The School Of Sanderson: Inside Penn State’s Wrestling Room With Cael
The walls of the Joyner Wrestling Room in the Lorenzo Wrestling Complex are lined with photos of every Nittany Lion to win a national title. From Howard Johnston in 1935 to Mark Hall in 2017, 29 photos overlook practice every day, while the current and next generations of Penn State wrestlers in front of them drill in pursuit of the moment that will immortalize their college wrestling careers on that wall.
After the photo of Hall grinning, which will likely include additional championship seasons by the time he graduates, there’s room for about four more photos before the program must decide what to do next to honor its proudest sons. Cael Sanderson sits across the room from that gap before his weekly media availability ahead of his team’s highly anticipated dual against Ohio State.
The dual will be a clash of the nation’s top two teams and between the faces of college wrestling, both on the mat and in the coaches’ corners.
Sanderson is calmly leaning against the wall, yet intently concentrated on watching his team practice on the mat in front of him — not barking out orders, critiquing form, or reminding his team that the biggest dual of their lives (and of his coaching career) is just over 72 hours away.
Occasionally, he looks around the wrestling room to check in on wrestlers at one of the facility’s other three mats, but for the most part, he’s sharply focused on what’s happening right in front of him.
Many other times when you see Sanderson, he’s decked out in a sleek, well-tailored suit that somehow makes him look even more intimidating than he did while wearing a singlet during his own wrestling career. But today, and every day in the wrestling room, he follows the same dress code as his wrestlers — a gray, long-sleeve Penn State wrestling shirt, navy blue shorts with a large Nittany Lion logo on either leg, and light blue and gray Asics wrestling shoes.
Next to Sanderson is one wrestler who could eventually see his photo join the program’s pantheon of immortalized national champions: Nick Nevills. Every day, he and his teammates have the opportunity to learn from arguably the greatest college athlete of all time.
Sanderson regularly practices with his wrestlers. He’s even been known to wrestle with high schoolers he’s recruiting to test them out and see how willing they are to fight. At this point in the practice, though, the two upper-weights sit on a bench watching the lower-weights practice on the mat separating them from the missing space of national champions.
Nevills is turned slightly, enough that he’s facing Sanderson but still able to watch what’s happening on the mat. Occasionally, he asks Sanderson a question with deep intrigue and curiosity. Mixed in are observations of his own that warrant a only subtle nod from his coach.
Sanderson meets Nevills’ intermittent questions with brief yet thoughtful answers as he keenly maintains his focus on the two wrestlers drilling in front of him. Every now and then, he’ll scratch his bald head or his misshapen, cauliflower ears, worn from years competing in the sport. Both Sanderson’s and Nevills’ legs are shaking. Sanderson’s legs are moving faster, but Nevills isn’t far behind, in some sort of odd parallel to his college career of learning from Sanderson and emulating him, whether it’s a move on the mat or his attention to detail in practice.
As he replies to one of Nevills’ observations, Sanderson stops shaking his leg and props it onto the bench to face him and carry a longer conversation.
These one-on-one conversations and teaching moments are a regular sight when Penn State practices are open to the media. They’re especially important when Nevills is on the verge of entering what might be the toughest stretch of his career.
He’ll most likely face Olympic champion No. 1 Kyle Snyder Saturday. A week later, he’ll match up with No. 3 Sam Stoll of Iowa. Nevills, the No. 6 heavyweight in the country, is 2-6 all-time against top-five wrestlers and 50-5 against everyone else. For almost a year now, he’s been knocking on the door of the weight class’s bourgeoisie, and the next week and a half presents his latest opportunity.
If there’s anyone who can help Nevills mentally and physically prepare for Snyder, it’s Sanderson. After all, Sanderson won his own Olympic gold medal in 2004 and set the bar for what it means to be on top of college wrestling as an athlete, before he did so again as a coach.
But as any Sanderson-coached wrestler would tell you, Nevills isn’t really concerned with who he’s wrestling or what the circumstances are. He’s just excited for the opportunity to compete.
It’s a modern re-creation of Raphael’s The School of Athens, in which Plato instructs Aristotle in the middle of a bustling center of learning that teems with the generation’s greatest minds. This is the pupil and the master at its finest.
The two wrestlers who have Sanderson’s full, laser-focused attention make up another pair of the pupil and the master. Senior 149-pounder Zain Retherford and his heir-apparent Brady Berge, who is redshirting this season, look identical in their black tights and gray Penn State wrestling shirts as they grapple with each other.
Retherford has been a mainstay at 149 lbs. for the last three seasons, winning 83 straight bouts, never losing in a dual meet, and recording 51 pins, the third most in program history — a record he’ll likely break by the end of the month. He won a Hodge Trophy a year ago and is well on his way to another one later this season, in addition to a third consecutive national title. It’s hard to find many wrestlers with better college careers than Retherford…except for Sanderson.
This matchup and imminent changing of the guard seems to be the only thing on Sanderson’s mind at the moment — not the status of star 157 lb. wrestler Jason Nolf’s knee, or whether the referees should’ve done more at the dual against Rutgers on Sunday, or the gauntlet of 17 ranked wrestlers his team will run through during the next two duals, or how the Nittany Lions stack up against the Buckeyes in the rankings, or what Rutgers beat reporters are writing about him.
As Sanderson stares at the Berge and Retherford match-up, sports information director Pat Donghia interrupts his focus and impromptu workshop with Nevills to call him over to the congregation of journalists attending the weekly media availability. Sanderson takes one last long sip from his green Gatorade paper cup, crumbles it in his bear claw hands, and throws it away as he walks halfway across the wrestling room to the media.
For eight minutes and 17 seconds, Sanderson stands in front of the media with the same fixated, taciturn expression he had watching Retherford and Berge. Except now he isn’t picking apart wrestlers’ form. He’s calculatedly fielding questions about the upcoming dual and the three weight classes up in the air at the moment, all for different reasons: 125 lbs., 157 lbs., and 197 lbs.
At least twice in the brief media session Sanderson does what Penn State public relations instructor Steve Manuel, who regularly photographs the team’s duals, would call a pregnant pause. Never one to give much indication about personnel moves or injury statuses, he slowly selects his words with careful precision to make sure he doesn’t tip his hand. He’s so secretive about how he motivates his team that if you ask him about the “SW” logo on the personalized, Rocky-inspired “Win, (Name), Win” shirts his wrestlers, coaches, and managers all wear, he’ll just tell you it’s between members of the team and not for anyone else to know.
When Donghia cuts the interview short, Sanderson thanks the media for coming and walks to the center mat where his wrestlers are stretching and jogging.
He immediately resumes talking to Nevills, fakes a shot at Berge, flashes a stance at Jarrod Verkleeren, and begins chirping with Vincenzo Joseph before disappearing behind the curtain that splits the wrestling room in half between the varsity team and the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.
A few minutes later, after Nevills and 141-pounder Nick Lee have spoken to the media, Sanderson reappears and walks to the mat Retherford and Berge had been practicing on earlier in the workout.
Nevills stops by for extra work.
He finished his workout earlier in the afternoon and had been spending time hanging around the wrestling room to watch his teammates, pick Sanderson’s brain, and talk to the media, who are anxious to know how he’s preparing to face Snyder after a 19-9 loss to the Buckeye opponent last year.
How is Nevills preparing for the almighty Kyle Snyder?
By practicing with the closest thing college wrestling has ever seen.
The drilling session between Sanderson and Nevills begins with Nevills on the bottom, which soon turns into a scramble. Then, they go on their feet, where Sanderson challenges him with aggressive hand-fighting before catching him in a headlock, despite being significantly lighter than Nevills, who weighs somewhere in the 250 lb. range. When they reset, Nevills fights for and scores a takedown. Then, Sanderson goes on the bottom to demonstrate to Nevills a more explosive way to escape. Every motion is swift, smooth, and powerful, like a bulldozer effortlessly moving piles of gravel to clear a plot of land for construction.
This exchange goes on through Shakur Rasheed’s interview about why he doesn’t use social media and all the strange nicknames he’s received during his recent hot streak. And Joseph’s interview about how he treats every opponent and bout the same way. And a lengthy conversation with Donghia about ticket sales and logistics for credentialed photographers at what will be an overflow, standing room-only Rec Hall crowd. And after that, the media is asked to leave the wrestling room.
The sheer number of national champions to don a blue and white singlet is impressive in and of itself, not to mention 11 of them have done so in Cael Sanderson’s nine seasons in Happy Valley. Forty percent of a 109-year old program’s national champions have reached that summit in less than a decade and under the leadership of one coach.
That sustained success might be one of the most impressive dynasties in sports history.
Cael Sanderson isn’t the Nick Saban of college wrestling. Nick Saban is the Cael Sanderson of college football.
However, while Sanderson has found success quickly, he certainly didn’t just stumble upon it.
When he took over Penn State’s wrestling program in 2010, Sanderson inherited a struggling program that had just finished well under .500 in duals and 17th at the NCAA Championships. The Nittany Lions hadn’t won a national title in 47 years. Only two wrestlers had won individual titles during this millennium.
But the new decade brought new life.
Nine years since he arrived at Penn State, Sanderson has redefined what this millennium means to Penn State wrestling. In nine years, Sanderson has six national championships, 43 All-Americans, and a team GPA that has increased in each of the last six seasons to his credit. His impact has been so strong that the program’s slogan is proudly yet appropriately, “This is PENN STATE. WRESTLING Lives Here.”
These accomplishments are the products of nine years of scrupulous observation, free-flowing teaching moments, meaningful words of wisdom, demanding practice sessions against the best of the best, and a strange, yet powerful connection with his wrestlers that outsiders don’t seem to understand.
That connection, built on all those day-to-day interactions in the wrestling room, has solidified Sanderson’s legacy as so much more than the legendary wrestler and rising, young coach he was when Rec Hall first welcomed him home in 2010.
And now, everything Sanderson has done to completely shift the culture of Penn State wrestling will be put to the test more than ever this weekend and over the next month, as his team chases yet another national title, with the odds stacking against them every which way.
But Cael Sanderson-coached wrestlers don’t really care who they’re facing or what the circumstances are. They’re just excited for the opportunity to compete.