Big 12 Conference - One True Champion
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Cael Sanderson
Courtesy: A.P.
Release: 07/18/2006

 “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.”
2007 National Coach of the Year, wrestling legend and Iowa State head coach Cael Sanderson, March 31, 2006

 

When Cael Sanderson says something, he means it. In two years, Iowa State wrestling has regained national prominence as a team and on individual accomplishments. The Cyclones have posted a 29-7 dual record, earned back-to-back Big 12 Conference team titles and finished as the 2007 NCAA runner-up. Six individuals have been crowned league champions, Cyclones have garnered All-American honors 11 times and one earned national champion.
As only the sixth head coach in Iowa State wrestling history, any cynic who doubted Sanderson’s stated vision for the future of Cyclone wrestling has been witness to incredible accomplishments in two short years and can only imagine what he has in store for ISU in the future.

 

In his second year at Iowa State, Sanderson coached the 2007 08 team to a 16-4 dual record as the Cyclones finished atop the Big 12 regular-season standings. Highlighting the dual season was a win over top-ranked and defending national champion Minnesota (18-13) in Minneapolis, Minn. The win marked the first time in 21 years that a second-ranked ISU squad knocked off a No. 1 team. The Cyclones closed out the dual schedule by clinching a share of the Big 12 Conference regular-season title by downing No. 2 Nebraska 22-12 in Ames.

 

Sanderson’s team stormed into Stillwater, Okla., and the Big 12 Championship to defend the title it won in 2007. He guided all six of his sophomores to championship bouts, with four, Nick Fanthorpe (133), Nick Gallick (141), Cyler Sanderson (157) and Jake Varner (184), emerging as first-time champions. The Cyclone surge into the finals brought a second consecutive conference trophy home to Ames, a feat that had not been mirrored at ISU since 1979-80.
 
For the second-straight year, all 10 of Sanderson’s starters advanced to the NCAA Championships in St. Louis, Mo. Among the qualifiers were two seniors making their first tournament appearance, a true freshman and a redshirt freshman. In one of the most outstanding Friday night sessions in Cyclone wrestling history, seven Iowa State grapplers secured All-American status. The seven All-Americans marked the most on an ISU team since 1993 and the ninth time in the program’s history that at least seven Cyclone wrestlers placed among the top-eight of their respective weight classes. Jake Varner advanced to the championship bout at 184 pounds for the second time and finished as the runner-up.

 

In his first year, Sanderson led his Iowa State team to a 13-3 dual meet record, a Midlands Championship team title, the 2007 Big 12 team crown and a national runner-up effort at the NCAA Championship. Sanderson was named National Coach of the Year after the Cyclones pushed the national title race down to the final matches. ISU’s performance at the league championship also earned Sanderson Big 12 Coach-of-the-Year honors. Each accomplishment during the 2006-07 season recalled historical feats of teams prior, while creating its own legacy.

 

Sanderson’s exceptional initial season as Cyclone head coach included the first back-to-back single-season wins over rival Oklahoma State since the 1970-71 season. Iowa State won the Midlands Championships team title for the first time since 1981.

Iowa State took the national team title challenge to the final matches of the 2007 NCAA meet. Three Iowa State wrestlers, Trent Paulson (157 pounds), Jake Varner (184) and Kurt Backes (197) made their respective NCAA championship matches, with Paulson winning the 64th individual collegiate crown in Cyclone history.


The 2007 Big 12 title effort, Iowa State’s first conference wrestling title since 1987, was memorable as freshman heavyweight David Zabriskie won the meet’s final match to clinch the championship. Sanderson’s team was an ideal mix of seniors with Travis and Trent Paulson, Kurt Backes and six freshmen who were a part of the nation’s top-recruiting class in 2005. As an assistant coach under the legendary Bobby Douglas, Sanderson had played a major role in recruiting those grapplers to ISU.

 

When Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard introduced the wrestling legend as head wrestling coach on March 31, 2006, it sent a quake around the wrestling world. Sanderson, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist and four-time undefeated NCAA champion, was already known as the individual who had truly gone where none had gone before.

 

Sanderson’s unprecedented achievements have lifted the 29-year-old to uncharted heights. His accomplishments have transcended his sport and made him one of the most recognized athletes around the world. His rise from unrivaled champion to head coach of a perennial NCAA title challenging collegiate program surprised no one in the wrestling world. Sanderson is wrestling’s premier ambassador. He has lived up to his marquee status on and off the mat.  Through all of his triumphs, which led to an ESPY Award as the Best Male College Athlete, his appearance on a Wheaties Box and being the focus of an ESPN SportsCentury episode, his focus remains on wrestling and working to further the national stature of Iowa State’s grappling program. Sanderson’s ascension in the coaching ranks was not a shock. Upon completing his competitive career, he spent two years as a special assistant in the athletics department before joining the ISU coaching staff as an assistant coach in 2004-05. He was elevated to assistant head coach for the 2005-06 season.

 

The summer of 2004 was a magical one for the native of Heber City, Utah. Sanderson won the U.S. Olympic Trials at 84 kilgorams/185 pounds to qualify for the Athens Olympic Games. There he won five matches, defeating Korean Moon Eiu-Jae 3-1 in the gold medal match. Down 1-0, Sanderson scored on a two-point exposure move at the 4:32 mark of the match and sealed the victory with a takedown at the 5:05 mark. Underscoring Iowa State’s international presence, Cyclone head coach and U.S. Olympic coach Bobby Douglas and former ISU All-American and 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson, the U.S. National Coach, were in Sanderson’s corner for the historic match.

 

Sanderson finished his Iowa State career as indisputably the greatest collegiate competitor of all time. When he defeated Jon Trenge of Lehigh for the 2002 NCAA 197-pound championship, it was the culmination of a four-year quest for victory that Sanderson completed with a 159-0 record. Sports Illustrated called his four-year streak of perfection the No. 2 most outstanding achievement in collegiate sports history. The win over Trenge to make history was named one of the “25 Defining Moments” of NCAA history for the organization’s centennial celebration. He earned three Dan Hodge Trophies as the nation’s best college wrestler, a collegiate first. Sanderson was named the Most Outstanding Wrestler at all four NCAA Championship meets in which he competed, another unparalleled accomplishment.


Before Sanderson, the idea of completing a four-year career undefeated was almost unthinkable. Through four collegiate seasons (1998-2002), Sanderson never had an off night, compiling records of 39-0, 40-0, 40-0 and 40-0, competing the first three years at 184 pounds. When he won the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award as a freshman at the 1999 NCAA Championships, he was the first freshman ever to claim the honor.

 

Sanderson, who earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Iowa State in 2002, twice earned NWCA Academic All-America honors, making the first team in 2000 and 2001. He was a two-time first-team all-Big 12 academic honoree.

 

Sanderson had already fashioned a sterling international resume before the Olympic Games. The 2000 World University champion won three U.S. national freestyle championships and World Team Trials titles from 2001-03. He earned the Most Outstanding Wrestler Award at the 2001 meet, winning the 187.25-pound title. Sanderson was prepared to represent his country at the 2001 World Freestyle Wrestling Championship. When the Sept. 11 tragedies postponed the tournament, Sanderson chose to compete for Iowa State during his final collegiate season. He made the U.S. team again in 2002, but the USA squad stayed home when its safety could not be guaranteed at the world tournament in Iran.

 

The Sanderson name is irretrievably linked with the wrestling world, in any language. Cael and his three brothers are all Iowa Staters. Older brother Cody, a former ISU two-time All-American and two-time NCAA 133-pound finalist, is Sanderson’s associate head coach and the former head coach at Utah Valley State. Older brother Cole was a four-year letterwinner for the Cyclones. Younger brother Cyler is a junior on the Iowa State wrestling team.

 

Sanderson compiled a 127-3 record wrestling for his father, Steve, at Wasatch High School, winning four Utah state titles and the Dave Schultz High School Excellence Award. Cael and his wife, Kelly, live in Ames with their son Tate, born in 2007.

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