On Saturday night in Philadelphia, an hour after leading Penn State to its second NCAA wrestling title—and first in 58 years—second-year coach Cael Sanderson entered a hotel lounge to a chorus of cheers. His wrestlers, their families and school alumni chanted, "San-der-son! San-der-son!" while the smiling coach picked up a microphone. With a young lineup that boasted three standout freshmen, his team had become the first from the East to win a national championship since the 1953 Nittany Lions, besting top-ranked Cornell and No. 5 Iowa. As Sanderson, 31, extolled the courage of his wrestlers, it became apparent that not only had he transformed a program in just two seasons, but he had also transformed himself.
During his collegiate career, at Iowa State from 1998 to 2002, Sanderson (above) had been equally immovable on mats and in front of microphones, winning four national titles and going undefeated in 159 matches, while earning a reputation for dour reticence. He retired in '04, after winning Olympic gold at 185 pounds, and two years later took over as coach at his alma mater. Though the Cyclones won Big 12 titles in all three of his seasons, Sanderson left Ames in '09 for Happy Valley in part because he wanted to take advantage of Pennsylvania's wealth of high school talent.
Sanderson didn't arrive empty-handed. David Taylor, a top recruit from St. Paris, Ohio, had signed a letter of intent with the Cyclones, but he backed out and followed Sanderson to Penn State. "He was my role model as a wrestler and as a person," says Taylor, a redshirt freshman who had been undefeated in 34 matches this season until losing the 157-pound final to Arizona State's Bubba Jenkins.
Sanderson did his best coaching this year with 184-pound sophomore Quentin Wright, who won the Nittany Lions' lone individual title to cap a season in which he lost six matches. After Wright's third straight defeat in February, Sanderson stunned him the next day by quietly saying "Quentin Wright, national champion" during a break in practice. The words stuck. "Cael told me to be creative and have fun, and that reminded me why I love wrestling," says Wright. "The wins just followed."
Victory has always followed Sanderson. Fun—like the six beach-ball-sized cutouts of smiling faces he put on the walls of the Penn State wrestling room—is something new, but it seems likely to continue.
On the morning of the 125-pound final, Arizona State senior Anthony Robles visited the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art featured in the movie Rocky, then watched the 2005 film Cinderella Man, about the life of Depression-era heavyweight champ James Braddock. Someday, Hollywood might make a movie about him. That night Robles, who was born without a right leg, defeated Iowa's Matt McDonough 7--1 to win his first national title. "I don't know what I'd [have done] without competition," says Robles, who plans to become a motivational speaker. "It's helped me become a man. .... I gained a lot of strength because of my crutches. My Mom told me God made me this way for a reason."
Photograph by HUNTER MARTIN/GETTY IMAGES
WRIGHT APPROACH Sanderson's show of support spurred Wright (far left) to Penn State's only individual title.
GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES (SANDERSON)
[See caption above]
MATT SLOCUM/AP (ROBLES)