Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Cael: Penn State’s wrestling coach has enjoyed singular success, but caring and gratitude define him more than NCAA and Olympic titles

There are a number of athletes and entertainers who are known by one name and one name only – Tiger, Shaq, Pele, Beyoncé, Bono, and Sting come to mind – but coaches … not so much.

Around the world of college wrestling, the list of coaches who are that well-known has a solo entry: Cael.

Officially, he is Cael Norman Sanderson, 41. But drop that first name into a conversation about the sport in which he excelled as an athlete and is currently guiding Penn State to dynastic levels as a coach, and, yes, everybody knows his name.

He became Penn State’s head wrestling coach in April 2009, after three seasons as head coach at Iowa State. To quickly summarize his success, Sanderson – let’s call him Cael – won four high school titles for Wasatch High School in Heber City, Utah (1994-97); four NCAA titles for Iowa State (1999-2002) while winning 159 straight matches; and earned the sport’s highest honor by winning an Olympic gold medal in 2004. As a coach, he has earned multiple Big Ten and national coach of the year awards while guiding Penn State to eight NCAA championship crowns.

Mention any of that to him these days and it would be met with a shrug, and people who know him know that.

“With that type of resume, one might think Cael might carry himself with a bit of arrogance, and that absolutely could not be further from the truth,” says Richard Kaluza, Penn State senior associate athletic director. “In the time I have been fortunate enough to be associated with the Penn State wrestling program, I continue to be impressed at the impact he makes on our student-athletes in giving them confidence and imparting his wisdom to allow them to be successful not only on the mat, but also in the classroom and life in general.

“He is grateful to be in a position where he is able to not only coach our student-athletes to become excellent wrestlers, but he teaches each and every student-athlete who comes through our program to have exceedingly high levels of gratitude … to the team, the athletic department, the university, and our many fans and alumni. And the most impressive part? He does so in the most humble of ways.”

The success story is almost like a fairy tale, and once upon a time, a couple named Steve and Debbie Sanderson had four boys named Cody, Cole, Cael, and Cyler. They rough-housed and wrestled at home as youngsters and kept wrestling through high school in Heber City and college in Ames, Iowa. 

“Wrestling gave us the opportunity to spend time with one another doing what we loved,” says Cody Sanderson, now Cael’s assistant at Penn State. “We were and continue to be blessed with parents that supported us and pushed us to be as good as possible. For Cael, it has always been family first. He loves to compete, he hates to lose, but he doesn’t let that take his focus off more important pursuits.”

Youngest Sanderson brother Cyler, 10 years younger than Cody and seven behind Cael, followed Cael to Penn State for his senior season after transferring from Iowa State and became an All-American in 2010.

‘They’ll flock to him’

That was Cael’s first season as Penn State’s coach and the first of two seasons Brad Pataky spent under his guidance. Pataky, a 125-pounder at the time and now the head wrestling coach at Philipsburg-Osceola Area High School, was the first wrestler in the lineup in Cael’s first match as head coach at Penn State. Lessons learned during that time haven’t faded over the past decade.

“While there is an arsenal of life lessons I learned from Coach Cael, the most valuable lesson I learned, and continue to practice daily, is gratitude,” Pataky says. “Even after graduating college 10 years ago, I continue to experience the benefits and impacts that come from practicing gratitude. 

“Gratitude has helped shape me in two ways. It has taught me to be more appreciative of the things I take for granted in life, such as a roof over my head and food on the table. It has also taught me another side of mental toughness. After learning to shift my mindset from “I have to …,” to “I get to…,” I developed a new capacity of resiliency toward obstacles in life. It’s very easy to wake up and say, ‘I have to go to work today.’ Gratitude has the power to help shift our approach in life, regardless of our circumstance.”

Pataky’s first year was one of just two seasons when the Nittany Lions weren’t either unbeaten or once beaten from 2010-20. Cael’s teams have won 89 percent of their dual meets and he was 152-16-2 heading into this pandemic-delayed season, which was slated to start in January. Penn State’s fourth victory this season will be Cael’s 200th career win when you include his 44 triumphs at Iowa State.

But enough of the numbers, because they are not what defines him. He preaches that having fun is vitally important and he stresses that his athletes be grateful for their opportunity. His coaching staff of brother Cody, Casey Cunningham, and Jake Varner are effectively a perfect match. He builds confidence in his wrestlers no matter how they fit into the program. He builds trust with his athletes; he emphasizes family; and he is an undying advocate for the sport. The aforementioned is all a part of the process.

“Coach talks a lot about focusing on getting better every day, whether it’s academics, nutrition, sleep habits, but most of all their wrestling; he calls it ‘the process,’” says Allen Smith, president of the Penn State Wrestling Club, the program’s booster club. “Work hard every day, keep improving, listen to the coaches, and the wins take care of themselves. He takes wrestlers’ losses and turns them into a positive, by using them as a way to improve. 

“I believe Cael’s demeanor is perfect for a head coach. Not that other coaches aren’t successful; I just believe a calm coach sets the tone, and gives example to the wrestlers. This calmness plays out in dual meets and tournaments, as I feel our wrestlers are less ‘excited’ or ‘nervous’ overall than their opponent. This crosses over to teaching ‘fun.’”

Galen Dreibelbis, a local real estate developer, former Pennsylvania state legislator, and another member of the Penn State Wrestling Club, has had fun watching Cael since 1999, when he won the first of his four NCAA titles at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.

“I was so much a fan of his the whole way through; he was amazing,” Dreibelbis says. “In 2002, when he won his fourth in Albany – I saw all four of them – I went back to the hotel and said to Penn State fans, ‘That’s the guy we have to have for our coach.’ They said, ‘Oh, don’t be so crazy, he’s never coached a day in his life.’ I said, ‘I don’t care; the kids will flock to him. He’s just an amazing man and gentleman and what a name and what a career, and they’ll flock to him.’”

Dreibelbis was indeed prescient and ended up helping convince former athletic director Tim Curley and former university president Graham Spanier that Cael should be their man in 2009.

“When Tim Curley asked me who should be the next Penn State wrestling coach, I said, ‘Cael Sanderson,’” Dreibelbis says. “When he asked me who my second choice was, I said, ‘Cael Sanderson.’

“What I didn’t know was the great evaluation he can do on wrestlers. He can put his hands on a wrestler for two minutes and wrestle with him and he knows if he’s any good … he knows what he can do. I never saw a man like that in my life who could do that,” Dreibelbis says.

A matter of faith

What Dave Hart has seen – and Hart is a former Penn State All-America wrestler (1988-93) and former Nittany Lions assistant coach – is the compassion component of Cael’s overall demeanor.

“He just cares. He cares about his wrestlers; he cares about people,” says Hart, now an administrator with the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. “I think he tries to do the right thing. When you work with somebody on a daily basis, like on a wrestling team, or with wrestlers, you can’t hide whether or not someone cares, and he shows that. Everybody that works with him or is around him notices that.”

Cael’s caring and calmness, he has said, stems from his faith.

“The way I look at that is every win and loss, it never feels good to lose and it usually feels pretty good to win, but if you don’t have faith and you don’t have God at the center, then it’s like a roller coaster … every win you’re on a high, and if you lose it’s like you’re in the deepest valleys. It just makes it so it’s more consistent,” he said in 2019.

“For us, attitude is everything. People make mistakes; kids make mistakes, coaches make mistakes. Our job is not to judge one another, our job is to help one another. I think we’re fairly patient as a coaching staff. We’re not here to catch guys doing the wrong thing, we’re here to help them do the right thing.”

That’s what Jeff Byers has seen over years. The longtime radio announcer for Penn State wrestling, Byers has been around the program since the beginning of the Sanderson era.

“He is extremely well-grounded. I think he was raised with great values, perspective, and purpose. His father is a very impressive person and I think [Cael] just has a burning desire to be great. I think his religion is the foundation for his success,” Byers says. “The fact that he had the incredible wrestling career he had obviously gives him instant credibility with everyone in the sport. But I think his willingness to continue to learn and adapt and try to improve is a big part of his success.”

Rich Lorenzo, who was Penn State’s head wrestling coach from 1979-92, says Cael was one of the best wrestlers he’d ever seen.

“And he was doing it modern-day with all the parity and competition going on around the United States. And he still dominated everyone, and that’s very, very rare,” Lorenzo says.

Cael’s collegiate success didn’t come without pressure. As his winning streak grew and he got closer to breaking legendary Dan Gable’s record of 100 straight victories, the media spotlight shone a bit brighter. He channeled his creative skills into artistry for relaxation.

He once told Chris Fowler on ESPN’S College Sports Century that he has a “hard time not thinking about wrestling; that’s who I am.”

‘Getting the best out of people’

Cael made his mark on the wrestling mat with his scoring prowess and will to dominate foes; he’s carried that philosophy into coaching as falls, technical falls, and major decisions – bonus points – have been the impetus behind the Nittany Lions’ eight championship seasons in 10 years.

That’s not lost on Lorenzo, either.

“They’ve just done a fantastic job with getting the best out of people they work with and getting them to believe they can be champions and All-Americans,” Lorenzo says. “That’s the amazing thing to me about Cael Sanderson, is how he can go into tournaments with guys and not be favored, not a clear-cut choice, and somehow they come out on top, just like I think they would have in 2020 (until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the championships to be canceled). 

“And then,” Lorenzo adds, “just his lifestyle and his comments and the way he lives his life and the way he educates the young men to the factor of life as far as being responsible and having integrity and honesty and hard work and commitment and humor and sense of humility … those kinds of things he teaches and exemplifies are just outstanding. It’s just a great time for Penn State wrestling.”

It’s not just around his team that Cael is Cael; he displays the same comportment around Penn State Wrestling Club members.

“I was impressed how he worked with the PSWC when he first came to Penn State,” says past PSWC president and current PSWC membership chairman Harvey Manbeck. 

“He took the time to learn the existing PSWC programming, then he worked with the PSWC leadership to identify those existing program elements that we should continue, while suggesting new PSWC activities. I would characterize the relationship between Coach Cael’s coaching staff and the PSWC as being very professional, cordial, and extremely supportive.”

Kaluza would characterize the program as unique, and says it’s because of Cael.

“He simply has a knack of selecting those individuals who he projects to be excellent fits within the Penn State wrestling culture that he has developed and enhanced since his arrival,” Kaluza says. 

“Yes, in the sport of collegiate wrestling, there are certainly individual levels of success (one of everyone’s goals is likely to be an individual NCAA champion) but, year in and year out, I have seen each and every team member put in the investment to contribute to the greater good of the team, and I truly believe this has allowed us to become the premier wrestling program in the country.”

Which is why the program attracts wrestlers the caliber of Aaron Brooks, a sophomore who still has four years remaining because of the free year of eligibility the NCAA granted due to COVID-19. A Big Ten champion last season, Brooks says Cael’s “overall outlook on everything” attracted him to Penn State.

“Even in the talks we have before practice, he’s always trying to find a way to be better at whatever it is,” Brooks says. “And even as a coach, find different ways to motivate us and find different ways to make the team stronger, and it’s not always through wrestling. It might be through a talk or something he does.

“The main thing about Coach Cael is his importance on always developing and always being grateful. It’s just always taking advantage of the things you have.”

How Cael cares for his athletes is what stands out most to Byers.

“He lets the kids be themselves, both in terms of wrestling style and personality,” Byers says. “I think he is constantly working to figure out how to get the kids to bring out the best in themselves, which is a subtle difference than him just trying to get them to be their best. 

“It’s trying to get them to understand what they truly want and how they can best go about trying to achieve those goals in or out of the wrestling room. There are very few people who can truly live in the moment and keep the big picture solidly in focus the way he can.”

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Jim Carlson is a freelance writer in State College.