One of the best ways to measure Penn State’s recent run of wrestling success is to look at the walls inside the Joyner Wrestling Room.
Pictures hang for every national champion wrestler. Howard Johnston was the first, winning at 165 pounds in 1935. Joe Lemyre joined him 17 years later at 167 pounds. Through the 2009-10 season, 18 Nittany Lion wrestlers won a combined 21 national titles.
Lately, though, the amount of wall space has shrunk considerably.
Since the 2010-11 campaign, 11 Penn State wrestlers have combined to win 20 more national titles. Each addition to the wall makes Penn State wrestling that much more daunting on the recruiting trail.
“They show recruits and kids who are trying to figure out where they want to go to school, that if you go to Penn State, this is a place where you can get better,” Penn State coach Cael Sanderson told local reporters this week. “If you’re good, you can become great here.”
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The Nittany Lions will try to add to those individual titles, as well as an incredible run of the team success — with seven Division I national team crowns in the past eight years — when the NCAA Wrestling Championships start Thursday at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh.
One could easily argue no sports team — professional or otherwise — has been as dominant as Penn State wrestling in the past decade. Not Alabama football. Not Connecticut women’s basketball. Not the Golden State Warriors. Not even the New England Patriots.
An eighth championship in nine years for Penn State would mark the most commanding run in Division I wrestling since Iowa rattled off nine team titles in 10 years from 1991-2000. Back then, Dan Gable led the Hawkeyes to a three-peat from 1991-93, then again from 1995-97. After Gable stepped down, Jim Zalesky guided Iowa to three more titles from 1998-2000.
Gable went from one of wrestling’s greatest competitors — he went 117-1 at Iowa State, winning two NCAA titles, then won the 1972 Olympic gold medal without allowing a point — to the sport’s greatest coach.
In 21 years as the Hawkeyes’ head coach, Gable led Iowa to a staggering 21-straight Big Ten tournament titles, 15 national team championships and coached 152 All-Americans and 45 NCAA champions.
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“When I was coaching,” Gable said, “I had a few people complain about the amount of winning we were having.”
Sanderson is following a similar path.
The 39-year-old Utah native went 159-0 as a wrestler at Iowa State, won four NCAA titles from 1999-2002, then won Olympic gold in 2004.
What he’s building at Penn State could soon rival Gable’s Hawkeye dynasty, considered one of the greatest in college sports history.
Since taking over ahead of the 2009-10 season, Sanderson has coached 51 All-Americans and 20 individual national champs. (Cornell is the next-closest program, producing 10 individual title winners in that same span.)
Only 11 teams have eclipsed 140 team points at the national tournament. Penn State has done it three times: 2017 (146.5), 2012 (143) and last year (141.5).
“He’s shown that he’s a very good coach,” Gable said. “When he made the jump, he really wasn’t a proven coach yet. Only as an athlete. He proved it by doing it at a place that hasn’t won it (since 1953), even though they’ve always had good teams.”
This is what Sanderson had in mind when he took the Penn State job ahead of the 2009-10 season.
He spent three years as the head coach at his alma mater, where he coached 15 All-Americans and two individual national champs. The Cyclones also recorded two top-three team finishes at the national tournament.
Thirty days after the 2009 NCAA Championships, Sanderson was introduced as Penn State’s 12th wrestling coach. During his opening press conference, he revealed his plan for building the foundation of a dynasty.
“Pennsylvania has the best high school wrestling in the country. Second to Utah, I guess,” he said then and laughed. “This is wrestling country. The potential here is very interesting to me.
“I’m going get out and make sure that we keep the best kids at Penn State,” he continued. “My goal is always to win. I believe that we can and will win.”
With Sanderson as the helm, Penn State has brought in seven top-5 recruiting classes, according to Flowrestling, including the No. 1 overall recruiting class in both 2014 and 2018. Of his 11 NCAA champion wrestlers, six have come from Pennsylvania.
Recruiting from the nation’s deepest wrestling talent pool — at this week’s national tournament, 53 of the 330 competitors are from Pennsylvania, the most of any state — allowed Sanderson to build a foundation to attract some of the country’s top high school wrestlers.
David Taylor was the No. 1-overall recruit in 2009 — he was a four-time Ohio state champion — and originally signed with Iowa State while Sanderson coached there. He received his release and followed his idol to State College.
“Cael had a huge impact on me, just without him even knowing,” Taylor said. “Just watching him and the way he competed, I wanted to be just like that. I wanted to score a lot of points. I wanted to be dominant. I wanted to imitate him as much as I could.
“When he left, there was no doubt that I wanted to follow him. I felt like he was someone who could help take me to the next level as a competitor and help me fulfill my goals.”
Taylor went on to win two NCAA titles and two Hodge Trophy Awards, essentially college wrestling’s Heisman Trophy, under Sanderson.
“I remember watching him as a freshman at Iowa State,” Taylor said of Sanderson. “He was young, and he won the national championship, and he always had a smile on his face but he was dominating these guys. He didn’t think that because he was young, he couldn’t do it.
“That’s one of the huge reasons why Penn State has been so successful over the last decade. These athletes come in, and it’s like, why not achieve your goals now?”
This year’s team, which includes many wrestlers from that stellar 2014 recruiting class, is a prime example of that philosophy.
Beginning with Thursday’s opening round, nine Penn State wrestlers will take the mat, and seven are seeded third or better. Of the nine, four either won national titles or reached the national finals as freshmen.
This run of success has nearly doubled Penn State’s record book. Prior to Sanderson’s arrival, no Nittany Lion wrestler had ever won more than two national titles. This weekend, three could win their third — seniors Jason Nolf (157) and Bo Nickal (197), and junior Vincenzo Joseph (165).
“I can’t really speak for other programs, but I know we’re grateful for the opportunity to be here and we love to compete and we peak at the right time,” Nickal said Wednesday.
Every other team has chased the Nittany Lions. Four schools — Cornell, Minnesota, Oklahoma State, Ohio State — have finished as runner-ups to Penn State during each of its title-winning seasons. The Buckeyes won in 2015, the one year Penn State didn’t win in the last eight.
“There’s been some really great programs,” Sanderson said. “You mention Iowa. Ohio State has a really great program. Oklahoma State. Cornell is just up the road. Michigan has a great team. There’s a lot of great teams. The difference some years is just a few points here and there.
“There’s not a huge difference between programs. We’re grateful for the support that we have, the staff that we have, the kids that we have, and we just want to make the most of everything that we get. That’s the goal here.”
Cody Goodwin covers wrestling for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.