April 23. 2009 11:10PM
Sanderson?s departure ups the ante for everyone
By Mike Hlas

Gazette sports columnist


Tom Brands Iowa coach

CEDAR RAPIDS ? Cael Sanderson is now 788 miles farther from Iowa City than he had been at Ames.

Yet he has instantly established an even greater rivalry with Tom Brands and Iowa Hawkeyes wrestling than he had in three seasons as Iowa State?s head wrestling coach.

The more time that passes, the clearer it becomes why Sanderson left ISU for Penn State. Pennsylvania produces dairy cows, anthracite coal and wrestlers.

Twelve of the 2009 NCAA All-Americans were Pennsylvania natives. Two were native Iowans.

Pennsylvania has 14 Division I wrestling programs, and they have helped keep the talent splintered. The talent that stayed in the state, that is.

Penn, Lehigh and Clarion have had their moments of glory at NCAA tourneys. Little Edinboro was sixth in the team standings last month, ahead of every Big Ten team but Iowa and Ohio State.

But Penn State, which won its only NCAA wrestling team title in 1953, hadn?t gotten it together in the sport despite its size and its status as a Big Ten member. It lost more duals than it won last season. It won just one of its eight duals against Big Ten teams. It finished seventh in the Big Ten tourney, 17th at the NCAAs.

This is the sleeping giant? No. This was the sleeping giant.

With the resignation of coach Troy Sunderland and the hiring of Sanderson as his replacement, things changed in one big swoop.

Now the talk is that all the great Pennsylvania prep talent will suddenly look at Penn State first instead of looking past it.

At the Linn County I-Club annual banquet Wednesday night, Brands didn?t pretend Penn State?s wrestling profile hadn?t grown substantially.

?It?s probably going to be felt immediately, and already has been felt,? Brands said.

Without naming names (because he can?t under NCAA rules), he strongly hinted a couple of high school juniors from Pennsylvania he had worked hard decided this week to instead go with Sanderson?s program.

?Something serious came down the pike today,? Brands told the I-Club gathering. ?We?re into recruiting these juniors ... we?ll probably lose them because of what happened.?

What happened was Sanderson became Penn State?s coach.

Brands? reaction to recruits eluding his grasp for that of Penn State?s was one you?d hear only from Brands. Or his mentor, Dan Gable.

?I love it,? Brands said. ?Because it?s an edge. It?s our edge. They do what they do, and it?s our edge. It?s our edge.?

Be that as it may, the reality is that Pennsylvania is no longer the Wild Wild East of wrestling, where you can come in and grab this top recruit and that one without a fight. There?s a new sheriff in State College, one with iconic status among high school wrestlers.

Sanderson?s gold medal was won in 2004, not 1996. His unbeaten, four-championship NCAA career at Iowa State isn?t grainy footage. It was seen and idolized by a lot of today?s top prep wrestlers as they were growing up.

Factor in Penn State?s own iconic image within its state and beyond. Factor in that the school built a $4 million stand-alone wrestling facility three years. ago. Know that many top prep wrestlers are in other Eastern states.

Then listen to Brands, who refuses to act under siege when he?s the one who was the primary conductor of the last two national championship squads.

?Regionally, they?re going to maybe be a stronger recruiting presence,? Brands said. ?There?s still a lot of good kids out there.

?Resources and money and facilities and being out there in the recruiting hotbed of Pennsylvania and Ohio and the East Coast where the population is ? they said eight of the 10 national champions (this year) grew up within a four-hour drive of Happy Valley. That doesn?t mean anything to me.?

It gets better.

?I?ve been in Penn State?s wrestling room and it?s nice. It is nice, and it doesn?t matter. First of all, we want to do it in Iowa City because there?s no better place to do it. The second thing is that?s my job right now. My job is to keep Iowa strong.

?We?ve got something really special going. You want to keep it going. There?s no greater motivation than being able to do things over and over and over again at the expense of your opponent. There?s no greater satisfaction than to be able to accomplish that at the expense of your opponent.

?We have a lot of guys that are right there, right there to take the next step to domination. We?re greedy because we love success, we love winning, we love the challenge.?

Sanderson wants to unseat Brands as the No. 1 college wrestling coach, so he went all the way to Penn State to improve his chances.

Brands says ?a challenge makes you better. A challenge expands your mental capacity. It expands your capabilities for the future.?

College wrestling, somewhat dormant in Iowa just a few years ago, has perhaps never been hotter.

With Iowa assistant coach Terry Brands having removed himself from consideration according to his brother, who will Iowa State hire as its coach to try to add gas to the fire?

n Mike Hlas? ?The Hlog? is at gazetteonline.com. To contact Mike: (319) 368-8840 or mike.hlas@gazcomm.com