Penn State pins hopes on Sandersons

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The Sanderson boys stuck together from Iowa State to Penn State.

Now they're making one more trip to the NCAA tournament together nearly a year after a whirlwind courtship lured Cael Sanderson from his alma mater to coach the Nittany Lions.

Cody, the oldest of the Sanderson brothers at 33, is Cael's top assistant. Cyler, a 23-year-old senior, is one of the nation's best wrestlers at 157 pounds.

"It would have been a lot more difficult" without his brothers, Cael Sanderson said of making the jump to Happy Valley. "I'm real grateful that they both came with me, and it wasn't easy for either one of them."

The Sandersons all wrestled at Iowa State, and Cody and Cael later coached the Cyclones while Cyler was on the team. Two brothers coaching a younger brother at the same program is rare in big-time college athletics.

"It's a family that is committed to the sport," said Mitch Hull, director of national teams for USA Wrestling. "There aren't many families that have had that many [wrestlers] at that level."

Cael Sanderson, a soft-spoken 30-year-old, is by far the biggest star in his family. His exploits in the sport are revered the way NBA fans talk about Michael Jordan's feats on the basketball court.

Wrestling at Iowa State, he went 159-0 from 1999-2002 with four NCAA titles. He is the only grappler in NCAA championship history to win four Most Outstanding Wrestler awards.

Sanderson finished his competitive career by winning gold at 185 pounds at the 2004 Olympics.

A native of Heber City, Utah, Sanderson had his face on a Wheaties box and a day named after him by his home state.

He's pretty good at coaching, too. The resume from his days on the mat gives him instant credibility.

"When Cael talks to people … with what he's done, guys stop and listen," Hull said.

Cael took over the Cyclones in 2006, leading his alma mater to the first of three straight Big 12 titles. Iowa State never finished lower than fifth in the NCAA tournament during his three seasons in Ames, including a runner-up finish in 2007, and all 10 Cyclone wrestlers qualified for the NCAAs each year.

Cyler was a three-year starter under his brother at Iowa State, earning All-America honors in 2008. Cody was associate head coach under Cael with the Cyclones, the same title he holds at Penn State.

Big brother doesn't mind calling little brother the boss.

"It's unique. There's not a lot of people in this situation," Cody said. "I'm glad that people are curious, and asking that question."

When differences of opinion arise, "it has a little more of an emotional feeling than a disagreement," he said.

Cael and Cody say the decision to leave Iowa State wasn't easy. Ames had been their home for years, and the Cyclones flourished under their guidance.

But Penn State called last spring after Troy Sunderland resigned under pressure following a 17th-place finish at nationals and seventh-place finish in the Big Ten tournament.

Iowa State finished third at nationals last year, so it seemed odd to outsiders for Cael Sanderson to leave the Cyclones. Iowa State has seven NCAA titles, most recently in 1987, to Penn State's lone title in 1953.

Speculation swirled that money was the primary motive. Even one of his new wrestlers, Quentin Wright, asked him about it when the team first met the coach.

"He's a real sincere guy and he was kind of asking, 'Well, did you come here because they offered you a lot of money?" Cael Sanderson said in recounting Wright's question. "I said I came here because I believe in this area and you guys and Pennsylvania and Northeast wrestling, and that's why I came here."

Asked by The Associated Press to divulge his salary, Sanderson hesitated before revealing it was about $150,000, or roughly $15,000 more than he made at Iowa State.

Though it's a pretty sweet deal for a college wrestling coach, it's not the highest in the conference. According to a database of Iowa state salaries at the Des Moines Register Web site, Iowa coach Tom Brands makes about $195,000. Top-ranked Iowa is a wrestling powerhouse with two straight titles and 22 overall.

Iowa State remains in good shape after hiring Kevin Jackson to replace Sanderson. The No. 2 Cyclones were just edged out last week by Oklahoma State at the Big 12 tournament.

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said Sanderson's move turned out to be a "win-win" for both the coach and his former employer. Jackson also wrestled at Iowa State and won gold at the Olympics.

"It's been fun to watch Cael," Pollard said. "I'm happy for him, I'll cheer for him -- except when they're wrestling us."

Sanderson says he thinks he's a lifer now in Happy Valley.

"I thought the same thing when I was at Iowa State, but Penn State is just a little different in the potential," he said. "Iowa State is a program that's always going to be good, always going to be competitive."

He's off to a decent start at his new home. The Nittany Lions finished fifth at the Big Ten tournament for their best finish since 2007, with Cyler winning the only title after a perfect run at 157 pounds made him the school's 20th Big Ten champion.

The Nittany Lions have six wrestlers in the NCAA tournament that begins Thursday in Omaha, Neb., with Cyler the highest seeded at No. 4. He is coached by Cody, who oversees the lightweights.

"There's an emotional aspect with coaching anybody, but with him, it's intensified," Cody said. "Sometimes, it's hard, more difficult than coaching other kids. At the same time, the joy, the satisfaction is even greater."

More help is on the way next year after Penn State redshirted top talents this season including Wright and freshman David Taylor. He was considered the nation's top recruit last year and followed Sanderson from Iowa State to Penn State.

"Do we want to be at the top right now? Yes, we do," Cody said. "I don't know if there's really a target on [Cael's] back, but as soon as he came here, there were already people trying to compete with him."