Cael Sanderson's wrestlers have a grip on Penn State fans

Cael Sanderson has guided the Nittany Lions to six NCAA championships.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — When No. 1-ranked Penn State lured an all-time NCAA-record crowd to the Bryce Jordan Center last month for a dual meet with Iowa, it was obvious that the college sport had absorbed some of professional wrestling’s knack for extravagant entertainment.

In the Wrestlemania-like hysteria that preceded the Nittany Lions’ 28-13 victory, raucous music shook the campus arena, inspirational video introductions filled the giant scoreboard, and the crowd of 15,998 roared in anticipation. Then, one by one, the home team’s wrestlers sprinted out of the darkness, ran through a ring of smoke and fire, were briefly illuminated in a spotlight’s cold glare, and finally stepped wildly along a gantlet of high-fiving, back-slapping students and teammates.

And that, wrestling fans here insist, was sedate compared with the typical atmosphere at the more intimate Rec Hall, where all but one of Penn State’s 2017-18 dual meets took place and where the Nittany Lions haven’t lost since February 2015.

“The Jordan Center is special, but Rec Hall is the greatest atmosphere in college wrestling,” said Joe Garnett, a senior who heads a Penn State wrestling student-section group dubbed “the RECkoning.” “I know it’s only 7,000, but it sounds like 20,000. And all 7,000 fans are right on top of the mat. You feel like you’re a part of the match. The music comes up. The lights go out. The wrestlers run out. The place just erupts. It’s so intimidating for opposing players and coaches.”

That electric environment at Rec Hall – and once or twice a season at the larger Jordan Center – has helped make coach Cael Sanderson’s powerhouse program, the national champion in six of the last seven years, the hottest ticket on a campus teeming with successful sports teams.

The 15,998 for Iowa marked the largest non-football crowd in PSU’s sports history. Sanderson’s Nittany Lions have sold out 41 consecutive meets at Rec Hall, whose capacity, because of fire regulations, is restricted to about 6,600. The team’s annual or semiannual visits to the Jordan Center have produced the four largest indoor crowds in NCAA wrestling history.

There’s a season-ticket waiting list of more than 1,000. The 300 standing-room-only seats available for each meet sell out in minutes. And on StubHub, tickets for this year’s Rec Hall match against No. 2 Ohio State sold for as much as $600.

“We love having a sold-out arena, whether it’s the Jordan Center or Rec Hall,” Sanderson said Wednesday as his unbeaten Lions (14-0 in dual meets) prepared for this weekend’s Big Ten Championships in East Lansing, Mich . “It helps with recruiting. It gives us a home-field advantage. Everything goes hand-in-hand.

“We have a season-ticket waiting list that doesn’t really move. It’s well over 1,000 people, and those people think they’ve just been forgotten. But the reality is people just don’t give up their season tickets.”

Camera icon MARK SELDERS / Penn State Athletics
The crowd at the Iowa dual on Feb. 10.

Home-mat advantage

Such intense demand has led some to urge wrestling to schedule all its meets in the more spacious Jordan Center, a change opposed by some, such as Garnett, who believe  Rec Hall, with its close-in seats and Palestra-like acoustics, provides the Nittany Lions with an enormous competitive edge.

“I talk to the wrestlers and a lot of them say that as cool as the Bryce Jordan Center is, their real home is Rec Hall,” Garnett said. “That’s where their locker room is and where they practice. It’s a little bit of an away game for them at the Jordan Center. It’s a different locker room. Everything’s done a little differently there.”

There’s been no indication Penn State is considering a change, but if it did, one possible solution would be to find a way to expand Rec Hall’s capacity. An ambitious recent study for revamping and replacing some of the campus’ aging athletic infrastructure included no plans to alter the 89-year-old arena or to relocate wrestling.

Sanderson suggested that trying to find a workable balance between the Jordan Center’s increased capacity and Rec Hall’s intimacy and tradition was something he and athletic officials had discussed frequently.

“It’s a challenge,” the coach acknowledged. “It’s something that we wrestle with. And I don’t know what the right answer is. Should we add seats at Rec Hall? [Do] we need to have more matches, or even all of our matches, in the Jordan Center? I don’t know. It’s just something that we talk about on a regular basis.”

Despite all its success, wrestling isn’t even Rec Hall’s primary occupant. Women’s volleyball gets scheduling priority.

There’s little doubt that Sanderson’s team could greatly increase attendance by shifting full time to the Jordan Center, where there was one dual meet this season and last, and two in 2015-16. Six of the 10 biggest indoor collegiate wrestling crowds ever were for matches there, the average gathering at those meets being 15,784.

Camera icon MARK SELDERS / Penn State Athletics
Penn State coach Cael Sanderson chats with one of his wrestlers.

Wrestling has always had a foothold in central Pennsylvania, but what has triggered the recent upsurge here, of course, is the success Penn State has enjoyed under Sanderson, a legendary wrestler who won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and never lost a match in four years at Iowa State.

After capturing just one national title previously (1953), the Lions have won six (2011, ’12, ’13, ’14, ’16, ’17) since Sanderson replaced Troy Sunderland after an 8-12-2 season in 2008-09. The 38-year-old Utah native has produced 16 individual NCAA champions, including five from last season who are back for another shot in Cleveland later this month: Zain Retherford (149), Jason Nolf (157), Vincenzo Joseph (165), Mark Hall (174), and Bo Nickal (184).

In Sunderland’s final season, 2008-09, the Nittany Lions averaged crowds of 2,789. That total jumped to 4,343 under Sanderson in 2009-10 and this season hit 7,693. That’s even better than this season’s average attendance (7,490) for the Penn State men’s basketball team, which plays all its games in the Jordan Center.

The Nittany Lions’ best season for attendance under Sanderson, thanks to a pair of meets at the Jordan Center, was 2015-16, when they averaged a record 8,756.

Bigger than Saban?

While the self-effacing Sanderson is loath to link Penn State’s wrestling dominance to his arrival, others on campus are more than happy to do so.

“Cael Sanderson isn’t the Nick Saban of college wrestling,” a student journalist for the website Onward State wrote this year, referring to the successful Alabama coach. “Nick Saban is the Cael Sanderson of college football.”

The large and raucous crowds, especially in Rec Hall, have made it an extremely unpopular venue for opponents. The PSU student section, for example, sits right alongside the opposing coach.

“We’re yelling at them the whole time,” Garnett said. “They’re yelling for the wrestler to go to the left and we’re yelling, `Right!’  We like to get in the opposing wrestler’s head. You hear it all the time, how they hate to wrestle in such close quarters.”

This season, when No. 2 Ohio State visited the No. 1 Lions, Buckeyes coach Tom Ryan was upset that the appealing matchup wasn’t held in the Jordan Center.

“In my humble opinion, common sense wasn’t used,” Ryan said. “We could have had 15,000 fans for what could be the greatest college wrestling dual of all time.”

Asked why he thought Penn State chose Rec Hall instead, Ryan said: “I believe competitive advantage was the reason.”

This weekend in East Lansing, Sanderson’s team will try to bring home a sixth conference championship since 2011. Its rabid fans, the wrestlers hope, will outnumber those from all other Big Ten teams.

“As long as our guys continue to compete in an entertaining fashion,” Sanderson said, “people are going to show up. If our guys weren’t entertaining, people wouldn’t show up.”