PSU wrestling program exudes excellence


It’s been another wonderful week for Pennsylvania wrestling, as the Penn State Nittany Lions dominated the NCAA tournament, winning a sixth team title in seven years and an amazing five individual championships.

The wrestling world knew Cael Sanderson would be a game-changer for the Penn State program when he was hired as head coach in 2009, and he has certainly lived up to his billing as arguably the greatest collegiate wrestler, and now coach in the history of the sport.

This weekend, his Penn State squad clinched the national team championship in the semifinals, and saw five underclassmen reach the top of the medal stand.

But as impressive as the Lions’ performances were on the mat, what was even more exemplary was the way in which they won. Whether their match was a nail-biter or a blowout, the Penn State wrestlers acted like they’d been there before. Even though four of the five PSU champs were capturing their first NCAA crown, they won with grace and class.

In their post-match interviews, the Lions were well-spoken, showing respect for their opponents and gratitude to their families for their love and support. And to a man, they spoke of their legendary coach, describing an inspiring leader who always tells them to “have fun.”

Sanderson himself, when complimented about his team’s outstanding performance, deflected the praise toward his student-athletes.

It is obvious that the Penn State wrestling program is a reflection of its leader, and Sanderson, an example of what leadership should be.

While other wrestlers celebrated their championships with grandstanding, coach-flipping, and demands to be interviewed in front of their fans, the most outrageous celebratory move by the Lion champions was to run into the stands to embrace their parents.

Credit Penn State athletics with making a commitment to pursue the best-of-the-best when hiring Sanderson, and for creating a wrestling facility worthy of a national championship program. But salaries and weight rooms don’t guarantee victories, and perks pale in comparison to character as a building block for a success.

Sanderson has created a culture of excellence, from the hiring of staff to the recruitment of athletes and their families.

A coach who himself achieved unprecedented accolades as an NCAA wrestler, with a perfect 159-0 record, four national titles and four Outstanding Wrestler awards, he passes on proven techniques and training regimens to his grapplers.

But it is clear that they get far more than skills from this college wrestling experience. These young men obviously care about one another, are committed to their team, and love their sport.

They work toward their group goal through individual matches and milestones with a combination of focus and fun, with an expectation of victory. And victory is fun.

But the Cael Sanderson wrestling program is about more than winning. It is the epitome of what Penn State should stand for: success, but success with honor.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at Her column appears on Tuesdays.