Penn State Wrestling: Jeff Byers Goes Bold as He Predicts a Historic Achievement
Maybe you think that Jeff Byers has seen all there is to see in collegiate wrestling as he enters his 35th year of broadcasting the action for Penn State.
Indeed, the man they call “Ironhead” has witnessed lots of thrilling achievements, including 10 national titles for Penn State within the last 12 NCAA competitions. And a whopping 34 individual titles during the dynastic reign of Coach Cael Sanderson.
But if you look ahead to the coming season and let your imagination wander just a bit, I think you’ll agree with me that maybe Byers ain’t seen nothing yet.
The new season begins on Sunday with the Nittany Lions competing in the Journeyman Collegiate Classic at Freedom High School in Bethlehem. They’ll bring a full team, chock full of returning legends and emerging stars for round-robin competition with wrestlers from schools like Arizona State, Cornell, Lehigh and North Carolina State.
And with that kind of grappling just ahead, I was happy to engage Ironhead in one of our typical pre-season conversations. We started with some discussion of Sports Radio 98.7 The Fox, the new station that he has helped to launch. But we quickly got to all things wrestling and ended with a bold prediction concerning Penn State’s performance at the 2024 NCAA nationals.
Between Byers’ mat-side coverage for the Penn State wrestling network and his additional commentary on The Fox, he’ll have more opportunities than ever to cover Sanderson’s guys. No doubt you’ll catch his enthusiasm in the following edited portions of our conversation.
How has your life changed since Sports Radio 98.7 The Fox was launched this summer?
Byers: We’re having a lot of fun with it. It’s definitely been busy and different days bring different challenges, but I’m enjoying it. We certainly want to make it something that’s beneficial to our advertisers as well as our listeners. And I think we’re hitting a pretty good balance there.
“The Red Zone” thing has gone really, really well from our perspective. I think fans have enjoyed being able to hear what’s going on with all of the Centre County high school football teams. And we had a great group of reporters connecting the community to what was happening in their games.
As we head into the winter sports season, how will the new radio station cover Penn State wrestling?
Byers: We don’t have the rights to it in terms of the actual wrestling coverage. That’s something where Learfield’s Penn State Sports Properties has a standing contract already in place with another entity, Seven Mountains Media. But I’m certainly going to talk plenty of wrestling on the station. And we’ll probably have guests from Penn State wrestling on the “Goon and Ironhead Show” (Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3-5 p.m.). We may have some additional evening programming that will incorporate wrestling and other aspects of Penn State sports.
What do you foresee for the upcoming Penn State season?
Byers: I think it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun for Penn State fans. I think it’s a team that obviously has a ton of potential, a ton of proven talent… and the right attitude about it. It is a team that is busting its tail to get better every day (but) having fun with that process, kind of challenging each other. I think they have a pretty good feel for how special this team could be.
Before we focus on Penn State, there is an elephant in the middle of the college wrestling mat. Apparently, four senior regulars for the University of Iowa have been suspended by the NCAA for this entire year due to betting on collegiate sports. Two of those wrestlers, Abe Assad and Nelson Brands, have admitted publicly that they were among those being investigated. How do you feel about this situation?
Byers: I feel bad for everybody involved. I really do. It’s not something you want to see happen. It’s obviously not great for their program, but I don’t think it’s great for the sport, either. It’s a black eye to some extent, and I hope everybody learns a lesson from it. If I’m a student-athlete and I’m doing that, I need to stop. If you want to gamble after you get out of school, go for it. But while you’re in there, you can’t do it.
One popular commentator suggested two weeks ago that this year’s Penn State team could go down in history as the greatest college team ever—according to such criteria as most All-Americans in one year, most national champs and highest points scored at NCAA nationals. Is this team going to be the best college team ever assembled?
Byers: I think there is that type of potential. I think when you look at this lineup’s returning talent, you have eight starters that are returning All-Americans. I can’t imagine that there’s ever been a team that had eight returning All-Americans. Potential is always a dangerous thing, but as you sit here right now, I think it’s hard not to say that this team has the potential to go down as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—teams in the history of the sport.
But there’s a lot of work to be done, and I will say there’s a lot of deep talent throughout the country. Some of the weight classes are absolutely loaded eight to 10 deep with really, really good kids. But yeah, this Penn State team has the potential to certainly be one of the best. potential to go down as a team that many would say is the best in the history of the sport. But again, potential can be a dangerous thing.
Penn State has an incredible collection of talent in weight classes 157 and 165, where any two of three wrestlers could end up as regulars. What do you foresee with Levi Haines, Alex Facundo and Mitchell Mesenbrink?
Byers: My expectation is that we’ll see how it all plays out. I think Levi will go at 157 and then I think Mesenbrink and Facundo will battle for 165. And I think both of those guys are elite wrestlers — probably both are capable of winning a national title in the upcoming season.
Is it likely that we won’t know the regular until mid-January?
Byers: That’s possible. But I suspect they’ll settle on one pretty much out of the gate. Now, with having five dates where you can wrestle and retain a redshirt, that’s a different situation where you can put some guys in some different spots to see how they react and to see where they’re at against particular opponents.
Have you heard rumors as to who might be leading between Facundo and Mesenbrink?
Byers: I haven’t. They’re both just really good. I know Facundo has, from all accounts, made some significant strides from where he was at the end of last season. He’s really busted his tail to be more consistent with his offensive attacks. And Mitchell Mesenbrink obviously won the under-20 World Championship, so both those guys are wrestling at an elite level right now.
Weight class 125 has been the black hole in recent years. What do you think about Robbie Howard and last year’s starter, Gary Steen?
Byers: I think Gary Steen is another guy that’s made a lot of improvements from last season. He’s figured some things out and I think he’s much more comfortable. And they have a lot more depth there this year. I don’t know how many All-Americans they have there, but they have a lot of bodies who are good wrestlers. If Robbie can stay healthy — and that’s obviously the big wish for all Penn State fans — he’ll make all of the work he’s put in over the last couple of years pay off. He is a really good wrestler. I’m not sure where he fits in the national picture, but I think he’s going to win a lot more than he loses.
It was great to hear the official announcement that Carter Starocci is indeed returning for another year. Apparently this is his last year, but I understand you got some back-story on that.
Byers: Well, we did an interview with him a couple of weeks ago because he wanted to make an official announcement through his and Penn State’s social media to confirm that he is coming back. So we did the interview, probably a 12 to 15-minute interview and they obviously cut it down to about three minutes for the social media outlets. He had mentioned a couple of times throughout the interview that this would be his final year and that he was excited to be part of a special team. So then, I circled back to that in one of my final questions, saying that, “You mentioned a couple times that this will be your final year, but you do have two years of eligibility remaining. Is this definitively your final year or is there any chance you’d come back for a fifth year to potentially become the only five-time national champion in history?” (The COVID pandemic led to the extra year of eligibility.)
And he said, “Well, no, this will be my final year. I’m pretty committed to moving on.” But then he said, “Unless”…and he got a gleam in his eyes…“they schedule a Beaver Stadium dual meet and we get 100,000 fans turning out. I want to be part of that. So I would come back for that.”
Do you see that as a possibility for next season?
Byers: I don’t know. It would be fun. I don’t know that I’d say there’s any kind of a guarantee that if they do that, Carter would actually be coming back. But it’s kind of a fun little nugget to at least have out there as a possibility.
What would it look like in your mind’s eye?
Byers: It would be really neat. I think when you go back and you look at that Iowa vs. Oklahoma State dual at Kinnick Stadium, it was a cool scene. I have no doubt that if Penn State promoted it right, they could easily set the record for dual meet attendance. (“Only” 42,287 fans watched the Hawkeyes beat the Cowboys on November 14, 2015.) It’s tricky, though. Obviously, you’re just hoping that the luck of the draw is that you get a good day. If it’s bad weather, you just move it indoors to the Jordan Center and you’ve established ahead of time who are the 16,000-plus that would be allowed into the Jordan Center.
What are the odds it will happen?
Byers: I don’t know. It’s been discussed. But I don’t know how seriously or how far along they’ve gotten. I do think Pat Kraft is really open to looking at a lot of different things and being creative with the overall approach to intercollegiate athletics.
In our interview last November, we talked about an “embarrassment of riches” in the Penn State wrestling program. I don’t think you’re ever embarrassed by a top-quality team that does things the right way, but if you were, this might be the year.
Byers: Yeah, and I really think when you look at this year’s team, it’s not just that this team with its starters has a chance to be one of the best in NCAA history. I do think the depth on this year’s team is better than ever. I really think if you took the non-starters — the next best guy at each of the 10 weight classes after the starters — I think that team would have a very realistic shot of placing in the top five at the NCAAs this year. I mean, that is the type of depth that they are building. And I think that depth is actually just going to get better here, at least over the next year or so, because of the recruits that they have coming in. Now, whether or not all of those guys end up staying at Penn State… maybe some end up finding homes elsewhere. That’s certainly a possibility.
Let’s talk briefly about the 174-pound class that has three returning champs—Starocci, Virginia Tech’s Mekhi Lewis and Michigan’s Shane Griffith. What about that?
Byers: It might be as strong of a weight class as we’ve had in a while. But Carter is just such a unique guy. He is just really, really driven to be the best. Carter just has a different competitive gear to him and a different kind of maybe meanness, toughness, or all of the above. He is just relentless in pursuing what he wants. That being said, I will never go into a wrestling season thinking there is anything that is a given. If you are around sports long enough, you realize that Cael Sanderson going 159 and 0 in his college career is astounding.
The same thing with Aaron Brooks, even up at 197 pounds. But will I be absolutely stunned if he doesn’t win a title? No, because it’s sports and there’s a lot of other really good guys putting a lot of effort with really good coaches trying to break everything down. So, I’m not predicting anything. But I think they both are doing everything within their power to give themselves a chance to be four-time champions.
Last year I asked you for your boldest prediction and you talked about Levi Haines. Although you knew that Haines was likely to be redshirted, you noted that he had the ability to become a three or four-time NCAA finalist. Well, as things turned out, Levi’s redshirt was pulled last year, and he did become a national finalist, losing the title match to North Carolina’s Austin O’Connor. So what’s your bold prediction for this year?
Byers: You could make a lot of bold predictions about this team. This is a pretty bold team. But I will go ahead and say — and I don’t want to be trying to put a jinx on anyone — but this summer I took a look at that record-setting team for Iowa that got to 170 points at NCAAs in 1997. And I really do think this team has a chance to do that. So I’ll say this team will set a new scoring record at the NCAA tournament.
There you go. That’s bold. So will there be a bumper sticker on your car that says “171”?
Byers: I’m not going to go that far. But I also wouldn’t set a limit on what this team might reach—175 or 176 might be in play.