With the Cael Sanderson-led Penn State Nittany Lions Wrestling program recently locking up its 10th national championships in the past 12 tournaments, now would be a good time to start putting this into perspective.
And not just from a college wrestling historical perspective, but an entire collegiate sports perspective.
The dynasty Sanderson and his world class coaching staff have built in Happy Valley has the potential to surpass even the greatest of college championship records.
With the recent success Nittany Lions fans have seen from guys like Beau Bartlett, Shayne Van Ness, Levi Haines, Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks, and Greg Kerkvliet, the full-on Penn State freight train is showing no signs of slowing down.
So, before we project where Sanderson and Penn State Nittany Lions Wrestling could slot in the pantheon of collegiate athletics, let’s first take a look at some of the coaching legends of the past and present.
Paul “Bear” Bryant (Alabama) – 6
Division I Football (1958-1982)
When most people think of college sports, they think of the tradition and pageantry of college football. And when people think of coaching legends, Bear Bryant’s name is generally high up on that list.
The large and gruff Bryant ruled his teams with an iron fist and he commanded perfection in every facet of the game. Which is exactly what Bear got from his coaching staff and players for much of the 25 years he coached at Alabama.
Alabama won 14 SEC titles and six national championships during Bear Bryant’s tenure with Paul receiving 12 SEC Coach of the Year awards and three American Football Coaches Association Coach of the Year awards.
There’s no question Bryant was a great coach who got the most out of his players, but there is one slight caveat to the era he coached in. Back then college football did not have roster limits, and with the talent pool being a fraction of what it used to be, the Alabamas, Oklahomas, and Penn States of the world could easily load up with all of the top players in the country.
But in no way was it easy to win a title, I’m not saying that at all.
Just look at Penn State, they haven’t won a national title in almost four decades.
What I’m really getting at is that it was realistic to think maybe only three or four schools really had a chance to win a national title each year. Based on this, most people believed that as college football evolved, the talent pool widened, and more restrictions were put in place, that no one would ever match or break Bear Bryant’s title record.
Nick Saban (LSU/Alabama) – 7
Division I Football (LSU 2000-2004 Alabama 2007-present)
Well, that is until Nick Saban decided to jump ship from the Miami Dolphins and take over for the Crimson Tide in 2007.
Prior to joining Alabama, Saban had already coached his first college team to a championship when the LSU Tigers hoisted the trophy in 2003. I’m sure even Saban would have been surprised if I told him that he would win six more with the Crimson Tide following his opening press conference at Alabama.
But here we are.
Saban won the first of his six titles in only his third year at the helm. The Crimson Tide have turned into a proverbial juggernaut in a time in which it’s harder than ever to win.
And this goes back to my earlier point regarding how few teams really had a shot at winning a title back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. While there were maybe four schools that could contend for a title, nowadays the number hovers anywhere from six to eight. Which I realize isn’t a huge jump, but the math says it’s potentially twice as hard to win a title in 2023 than it was in 1967.
It’s hard to say how many years Saban has left in him, but if he stays long enough to bring another national title to Alabama, then I will go out on a limb and say no one is beating that record.
John Wooden (UCLA) – 10
Division I Men’s Basketball (1948-1975)
The other sport that comes to mind when people think about college athletics is basketball. And just like Bear Bryant is synonymous with college football, so to is John Wooden with college basketball.
Wooden went on to be the bench boss for the UCLA Bruins for 27 seasons where he compiled a record of 620-147 (.808) and a career record of 664-162 (.804). That’s simply staggering to have a career winning percentage above 80% in 826 total games.
But what’s even more staggering is the run UCLA went on between 1964 and 1975. In this 12 season stretch the Bruins went 335-22 (.938), had four undefeated seasons, amassed a winning streak of 88 straight games, and won 10 national titles.
The legendary coach went out just like every great coach should; on top of the world. In Wooden’s final season as a head basketball coach he led UCLA to a 28-3 record, snagged their 15th Pac-12 Conference title, and won the 1975 NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Dan Gable (Iowa) – 15
Division I Wrestling (1978-1997)
Dan Gable is simply a living legend.
He won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1968-1969, won a gold medal in the 1971 World Wrestling Championships, and then followed that up with winning a gold medal in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. And in his Olympic run, Gable did not allow an opponent to score a single point in his six matches. Gable then finished his international wrestling career a perfect 12-0 before retiring.
But, standing toe-to-toe on the wrestling mat was just half of his legacy in wrestling, because his time as head coach at Iowa was absolutely incredible.
Gable secured his first NCAA team title in only his second season with the Hawkeyes. From there, Iowa proceeded to rip off nine straight championships from 1978 to 1986.
Even the mighty Oklahoma State Cowboys under the guidance of E.C. Gallagher, Art Griffith, Myron Roderick, and Tommy Chesbro, didn’t win nine straight titles during their 27 national championships between 1928 and 1971.
And in his tenure in Iowa City, Dan Gable coached a total of 152 All-Americans, 106 Big Ten champions, 45 NCAA champions, and 12 Olympians who went on to win eight medals.
The world of collegiate wrestling had never seen a level of dominance quite like Gable’s before.
Pat Henry (LSU/Texas A&M) – 16
Division I Women’s Outdoor Track and Field (LSU 1988-2003 Texas A&M 2009-2014)
Now we’re starting to delve into the less mainstream collegiate sports with track and field great, Pat Henry.
But make no mistake about it, Coach Henry is as decorated of a coach as you will find in the history of NCAA athletics.
Henry compiled 10 championships in Division I Women’s Indoor Track and Field (LSU 1988-2003), six championships in Division I Men’s Outdoor Track and Field (LSU 1989-2002 Texas A&M 2009-2011), and three championships in Division I Men’s Indoor Tracking and Field (LSU 2001-2004 Texas A&M 2017).
No women’s track and field team had ever won both the indoor and outdoor seasons in the same year prior to 1987. And while coaching at LSU, Pat Henry did it seven times.
When Henry left LSU to coach at Texas A&M, the entire Tigers’ athletic program had secured 41 national titles in various sports. Coach Henry coached his teams to 25 of the 41 championships.
Pat Henry is still the head man at Texas A&M and he’s secured another eight national titles with the Aggies.
Dave Williams (Houston) – 16
Division I Men’s Golf (1956-1985)
In the early days of college golf, two Ivy League schools were the dominant force as both Yale and Princeton racked up national titles.
I know, it’s shocking that a bunch of rich and elite schools had such a good track record in a rich and elite sport in the early 1900’s.
And prior to Williams’ first season as the head coach at Houston, Yale and Princeton were the only schools to have five or more NCAA championships. But the landscape in college golf was about to change and it was about to change fast.
Coach Williams led Houston to the NCAA promise land in just his first season as head coach. He would then rattle off NCAA championships in 11 of the next 14 years.
And when he retired from Houston in 1987, there were only three schools which had won five or more NCAA titles. The aforementioned Yale and Princeton … and Houston with Dave Williams’ staggering 16 NCAA titles.
Dick Gould (Stanford) – 17
Division I Men’s Tennis (1973-2000)
If you enjoyed winning, you were insanely talented at tennis, and you attended college between the years of 1973 and 2000, then chances are you played for legendary coach Dick Gould.
Coach Gould led Stanford to an overall record of 776-148 in his 38 years of coaching. That’s a winning percentage of 84%!
And while his 17 total NCAA titles (most recently in 2000) are impressive enough, these next stats are mind blowing.
Dick Gould ended up coaching a total of 50 All-Americans in his tenure which included tennis greats such as Gene Mayer, Alex Mayer, Roscoe Tanner, Tim Mayotte, and John McEnroe. I think most people reading this have heard of him.
And every single four-year member of the Stanford men’s tennis team between 1966 and 2004 won at least one NCAA team championship ring.
John McDonnell (Arkansas) – 19
Men’s Indoor Track and Field (1984-2006)
Traveling back to the sport of track and field, there is no coach in the history of NCAA sports who has more overall national championships than John McDonnell. And no other coach in NCAA history has as many national titles at one school than Coach McDonnell and his 40 championships.
Along with the 19 NCAA titles in Men’s Indoor Tracking and Field, Coach McDonnell led the Razorbacks to 11 championships in Men’s Cross Country (1984-2000) and 10 championships in Men’s Outdoor Track and Field (1984-2003).
In terms of overall NCAA championships, the only coach who is remotely in the ballpark with John McDonnell is Pat Henry with his 35 titles. But he’s still five short.
Anson Dorrance (North Carolina) – 21
Division I Women’s Soccer (1982-2012)
When it comes to one coach winning NCAA championships in one sport, there’s simply no one greater than UNC’s Anson Dorrance.
Coach Dorrance led the Tar Heels to their first NCAA title in 1982 and UNC proceeded to take 16 of the next 21 NCAA Championships. In the five years Dorrance did not bring home a title, the Tar Heels finished the following:
Dorrance’s dominance on the sport waned slightly following that dynastic run but UNC still won four more titles from 2004 to 2012.
Prior to Anson Dorrance’s retirement at the end of the 2022 season, his UNC team tried to make a run to give the living legend one more championship. But it just wasn’t in the cards for Dorrance and the Tar Heels as they dropped a heartbreaking 3-2 loss in double overtime.
In his career at North Carolina, Dorrance amassed the following stats:
23 ACC Regular Season Championships
22 ACC Tournament Championships
1093-150-67 Overall record (.834)
5 NCAA runner-up finishes
21 NCAA Championships
12 ACC Coach of the Year awards
7 National Coach of the Year awards
And he has been inducted into the following Halls of Fame:
North Carolina Soccer Hall of Fame (2002)
North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame (2005)
National Soccer Hall of Fame (2008)
United Soccer Coaches’ Hall of Fame (2018)
Where Does Penn State Nittany Lions Wrestling, and Cael Sanderson’s Run Fit?
I know your brain is either a mushy mess or it’s already exploded with the shear number of titles these coaches have amassed.
But, let’s put their records and what the Nittany Lions have recently done into perspective.
The most recent NCAA title for any of the above coaches was Nick Saban’s in 2020. And the majority of the legends from this list saw their dominance on sports well before I was even alive.
And before I project where Cael Sanderson will fall in the pecking order of best NCAA coaches of all time, let’s just breakdown some of his stats in his 14 years at Penn State:
9 Big Ten Dual Meet Titles
7 Big Ten Championships
34 National Champions (record tying five winners in both 2017 and 2022)
5 NCAA Tournament Outstanding Wrestlers
5 Hodge Trophy Winners
10 NCAA Championships
The Nittany Lions have won six of the last 7 NCAA Tournaments and they currently have a dual meet winning streak of 44 straight matches. As I mentioned earlier, the roster is absolutely loaded and the talent they’re bringing in from the portal and the recruiting trail is unmatched by anyone else in the sport.
With talent pools in athletics growing every year and with more restrictions placed on programs and with the influx of money from outside sources, dynasties are infinitely harder to come by nowadays.
But with what Cael Sanderson has built in Happy Valley and with the culture he’s instilled in the program, it’s hard not to say this isn’t one of the most impressive sports dynasties this nation has ever witnessed.
And with the infrastructure of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club, David Taylor’s M2 Training Center, Bo Nickal’s American Top Team, and the countless NCAA champions and Olympic gold medalists surrounding the wrestling room, it’s truly hard to predict the numbers Sanderson can amass when his tenure in Happy Valley ends.
But I can tell you this, if I hopped into a time machine and went 15 years into the future, I have a very strong feeling Cael Sanderson will be at the very top of the NCAA coaching list.