STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — As Penn State wrestlers grunted, perspired, and slung themselves around the floor of their Rec Hall practice facility Monday afternoon, Leonard Cohen’s soaring secular hymn, “Hallelujah,” reverberated angelically overhead.
It was a jarring and telling juxtaposition of two qualities — earthy physicality and transcendent devotion — that have helped coach Cael Sanderson plant the nation’s premier wrestling program in Happy Valley.
The power and passion of his Nittany Lions will be evident at the 2019 NCAA Wrestling Championships, which run Thursday through Saturday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. With entrants in nine of the 10 weight divisions, including three No. 1 seeds and three No. 2s, Penn State is the overwhelming favorite to capture a fourth straight NCAA championship, the eighth in Sanderson’s 10 spectacular PSU seasons.
“What we have going here is very special,” said Bo Nickal, a senior who is 25-0 at 197 pounds this season and will be gunning for a third individual national title. “Success breeds success.”
Despite all the wrestling talent produced in the state, Penn State had won just one NCAA title before Sanderson, a Utah native hired away from his Iowa State alma mater, arrived in April 2009. By 2011, the Lions won the national championship -- held that year in Philadelphia -- their first title since 1953.
Since then, the Mr. Clean-domed, square-jawed legend has built a program that has dominated the collegiate wrestling landscape as thoroughly as he did in winning all 159 of his matches.
In addition to the seven national titles, Penn State has produced 20 individual NCAA champions in Sanderson’s tenure. On this year’s team alone, Nickal, Jason Nolf and Vincenzo Joseph have combined for six. Penn State has won 59 consecutive dual meets, just 10 shy of the record Iowa set from 2008-11. Forty-eight straight Rec Hall meets have been sellouts, and those contested at the larger Bryce Jordan Center frequently draw record-setting crowds, like the 15,998 who turned out to see the Nittany Lions top Iowa in 2018.
Such success coupled with Sanderson’s resume — he also won Olympic gold at Athens in 2004 — has allowed him to broaden the Lions’ recruiting base while still landing the top talent in wrestler-rich Pennsylvania.
“When you’re a kid and you look at everything that Coach Sanderson has accomplished as a wrestler and as a coach, it’s pretty hard to say no,” said sophomore Nick Lee, a 141-pounder who brings a 27-2 record and a No. 3 seeding to the NCAAs.
Another championship in Pittsburgh this weekend would cement Penn State’s place among the sport’s greatest dynasties. Oklahoma State took nine of 10 NCAA titles before World War II interrupted the championships for three years,, and Iowa won nine straight from 1978-86 and eight of 10 in the 1990s.
Dynasties tend to occur more regularly in wrestling, which, with just 80 Division I programs, most in the Northeast and Midwest, lacks the national reach of football or basketball. Five teams have won 80 of its 87 national championships: Oklahoma State (34), Iowa (23), Penn State and Iowa State (eight each), and Oklahoma (seven).
“I don’t know why that is,” Sanderson said when asked about the trend. “There have always been some really great programs, and there still are. … The difference is usually just a few points here and there. But we’re grateful for what we’ve done and the support we have, and we want to make the most of everything.”
A serious 39-year-old with an intensity simmering very near his surface, Sanderson has proved to be a more flexible coach than his image as a rigid, highly disciplined wrestling obsessive might suggest.
He’s leavened the sport’s innate grit with what he calls “fun.” One of his wrestlers, Nickal, has dyed his hair a garish blue-green. Others wear T-shirts urging themselves to do better – “Win, Jason, Win!” And he’s permitted PSU meets to be transformed into spectacles with strobe lights and smoky, spot-lit introductions.
“It isn’t all about the wrestling for them,” said Tom Elling, a wrestling historian based in Lock Haven. “He really makes the sport fun for those guys.”
That’s not to suggest Sanderson has gone completely hippie in Happy Valley. This weekend, for example, you won’t see any of his wrestlers in their more striking white singlets, which several prefer to the plain blue ones they regularly wear.
A dislike of ostentation also explains why only four of the seven NCAA championship trophies Sanderson’s teams have won are displayed at Rec Hall. Where are the others?
“They’re stored away somewhere,” said Pat Donghia, Penn State’s assistant director of communications. “I’m not even sure where. Cael’s not really into that kind of thing."
Though wrestling demands an individual focus, Sanderson has learned to rely on a staff that includes brother Cody as his top aide and Casey Cunningham, a respected wrestling technician. He’s supplemented their contributions by bringing in former PSU stars such as David Taylor to tutor and work out with his wrestlers.
But for all the tips and techniques he imparts, the most important, in his view, might be his constant reminders that college wrestlers should be thankful for where they are and what they have.
“I think gratitude is the foundation for greatness,” Sanderson said, “the foundation for lasting success in anything you do. Student-athletes aren’t really taught that principle. It’s more of an entitlement attitude. We’ve seen that a lot, and it’s going more and more in that direction on a national level.
“But this really is a great time to be a student-athlete. The facilities here, perks these guys get are amazing. I tell them all the time if we had Gatorade when I was in college, that was a big day. Things have come a long way since then and these guys need to recognize that, be grateful for that. It’s hard to be the best you can be if you’re looking at things from any other perspective.”
Sanderson’s team in Pittsburgh will showcase talent from Pennsylvania and beyond. Nickal is from Texas. Mark Hall (26-0 at 174 and, like Nolf and Nickal, seeded No. 1) is from Minnesota. Nolf is from tiny Yatesboro, 52 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, the hometown of two-time national champ Joseph (23-1, No. 2).
“Cael felt that if he could keep most of the wrestling talent in Pennsylvania right here, he could compete for a national title every year,” Elling said. “And he’s done that.
“One of the key men in getting him to Penn State once told me that Cael has the innate talent to put his hands on a would-be recruit, wrestle with him a bit,” Elling said, “and know from that if the young man has what it takes to be great.”
It was Sanderson and his staff who drew Lee, a 141-pounder who’s 27-2 this year and will be seeded No. 3 at the NCAAs, to State College from southern Indiana.
“There are a lot of top programs around Indiana: Purdue, IU, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Minnesota, most of them closer than Penn State,” Lee said. “But I came out here for an official visit and [was sold]. The biggest thing with the coaches for me is that they look at you as a part of their family and not just an athlete. Once they recruit you, they’re only looking out for your best interest, and not just for the four or five years you’re here but for the rest of your life.”
The keystones in the last three Penn State titles have been seniors Nickal and Nolf, each of whom hopes to wrap up his collegiate career with a third individual NCAA title. How successful each is will go a long way toward determining which of them will win wrestling’s Heisman, the Hodge Trophy.
“I don’t think about stuff like that,” said Nolf, a 147-pounder. “I just want to win every match I’m in, pin everyone I wrestle. My expectations when I came here were to become an undefeated four-time national champion. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but now I’m looking to be a three-time national champion.”
Both are pinning machines, but while Nolf is a master technician, Nickal, as his hair color might suggest, wrestles with more flair.
“Last year, he flipped a guy over and pinned him in an NCAA final,” Nolf said. “That was pretty impressive.”
According to their coach, the two Nittany Lions should be strong contenders for the 2020 Olympic team.
“They’ve competed at the [international] level, and they know they’re going to be successful,” Sanderson said. “They’re training in the room with some of the best guys in the world. And our job as a program is to prepare them to make that jump. That’s one of the reasons they came to PSU. If Jason and Bo go and win world championships next fall, I wouldn’t be surprised.
“They’re both just beyond words,” he added. “They’re extremely special, guys that in my opinion will be remembered for as long as college wrestling exists. … I really think both of them are two of the best that have ever been on the mat.”
And if this weekend, either of them, or any other Penn State wrestler, needs some advice before walking onto the biggest stage of his young life, Sanderson, a four-time national champ, can reassure them with this lyric from the song that drifted above Monday’s practice:
“Baby I’ve been here before.
“I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor.”