By Vicki Michaelis, USA TODAY
If we win this conference title, they told their head coach before last season’s Big Ten championships, you have to promise to enter a wrestling tournament.
And so it was, after his wrestlers won not only the Big Ten title but also the NCAA championship, that Sanderson returned to the mat.
Not to teach, as he has been doing as a coach since winning a 2004 Olympic gold medal, but to compete.
Just six months after that first tournament — a USA Wrestling regional in late March — Sanderson, who posted a much-heralded perfect record as a college wrestler, is back to his winning ways. He is the USA’s representative in the 185-pound category at the world championships this week. He will compete Saturday in Istanbul, with an eye toward the 2012 London Olympics.
“He doesn’t look like he’s missed a day,” U.S. national freestyle head coach Zeke Jones says of Sanderson, now 32 and a father of two.
Before capturing Olympic gold, Sanderson went 159-0 and won four NCAA individual titles at Iowa State. He also was a four-time state high school champion in Utah.
In 2003, at the only previous world championships in which he participated, he won silver.
“I’m not real satisfied with my international career,” Sanderson says. “I want to be a world champion, and this is the chance.”
The 2010 world champion, Mihail Ganev of Bulgaria, and 2009 champion Zaurbek Sokhiev of Uzbekistan are among the 185-pound favorites in Istanbul. Sanderson says he will decide whether to continue training for the 2012 Olympics after world championships.
“If I win, I’m probably going to say, ‘Well, hey, I should go again.’ And if I don’t win, I hate losing. So either way, it’s going to be tough to not be looking ahead,” Sanderson says.
If he does try for the London Games, the toughest part would seem to be juggling head-coaching duties with training.
“I get to step back into athlete mode and get a feel for that again,” Sanderson says. “I think that helps me as a coach. And also I have to do a better job delegating and organizing things.”
It has been done before. Bruce Baumgartner won gold at the 1992 Games and bronze in ’96 while coaching at Division II school Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, which competes in Division I in wrestling.
‘I thought he left too soon’
The main reason Sanderson’s comeback has been so successful so quickly — he qualified for the U.S. world championship team in June, in just his second tournament back — is that he has been, in essence, training all along.
In practices, Sanderson, hired as Penn State’s head coach in April 2009, does not stand on the sideline, shouting instructions. He mixes it up on the mat , showing his wrestlers what to do and physically challenging them to do better. He does weightlifting and conditioning alongside them. Trying to outscore him in practice is a unique goal .
“It keeps you humble,” says Penn State’s Quentin Wright, who won the NCAA title at 184 pounds last season as a redshirt sophomore. “You win (an NCAA title), you think that you’re a great wrestler, but then you come in and your coach pins you in 30 seconds.
“Everybody’s goal is to win (NCAA) nationals and beat the coach.” Asked if he’s ever beaten him, Wright says: “I haven’t been close.”
With their firsthand knowledge of Sanderson’s still-sharp skills, his wrestlers often encouraged him to consider a comeback, Wright says. Yet, true to his intensely private nature, Sanderson never revealed his thoughts on the matter, instead keeping them locked up behind his piercing gaze and granite block of a jaw.
“I thought he left too soon,” says Sanderson’s college coach, Bobby Douglas, “and I was hoping that we would see him back out there. But to be quite honest with you, I didn’t know.”
Sanderson has, in fact, been eyeing a return for several years. He embarked briefly on a training regimen to try to qualify for the 2008 Olympics — “My prime was ’08; there’s no question about that,” he says — but shelved it because he did not want to detract from his coaching responsibilities.
“I just didn’t feel like our program was in a position where I could do that,” says Sanderson, who was coaching Iowa State at the time.
Now, with the Nittany Lions‘ NCAA title, the school’s first in 58 years, Sanderson feels freer. During Sanderson’s time as head coach at Iowa State, from 2006-09, his teams won conference titles and placed in the top five at the NCAA championships but never won it all.
A week after the Nittany Lions’ win, Sanderson was in Brockport, N.Y., at a USA Wrestling regional tournament. His three opponents all went scoreless against him.
“I felt like competitively I could do it,” he says. “It was just more do I want to do it bad enough, with all these different things I have going on?”
He took a couple weeks off, visiting family and friends in Arizona and Utah, before deciding to compete at the USA Wrestling world team trials in June in Oklahoma City. Even at 32, Sanderson is not at an over-the-hill age for wrestlers — the USA’s Chris Campbell won 1992 Olympic bronze at 37.
“I had no question that he could go in and win the trials,” says Sanderson’s oldest brother, Cody, the associate head coach at Penn State, who along with assistant Casey Cunningham is overseeing Sanderson’s training. “I was still a little bit amazed at a couple of the things he was able to do out there — some of the techniques he was able to hit and the instinct and speed with which he hit those things.”
In the final, Sanderson beat 2009 world championships silver medalist Jake Herbert. What few people knew was that Sanderson had wrestled Herbert seven months before, at a USA Wrestling national team training camp in New York.
During the drive back to State College from that camp, Sanderson called Jones, the U.S. coach, and they talked about the possibility of a comeback.
“I think he realized, ‘I don’t want to have any regrets. I don’t want to walk away knowing that maybe I could have won another Olympic gold medal, but I didn’t try,’” Jones says.
Off-mat issues distraction for NCAA titlists
He knows if he does decide to try for another Olympics, he still will be conflicted because he has so many others, from his wrestlers to his wife Kelly and sons (Tate, 4, and Teag, 1), to think about now. He points out that the U.S. Olympic trials are scheduled for April, just weeks after the NCAA championships.
The Nittany Lions return to practice next month. Their season begins in mid-November. Penn State is poised to be a strong contender for several years after winning the NCAA title with 26 freshmen and sophomores on a roster of 34.
Two of its top NCAA performers, though, had off-the-mat issues this offseason which had to be addressed.
Ed Ruth, who finished third at 174 pounds at the NCAA championships as a freshman, was charged with assault and resisting arrest in late August after U.S. Capitol Police in Washington, D.C., said he attacked an employee at a bar.
The misdemeanor charges were “quickly resolved” and Ruth’s situation “is being handled internally as needed,” according to Penn State spokesman Pat Donghia. Ruth’s attorney,George Lane, did not return calls seeking comment.
Another wrestler, Andrew Long, also a third-place NCAA finisher, at 133 pounds, is awaiting trial on charges that include attempted rape stemming from an Aug. 12 incident in State College. Long, a redshirt sophomore last season, has pleaded not guilty but has withdrawn from Penn State because he “wanted the wrestling team to not be affected by this process,” says his attorney, Tony De Boef.
Long came to Penn State from Iowa State, where he was dismissed in June 2010 after two arrests on alcohol-related charges. Sanderson recruited Long while at Iowa State and Long’s brother, Dylan, worked as an assistant under Sanderson.
Sanderson has not commented publicly on Long since the incident. Asked if he was concerned about Sanderson bringing Long to Penn State, Nittany Lions athletic director Tim Curley says, “No, not at all.”
Curley supports Sanderson competing while coaching. “He has the greatest assistants and coaching staff. We’re very confident that the program is in good hands,” Curley says.
With no specific reference to the incidents, Sanderson says the demands on him in recent months were “maybe a little more difficult than I imagined.”
Wrestling against athletes he has coached, Sanderson already has discovered, is one of the hardest parts. He faced former Iowa State wrestler Jon Reader at world team trials. He could meet Penn State’s Wright in Olympic qualifying.
“You’ve got to want it to be a fierce competitor out there,” Sanderson says. “It’s easy as a coach to tell these guys, ‘Hey, this is what you’ve got to do, just do this, no problem,’” Sanderson says. “It’s another thing getting back in and doing it again yourself.”