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What would Penn State wrestling look like if Cael Sanderson was never hired? | Opinion

Wrestling v Illinois, Cael Sanderson

Penn State head wrestling coach Cael Sanderson looks to the wrestling mats during the single-dual meet in Rec Hall on Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Penn State defeated Illinois 22-16. 

There have been more than a few examples of dynasties in college sports.

There was UCLA basketball’s dominance in the ‘60s and ‘70s with 10 national titles in 12 seasons or Alabama football’s current run of national championships.

However, perhaps one of the most unknown dynasties in the sports world belongs to Penn State’s wrestling program.

Under head coach Cael Sanderson, the Nittany Lions have won eight team wrestling championships in the last decade — the most since Iowa won nine between 1978-1986.

Before Sanderson arrived in State College in 2009, Penn State had only won a single NCAA championship.

Sanderson brought over two assistant coaches, his brother Cody and Casey Cunningham, as well as top-ranked recruit David Taylor.

However, Happy Valley was an intriguing place to wrestle, primarily because of the Olympic Regional Training Center located at Penn State, the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club. And, Sanderson elevated the training facility to another level following his hire.

It’s a place where top freestyle wrestlers, college wrestlers and high school wrestlers train together to build the sport, and Sanderson and his assistants are all coaches at the NLWC.

Having three world-class coaches in one program makes it an enticing destination for any wrestler — especially high schoolers deciding which program they should commit to.

State College became a wrestling hotspot, and it didn’t take long for Sanderson to bring home his first national title, taking only two years to climb the mountain.

When Penn State hired Sanderson, he was the Iowa State head coach, and he saw success in his three-year stint in Ames.

Sanderson led the Cyclones to three Big 12 championships. He also recorded three top-5 finishes at the NCAAs.

The other main candidate for the position in 2009 was Rob Koll, Cornell’s head coach and the son of former Penn State wrestling coach Bill Koll.

Rob Koll wrestled at North Carolina in college and even brought home a national title. With his coaching experience and his dad’s ties to the program, Koll was a real contender.

Obviously Sanderson was hired over Koll, so he remained at Cornell. Koll recently accepted the head coaching position at Stanford in May.

In his 28 years at Cornell, Koll completely changed the face of the program. He led it to nine top-5 team finishes in the last 16 years and has taken home 20 Ivy League titles. He is also the Ivy League’s winningest head coach of all time.

Considering Koll’s success, what if Koll was hired, and Sanderson stayed at Iowa State? Would Penn State still be chasing a national title?

It’s impossible to know exactly what events would have followed if the opposite of reality happened, but Koll built a more than respectable program at Cornell.

However, the national dominance Sanderson has brought to Penn State is hard to beat. Koll may have been able to build a strong program at Penn State if he got the job, but Sanderson’s dynasty has trumped that of Koll’s resume thus far.


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