By Eric Petersen
For The Gazette
AMES " Winning has always come first with Cael Sanderson.
And that, not a massive bump in salary, he said, is at the heart of why the Iowa State coach and wrestling legend is giving up his lofty perch here for potential Penn State promises.
Still seemingly conflicted by leaving the Cyclone program three years after he took it over, Sanderson spoke openly Friday a few steps outside the room where he's spent much of the last 12 years of his life.
Sanderson wrestled with this decision, that much is clear.
"I didn't really have a wrong answer," he said. "I could stay here where I love Iowa State. This is the place I wanted to win at. It is home. The potential and possibilities of Penn State, it is the highest regarded institution of sports in the East, maybe the country. It's tough to turn down."
Sanderson said reports of a salary in the $500,000 range are untrue. He made just more than $130,000 a year at ISU.
"The deal wasn't about money, just about a better opportunity," Sanderson said. "Time will tell whether or not that's true."
Sanderson broke the news to his team Friday afternoon.
The Cyclones finished third at March's NCAA Championships and return all but one starter from the team that was the only one to qualify all 10 wrestlers for nationals.
"They are great friends of mine," Sanderson said. "We've been through a lot together. I expect these guys to win nationals next year."
Fans and supporters of the program may be angered with Sanderson's decision, particularly after football coach Gene Chizik bolted for Auburn in December after just two seasons.
Sanderson is leaving ISU in a similar fashion.
"They, rightfully so, should be upset," he said. "I don't really have an answer for them other than, 'I'm sorry.' I feel like this is the best move for me and my family. ... Leaving is a tough thing. I think it's tougher on me than any of our fans. Nobody cares about Iowa State wrestling more than I do."
Sanderson went 159-0 and won four national championships at ISU from 1998 through 2002. He won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and moved up from assistant coach to head coach at Iowa State in 2006, replacing Bobby Douglas.
In three years, Sanderson's teams went 44-10, won three Big 12 Conference championships, qualified all 30 of his starting wrestlers for nationals, and earned 15 All-America awards and two individual national titles.
After some difficult deliberations, Sanderson decided early Friday morning to accept PSU's offer and start a life on the East Coast.
"I'd never really considered taking another job," he said. "I never expected this. ... The potential of the program, the resources there are unbelievable."
The Nittany Lions' recruiting base was a huge selling point. States like Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and New York are talent-rich.
"There's no place in the country like it," he said.
Sanderson said his older brother, Cody, ISU's lead assistant, will join him on staff. More coaches, recruits and current wrestlers could follow, though many of the athletes " younger brother, Cyler included " will have only one season of eligibility.
"That's a question I can't really answer," Sanderson said. "That's going to be up to them, but I don't know whether or not that opportunity will be available to them."
Penn State finished 17th at this year's NCAA meet.
ISU was second in Sanderson's first season and should be among the nation's best again next season with All-Americans Jake Varner, Nick Gallick, Jon Reader, David Zabriskie and Nick Fanthorpe returning.
ISU Athletics Director Jamie Pollard said a national search for Sanderson's successor is under way.
"You can get it done here," Sanderson said. "I haven't quite been able to do that yet. I believe we are right on the edge and that makes it even more difficult to leave.
"It feels like it is the right thing to do, but only time will tell. I haven't signed my (contract) papers yet."