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Penn State Wrestling: Will Fans be Spoiled by Success?

by on November 09, 2019 11:24 AM

Can our beloved Nittany Lion wrestling team win another NCAA title—the ninth in 10 years? Can Cael Sanderson’s crew effectively replace two graduated superstars, Jason Nolf and Bo Nickal? Can Vincenzo Joseph win his third NCAA title? Can Mark Hall and Anthony Cassar each capture their second national crowns?

All are compelling questions for the new season that begins Sunday against Navy, and all are being energetically debated by Nittany fans. But if you don’t mind, I’d like to introduce a new subject for discussion. Will Penn State’s fan base conduct itself appropriately? Or will Rec Hall’s legions descend into a boorish bunch of condemners and complainers?  

“That couldn’t happen to us,” you say.  “We’re the good guys from dear old State.” Well, I’d like to agree, but I’m thinking about human nature and how we tend to get spoiled by success. In the world of wrestling, too many titles can lead to fan entitlement.   

Consider the folks who cheer for the University of Iowa. They’re good people with Midwestern values, right? They’re the sweet spirits who stand during Iowa football games to encourage ailing kids at the neighboring children’s hospital. But something happens to those same people when they walk into Carver-Hawkeye Arena to support the once-dominant Iowa wrestling team. Much of their kindness seems to evaporate.


But, hey, it’s not an Iowa problem. It’s a human problem. “Don’t let it go to your head,” is not just a song title; it’s a much-needed warning for those who may be enjoying their success — or their team’s success — a bit too much.

I’m not worried about our athletes since coach Cael Sanderson models humility and the tough sport of wrestling will keep their egos in check. I’m worried about you, sitting in the Rec Hall bleachers and me, standing up on the track. If we’re starting to get spoiled already, where will we be in a few years, assuming the Lions continue to dominate?

My friend Chuck Yorks is well-qualified to assess the current state of Lion wrestling fandom. Chuck is not only a big-time fan, but he served as the Rec Hall wrestling announcer from 2011 through the end of last season. Always careful to speak objectively through the microphone, Yorks is concerned when Penn State fans get nasty toward the opposition or invoke a double standard about stalling.  

“We are spoiled when we do not respect the other team as we should,” he says. “I’ll hear people say, ‘He’s doing nothing’ or ‘I hate the way he wrestles.’ And I’ll say, ‘Yeah, he looks just like Matt Brown.’ Nothing against Matt (he won an NCAA individual title for Penn State in 2015). But Matt wasn’t a scoring machine.” 

Yorks also sees an odd contrast in fans’ response to the home team.  

“We applaud effort,” he says. “Those people will cheer wildly for a Devin Schnupp not getting majored. But every once in a while there are the outliers, a minority who will attack a kid because he hasn’t lived up to our expectations.”

Photo by Michael Tauriello


Eric Bernier, a Penn State season ticket holder since the late 1980s, mentions Jered Cortez as an example of such an unfair attack. Cortez had transferred to Penn State from the University of Illinois, and fans expected a lot from him. Not yet eligible to compete for Penn State in 2016-17 as a transfer, Cortez posted an individual mark of 12-0 record as a redshirt sophomore and won the Nittany Lion Open with wins over Lehigh’s Scott Parker and Penn State’s Jordan Conaway.

But by the time Bernier met Cortez at a local furniture store, the wrestler’s situation had taken a downturn. He began his sophomore season with a 6-2 record, but injury forced him to undergo surgery, and he was wearing a sling when he and his roommate, Anthony Cassar, met the Berniers.

 “We introduced ourselves,” says Eric, “and they were such sweet and humble kids. They were talking to us so respectfully — it was like ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘No, sir.’ But the kid just had surgery and he couldn’t sleep in a bed, so they’re at the furniture store to buy a recliner. And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, that’s got to be really tough.

“Now, if we fast forward to the next year, he comes back and doesn’t perform up to the unrealistic expectations of some Penn State fans. They’re booing him in Rec Hall, and then on the message boards he’s getting blasted. It was tough for my wife and I to listen to that. And all I can think about is how he’s worked his way back into the lineup after the injury. I thought that was a great accomplishment and he should be cheered for that.”

Whether because of injuries or because of fan reaction, Cortez elected not to compete in his last year of eligibility after graduating from Penn State. Meanwhile, Bernier hopes future Lion grapplers will be spared from undue criticism.  

“These kids are not robots,” he says. “They’re college students who are (dealing with) heavy class schedules and all the other things kids face when they’re 18 to 22 years old. Expectations are unrealistic.”

Bo Nickal holds up the team trophy after Penn State wrestling won its eighth national championship in nine years. Photo by Elissa Hill.


Of course, we wouldn’t need to worry about entitled fans if we knew Penn State would suddenly cease to dominate. But that’s not really what we want. So maybe we should look further at the Iowa experience. What can we learn from a program that won 23 national titles, including 2010, the last before Penn State began winning? 

I’ve been puzzled by University of Iowa wrestling fans for a number of years — especially those who post on their fan forum within the network. Yes, I’ve seen plenty of wrestling knowledge and passion. But until recently — when I noted a compassionate response to the injury of Penn State’s Brady Berge — I observed lots of sour grapes and pettiness. Most disappointing to me was the constant attempt to belittle Cael Sanderson by calling him “Carl.” How clever!  

Okay, guys, I know Cael wrestled and coached for your rival, Iowa State, and I know his Nittany Lions have stolen your perch atop NCAA wrestling. But don’t you think a guy who went 159-0 as a college wrestler, won an Olympic gold medal and coached his team to multiple national crowns is deserving of some basic respect?

Perplexed by the Iowa culture, I talked to my chief wrestling source in the state of Iowa, a professional colleague named Dave Eggert. Dave wrestled for Eastern Michigan in the 1970s, and since 1992, he’s lived in Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State University. What could Dave tell me about Hawkeye fans from the past few decades? 

“At the NCAA championships,” says Eggert, “when an Iowa guy lost you could see the whole arena respond. (The other fans) were happy they lost, and I felt it was because of their arrogance in those years they were on top. I don’t think it was from Dan Gable (Iowa’s legendary coach from the late 1970s to the late 90s). Gable himself was very, very humble.

“Iowa people as a whole are good people, they have good values, they’re kind. But there’s something about some of those who support the Iowa wrestling program that’s different. Why they’re like that I don’t know, other than they had so much success for so long. And now someone else has taken their place and they can’t shake it.”


Obviously, if a certain segment of Iowans got carried away by their love of wrestling, the same could happen with Pennsylvanians. Like you and me.  

Now I don’t know about you, but I can get rather passionate about this high octane sport. And sometimes that leads to unfortunate results. When Nick Suriano announced he was transferring from Penn State to Rutgers, I know I said a few unkind and unnecessary things about Suriano to other Lion fans. Today, I like the way Chuck Yorks’ analyzes Suriano’s 2017 transfer.  

“Nick Suriano,” said Yorks, “is a national champion who, as an 18-year-old kid chose Penn State — agonizingly — and then changed his mind. It worked for Suriano. At Rutgers, he made one NCAA final and won another final in the last two years, and I think that’s terrific.”

The Penn State wrestling team poses with the team trophy on March 23, 2019 after winning its eighth national championship in nine years. Photo by GoPSUsports | Mark Selders


Having thought much about this topic and discussed it with fellow wrestling fans, I’m going to take the liberty to offer some suggestions. I hope the following remedies for “Wrestling Entitleitis” prove effective and that they aren’t too late to prevent a major central Pennsylvania outbreak. 

  • Respect everyone who competes in this very demanding sport. Have you ever met a lazy college wrestler? Of course you haven’t; they don’t exist. And that’s why I appreciate the approach taken by Jeff Byers, announcer for the Penn State wrestling network. Byers roots unashamedly for the home team, but he bends over backwards to commend good work by the “enemy.”  To respect the sport of wrestling we must respect both wrestlers.

  • Resist putting our own demands upon Nittany Lion wrestlers. Although it’s natural to expect our heroes to win their matches, we can’t know everything that’s going on in their lives. One “off” match could be the result of a flu bug or an academic worry; an off season could result from a nagging injury or a domestic problem.  

  • Practice the key value that has helped Penn State wrestlers achieve their success. “Gratitude” is the hallmark of the Nittany Lions under Sanderson’s leadership. Our wrestlers talk constantly about their gratitude to parents, coaches, teammates and God — everyone who has made it possible for them to compete and succeed. So if they’re grateful for their experience, then we can be grateful for our chance to enjoy the greatest era in the history of Penn State wrestling.  One of these years, the Lions will finish second — or even third — at NCAA nationals. Should we not still be grateful for their effort and the excitement they provide?   

Of course, all of this is very counter-cultural. Today’s sports fans are all about results, and they’ll go to any extreme in demanding those results. But I really do think we can aspire to something better.  

If Cael and his boys can win eight national titles in the last nine years, I think our fan base can also achieve something special. Why don’t we try to be the most thunderously exuberant wrestling fans in the nation — but also the most grateful and gracious?

Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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