Right photo by Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com
A version of this article first appeared in May of 2017. It has been updated to include the 2017-18 season.
After Penn State outdualed Ohio State at the 2018 NCAA tournament, they continued to make their case as one of the most dominant dynasties college wrestling has ever seen. The Nittany Lions’ seventh title in eight years is a run that has also only ever been equaled by Oklahoma State and Iowa, the two most historically successful schools in Division I. When your only peers are the best eras of the sport’s two most dominant programs, you’ve got something special going on. It is clear that Cael Sanderson has built the type of winning machine we haven’t seen since Dan Gable stepped down in Iowa City, but how close is Sanderson to equaling the start of Gable’s coaching career?
After outstanding wrestling careers at Iowa State, Gable lost only the final match of his NCAA run while Sanderson became the only undefeated four-time champion in Division I history, both men had relatively short international careers before turning to college coaching. Gable won the 1971 World Championships, claimed gold at the 1972 Olympics, and then largely retired from international competition, wrestling just one more dual in 1973. Sanderson was the silver medalist at the 2003 World Championships before winning his Olympic gold medal in 2004. Cael would make a comeback to wrestle another World Championships in 2011, finishing fifth, but he too was largely retired after his Olympic win.
Gable headed to Iowa City shortly after his wrestling career and took over the Hawkeyes as the head man in 1977. Sanderson stayed in Ames, taking the reins at his alma mater for three seasons (2007-09), after being an assistant coach starting in 2004, before jumping to Penn State before the 2009-10 season. Comparing the coaching careers of the two is a little tricky. Cael’s Iowa State teams were good, but they weren’t on the level of his Nittany Lion title winners. However, he did start his career there and no doubt learned a thing or two that helped him later on. On the other hand, Gable had some time as an assistant, as well, at Iowa before he took over, but he stayed in Iowa City throughout his coaching career. It is impossible to quantify how that all affects the numbers so we’ll present four sets of data here, the first 12 years of both coaches careers, the first nine years of Gables, and Cael’s numbers in his nine years at Penn State. You can judge which comparisons are fair to make.
The first table includes everything before the NCAA tournament begins.
|Dual Winning %||Conf. Titles||Avg. Conf. Finish||Avg. Nat. Quals|
|Cael first 12 years||0.872||8||1.833||8.917|
|Gable first 12 years||0.941||12||1.000||8.917|
|Cael at Penn State||0.894||5||2.111||8.556|
|Gable first 9 years||0.957||9||1.000||9.444|
Sanderson’s Iowa State teams weigh down his winning percentage a little bit and the two teams he has had since taking over at Penn State that didn’t win a national title also lost 10 of the 14 duals that Cael’s teams have dropped since 2009-10. The title-winning teams are similar to Gable’s championship squads, never losing more than one dual a season, though the Hawkeyes wrestled more duals overall. The most astounding statistic in this table is that Gable’s teams won conference titles in each of his first 12 seasons on the bench. That would continue throughout his career as the Hawkeyes won every conference tournament during Gable’s coaching tenure which lasted from 1977 through 1997.
Sanderson’s Cyclone teams won two conference titles outright and shared a third. That is one area where the Nittany Lions have not fared quite as well, finishing fifth in 2010 as well as in 2015. They famously finished second behind Ohio State, for the second consecutive season, leaving Sanderson with two fewer Big Ten tournament trophies than national titles. There is a similar story looking at national qualifiers, where Sanderson’s Cyclone teams qualified 30 of 30 in his three years there. His Penn State teams haven’t done quite as well largely due, again, to those two non-title winning years. Gable’s teams put everyone in the national tournament about half the time and qualified less than eight just once within this time frame.
Each coach’s performance at the NCAA tournament looks like this.
|AAs/Year||Champs/Year||Adj Team Points/Yr||National Titles||Avg. NCAA Finish|
|Cael first 12 years||5.500||1.833||99.667||7||2.667|
|Gable first 12 years||7.167||2.083||135.250||9||1.333|
|Cael at Penn State||5.667||2.222||107.778||7||2.444|
|Gable first 9 years||7.444||1.889||138.833||8||1.222|
The adjusted team points per year is interesting to look at. The scoring rules have changed over the years so we went back and re-scored each team under a standard set of scoring rules. We used mostly today’s rules other than not awarding an advancement point for winning pigtails now that bye points are gone. Everything else was the same as the rules for the 2018 tournament. Gable’s teams were still at a bit of a disadvantage here as not all losing wrestlers got a chance in the wrestlebacks back then and there were only six All-Americans at each weight for his first two years in charge. However, his teams put a ridiculous number of points on the board, scoring more than 130, adjusted, every year from 1979 through 1986 including three efforts over 150 points and 176 in 1983 alone.
Sanderson’s teams can’t keep pace with that and it is clear from this table why. The number of All-Americans for Cael is about two per year less than Gable. The number of national champions per year is similar, especially at Penn State, but the depth isn’t quite as good. In both of Sanderson’s highest scoring years at nationals, his team’s put six wrestlers on the awards stand, though they had eight this season en route to their third highest score with Cael in charge. Gable’s teams had nine All-Americans three times in that span, putting eight on the podium four other times as well. Iowa’s nine straight titles, from Gable’s second year through his 10th, is a streak that may never be matched and Sanderson found out one of the reasons why when he redshirted many talented wrestlers in 2015. The Nittany Lions look to be set up for another long run at the top, but some of the wrestlers who would be helping to win a record-breaking 10th straight title haven’t even hit high school yet.
Overall, the numbers favor Gable and that should surprise no one. As remarkable as Penn State has been in the past eight years, Gable owned the sport in a way that has not yet been approached by anyone. We may never see dominance like that again with scholarship limits, better access to training methodologies, and widespread video of just about any college prospect. This is not to diminish what Penn State and Cael Sanderson are doing, however. Eras are different and theirs is not yet over. Their approach, like all the best dynasties in sports, is to constantly strive to improve. Who knows? If they can continue to get better, maybe they can approach the numbers of the Gable era Hawkeyes. They just aren’t there yet. One key point to keep in mind is that Gable suffered through his longest title drought from 1987 through 1990, his 11th-14th years in charge. Cael can match Gable’s nine titles in his first 14 attempts with championships the next two seasons. However, it gets tougher to keep pace again after that as Gable won titles in six of his last seven years.