turned out I was on [Ed Ruth’s] team.
Sanderson (Allentown Morning Call article on February 19, 2014): If you look back over history, too, you’re always judged by your stars and how they compete and I think they’ve given us a very good name and reputation and that helps us with recruiting kids that want to wrestle like David Taylor and Ed Ruth, and want to come to Penn State.
Part V: Holy cow, I can’t believe it comes down to this.
Not everyone was ready to adopt Sanderson’s new ways. Tension between the new regime and former national finalist Bubba Jenkins mounted over the next eight months to the point where Jenkins left the program in December of 2009. Jenkins ended up transferring to Arizona State, which set the stage for one of the most literary NCAA Finals matchups of all time the next season — between Jenkins and Penn State’s David Taylor.
Vallimont: Change is definitely difficult, especially when you’ve been there for four years. I would say I definitely felt that sense. I kept a little bit of a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to stay ahead of the curve as much as I could. Everyone knew David Taylor was coming in, along with some of the other kids Cael had recruited at Iowa State. It was like, “Alright, we need to prove we belong with these guys.”
Pyles: With every coaching change, there’s some attrition. Not everyone fits the mold. A lot of guys did: Ed Ruth, Quentin Wright, they had plenty of guys who made the transition. For whatever reason, Bubba didn’t.
Molinaro: I’m sure Bubba will argue against this, but the thing about Cael is he’s the same with everybody. That’s what I liked about him most and that’s what made him change the culture so fast. He was consistent. He wasn’t picking and choosing which guys to discipline.
Vallimont: Cael came in and cracked down on some rules and a curfew. He had coaches come to make sure you were in class. If you weren’t there, you had to come into the wrestling room late at night on Fridays and do extra study hall hours.
The main thing I can remember is that under the former coaching staff, Bubba had a little more freedom. He would sometimes show up late to a lift. Cael came in very strict and was not really messing around with people tip-toeing the line, and I think that may’ve been a point of conflict between them. There was a bit of tension that was visible every now and then, but I don’t think anyone knew how serious was until he left the team.
Jenkins: I was very grateful that Penn State signed Cael Sanderson, because I thought I was going to redshirt and then get two years under him. The game was going to be in trouble once I got that redshirt year.
[After the 2009 season,] some injuries were starting to catch up to me and I needed a break. I knew I needed to hit reset physically and mentally to get back to the podium. I made some personal moves to make sure that if I needed to redshirt, I would in fact redshirt for the first half of the season.
I purposefully didn’t show up to classes, so I would be academically ineligible. I had extra credits, so I calculated my ineligibility and eligibility to still perform in January for the Big Ten season, so I could at least have that half a year to get healthy and get back to being that wrestler I came to Penn State as. I forced my redshirt year and possibly my departure from Penn State when Cael realized I was ineligible for the first half of the season and that we had different demeanors.
Dernlan: The determination was it’d be best for all parties involved if Bubba looked for somewhere else to finish his college career. He found that with Arizona State, and obviously, that worked out for him.
Molinaro: One day, I was in the locker room getting ready to get on the bus to go to the Journeyman Duals, and Bubba walked downstairs. He signed a couple posters on the table and had this kind of smile on his face, so I walked over and said, “What’s up?” and he’s like, “Good luck. Maybe I’ll see you soon,” and walked out. I got on the bus and didn’t know what was going on, and they just told me Bubba was leaving. The funny part is that he was signing on my face, which made it kind of awkward.
Jenkins: As Cael and I spoke a bunch of different times leading up to my exit, we just didn’t see eye to eye, with my immaturity and him and his greatness. He just didn’t see the value in me staying another year when he had his guys: his brother and David Taylor around my weight who he wanted to compete at the level. We had an understanding to agree to disagree. I was understanding of why. I wasn’t blind to it. It was strategic. He only wanted the best for his wrestling program. Obviously, having rings to fit on both hands, he’s done some amazing things. I just wish we had better communication between us.
Pyles: There was never really a relationship there, and he was never “one of Cael’s guys.” But to me, Cael wants to win. I don’t think you just don’t try to make it work with a Junior World champ and NCAA finalist when you’re starting. I don’t think he said, “Alright, I’m gonna get to Penn State and get Bubba out of my program.” That doesn’t even make sense. Cael’s probably a genius and definitely super smart and savvy. I don’t see a world where he’s like, “Get this guy out of here.” I think more culpability lies with Bubba than maybe he admits, but I’m sure part of it is it was Cael’s first year and maybe they didn’t get off on the right foot and they couldn’t salvage it.
Jenkins: I sat down with Curley, because they had promised me once I became an All-American they could never take away my scholarship and Cael was talking about taking my scholarship and releasing me completely. I told Curley, “I understand things are great now that Cael’s here, but I did these moves without Cael even in mind. They’re not against Cael. I did them for me.” He thought that was right and gave me my scholarship from January onward that year.
Pyles: It was definitely extremely dramatic, and then the 2011 NCAA Finals happened. I don’t know if ironic is the right word, but you were definitely like, “Holy cow, I can’t believe it comes down to this.”
Jenkins: Winning nationals was the epitome of my senior year and my only focus. I didn’t want anyone else but Penn State. It had nothing to do with David Taylor. It was about the Goliath behind him. I wanted the opportunity to show the world that not only am I going to become a national champion on my last attempt, but I’m going to do it in Philly in front of the crowd that used to root for me and in front of the man that said he didn’t need me anymore. That was the drive that I took with me on every weight, lap, sit-up, shot…
Pyles: I thought David would win pretty convincingly, because if you looked at this path and how they made it to the finals, Bubba had some early scares and didn’t look great, and David had looked basically impenetrable for the entire season. What you saw there was such a strength advantage. Stylistically, David didn’t face anyone like Bubba all year long. Even though he smashed all these dudes all year long, there wasn’t anyone who was like Bubba.
It was one match. Bubba had everything on the line. Nothing really happened, and [Taylor] got one shot in, and to lock up a cradle from that position is freaky. You don’t see it that often. The move itself was jarring how impressive it was. It was a one-move match. Case in point, Bubba beat David Taylor, who was undefeated. That just shows how good Bubba was and that he was someone you wanted to make it work with.
Dernlan: After nationals, once Bubba won, I told him, “When we were recruiting you, I told you you’d win a national title, and Penn State was gonna win a national title. It happened, but it just wasn’t in quite the fashion we thought it’d be.”
Jenkins: I don’t want to be the guy bashing Cael. I am truly past that and am a whole new man. I appreciate the things he did for me. The suicide cradle I hit to pin David Taylor in the finals was something I had seen in the wrestling room while Cael was there. I was very immature and angry at the system of college wrestling that there was nothing I could do to put my career back into my hands other than force my ineligibility.
If I was more mature and they were more understanding, maybe we could’ve written a different book. But the book that I have is absolutely amazing, because the ending is me on top of that podium.
People can say what they want about the moves I made, but they can shut their asses up. First of all, I graduated. Second of all, I was a national champion. Don’t worry about the methods I took just because they weren’t your methods.
Pyles: [Taylor losing to Jenkins] wasn’t a blemish for them. It happens. The guy had an amazing freshman year and you don’t win every match. It was [Penn State’s] first title. David and Ed were leading the charge, and for him to not win, I’m sure it took a little luster off the celebration, but it’s not a blemish on it for the coach.
Part VI: Unbelievable. Just unbelievable
In addition to being a catharsis of vindication for Jenkins, the 2011 NCAA Championships marked Penn State’s first national title since 1953…26 years before Sanderson was born. A hometown crowd at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center cheered the Nittany Lions on to their long-overdue national title and the beginning of the greatest active dynasty in college sports.
Although national titles have become the norm since then, most around the program remain amazed at how far it has come. Within a decade, Penn State wrestling has evolved from a confounding underperformer to the undisputed leader of the pack and a precedent for greatness.
Cipriano: The moment I knew Penn State was going to win a national championship sooner rather than later was when I saw David Taylor, Ed Ruth, and Quentin Wright all competing in a dual together for the first time.
Lubert: More than 60 percent of the kids, he inherited. They were recruited by other coaches, and he helped them reach their goals. He took them to the next level, where they were able to achieve a national championship.
Lorenzo: I don’t think, including me, that anybody would imagine that you could come here and, wow, what was it two years, and he’s national champion? And then he runs seven more, you know, unbelievable. Just unbelievable.
Joyner: The one national tournament I’ve missed in the last 15 years was when they won the first time in 2011. I’m always kicking myself about that. We knew we had a chance to win, but I had to go to a wedding. It was one of those things you couldn’t honorably get out of. My wife and I were following along the whole time during the reception and got everyone fired up, giving updates and cheering them on. Just talking about it now gives me chills. I can remember the same sensation I felt that day. I imagine I was crying but pretended it was because of the wedding.
Lorenzo: Oh, ‘53! 1953 was the last time that we had won. To win it, we had such a great following that stayed with us since 1909 or whenever we started. They started getting people interested in the sport of wrestling — probably in the one way because we’re not in a major city, we don’t have major sports, you know, so people start picking individual sports they liked, and wrestling happens to fit in this area, and a lot of the areas where we recruit kids from, you know, are somewhat rural and it was just so nice to, so many people to finally see their dream, Penn State being national champions again. At least for me it was, just made me so happy and brought tears to my eyes.
Lubert: I was in shock. What went through my mind was, “How did we get here?” I reflected back on how we got Cael to come. I was amazed. It was the culmination of 40 or 50 years of watching Penn State always finish third or fifth or tenth. I was three years old when they won their first title, so I couldn’t relate to it. To see it all was so great.
You have that legacy of what Penn State wrestling means and the feeling of being part of it. I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to be on that committee and have something to do with bringing Cael here. I feel great about it, because the results of it have given so many other people so much pleasure. It’s phenomenal knowing we have someone dominating the sport and doing it the right way.
There’s so many fans, alumni, and kids who are so supportive of what [Cael’s] done and love him. He’s taken it to a level that we’re just so proud. Now, we have something to be very, very proud of.
As exciting as the future seemed 10 years ago, the outcomes of Sanderson’s efforts to create a lasting legacy have far surpassed what anyone could have imagined at the time. He’s strung together two separate runs of four consecutive national championships, crowned 12 individual champions, sent 58 wrestlers to the podium, and overseen five Hodge Trophy-winning seasons.
Those accomplishments alone jump off the page.
But when you compare them to where Penn State was before Sanderson arrived with his stoic demeanor and philosophy about “going out there and having fun,” it’s hard not to sit in awe, as lifers like Joyner, Lorenzo, and Lubert did when the Nittany Lions finally won a national title.
Some of these interviews were condensed and lightly edited for the purpose of this oral history. Cael Sanderson declined to comment through sports information director Pat Donghia. Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard declined to comment through sports information director Steve Malchow. Cody Sanderson, Casey Cunningham, Jake Varner, Tim Curley, David Taylor, Ed Ruth, Cyler Sanderson, Quentin Wright, and Matt Brown did not return requests for comment. Many of the interviews were conducted before the 2019 NCAA Championships and have since been edited to indicate Penn State wrestling’s eight national titles in nine years, as opposed to seven in eight years. Dynasties can be tedious to cover.