By SEAN KEELER AND TOMMY BIRCH “¢ [email protected] “¢ April 17, 2009
Ames, Ia. ” Cael Sanderson told reporters today that he hasn’t slept in a few days. Now it’s Iowa State wrestling fans’ turn to suffer through some sleepless nights.
“I don’t have an answer for them other than, ‘I’m sorry,’ “ Sanderson said of the news that he was leaving the Cyclones ” his alma mater ” to coach at Penn State. “I just feel like this is the best move for me and my family (wife Kelly and son Tate).”
The 29-year-old Sanderson, a four-time NCAA champion, had been Iowa State’s wrestling coach since 2006, when he was offered the top job in an effort to keep him in Ames at a time when a number of schools ” including rival Iowa ” had coaching vacancies to fill.
The Cyclones won Big 12 Conference titles all three years under Sanderson and finished in the top five in each of the past three NCAA championships. But Sanderson said the “potential” of a program that hasn’t won a national wrestling title since 1953 was enough to sway him to move east.
“The resources there are unbelievable,” Sanderson said of the State College, Pa., campus. “There was a lot of weighing things. It was back and forth in my mind. I didn’t really have a wrong answer.
“I could stay here, where I love Iowa State and that is never going to change. This is the place that I wanted to win at. This is home. You can’t go wrong. It’s just the potential and the possibilities of Penn State. It’s the highest-regarded institution in sports, in the East and maybe in the country.
Sanderson will be introduced at Penn State in a news conference scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday.
“My intention was never to use Iowa State as a steppingstone,” said Sanderson, who appeared to choke back tears as he met with the media at the Lied Recreation Athletic Center. “Leaving, I know that’s a tough thing. But I know it’s tougher on me than any one of our fans. Nobody cares more about Iowa State wrestling than I do.”
Athletic director Jamie Pollard did not grant interview requests by Register reporters today, but said in a statement that he made efforts this week to keep Sanderson in the fold.
“Those talks included me asking what, if anything, could we do to keep him at Iowa State,” the statement read. “I also asked President (Gregory) Geoffroy, (women’s basketball coach) Bill Fennelly and (men’s basketball coach) Greg McDermott to reach out to Cael and they all did so.
“In the end, Cael said that he appreciated everything Iowa State and our fans had done for him but he believes winning a national championship will be easier at Penn State. He said the high school talent in Pennsylvania and surrounding states is the best in the country and the kids in that area grow up wanting to wrestle for the Nittany Lions.”
Sanderson earned a base salary of $137,000, making him one of the highest-paid wrestling coaches in the United States. He’s expected to make more than that with the Lions, although details were not made available today.
Penn State boasts one of the largest athletic departments in the country, with a budget of $79.2 million for 29 sports during the 2007-08 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education reports. By comparison, Iowa State’s budget was $38.6 million over 18 sports. The Lions’ total operating expenses for wrestling were $189,088 in ’07-08, while the Cyclones’ expenses were less than a third of that ” $56,782.
Penn State finished 17th at the NCAA championships last month in St. Louis, Mo. Iowa State was third. In the 56 years since the Lions’ last national crown, the Cyclones have claimed seven titles, although none since 1987.
“I’m just like everyone else,” junior Cyclone wrestler Mitch Mueller said. “I didn’t think it’d actually happen.”
Sanderson is the only collegiate wrestler to win four national championships while never losing a match (159-0). He also won the United States’ only freestyle gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics.
“There’s no better job than Iowa State,” said Bobby Douglas, Sanderson’s college coach and the man he replaced in Ames. “I think Penn State just upped the ante a little bit as far as wrestling is concerned.”
Upon being hired in 2006, Sanderson said: “We want to be the dominant program in the country. I know the expectations are high and that’s what I love about Iowa State. We’re going to win national championships. There are no other goals here.”
He came close once, finishing second in 2007.
“I’m disappointed just a little bit,” said Dan Gable, another former Iowa State gold-medal wrestler who also left the program to coach at a Big Ten school ” in this case, Iowa. “It wouldn’t sit well with me if I was just an Iowa State fan right now.”
In his statement, Pollard said a national search for a replacement would begin
“immediately and focus our full attention on identifying and recruiting a new coach who can add to the Iowa State championship legacies of former coaches Hugo Otopalik, Dr. Harold Nichols and Jim Gibbons.”
Staff writer Tom Witosky contributed to this report.