Penn State’s secret to wrestling dominance? It’s all in the eyes

A few years ago, Cody Sanderson was discussing a blue-chip, can’t-miss wrestling recruit that his Penn State program didn’t land. The Nittany Lions assistant coach complimented the kid’s ability and said it would have been nice to see him in a blue and white singlet.

But he didn’t seem all that broken up about it. Why not?

How could Penn State coaches not be crying themselves to sleep about such a monumental recruiting miss? Sanderson shrugged and said they were happy with the kids they did land, and he tried to leave it at that.

But come on, a loss like that could be devastating, right?

Finally, after a continued full-court press, Sanderson said, “He’s an incredible talent, but sometimes he gets a look in his eye …”

Sanderson’s sentence tailed off, with an unspoken question hanging in the air. When Penn State scouted that kid, there apparently was something about his fight — or was it his focus — that the coaches detected when they talked to him and watched him wrestle.

Care to guess if Sanderson was right? Penn State has won seven of the past eight NCAA titles, with an eighth all but assured this weekend (coverage starts at noon ET on March 21 on ESPN/ESPN App).

The reality is the Nittany Lions coaching staff has hit on almost 100 percent of its top recruits, far beyond the nearest competitors. That kid everybody considered an all-world talent never won a national title and struggled to achieve All-American status. He was good, very good on occasion, but not all-world. That’s what the Sandersons — head coach Cael and assistant Cody — have an uncanny ability to land.

And believe it or not, they mention wrestlers’ eyes quite a bit.

“Jason Nolf’s eyes change color when he gets near a wrestling mat,” Cody said recently when discussing his 157-pounder who is indeed an all-world wrestler. Nolf has two national titles, is heavily favored to win a third this week at the NCAA wrestling championships and might wrap up his career as one of the 10 best college wrestlers of all time.

For the record, the Penn State coaching staff isn’t peddling the magical eye-reading theory as the program’s secret sauce. To explain their remarkable success (good luck finding a college program in any sport that has been more dominant than Penn State wrestling’s recent run), they mention hard work, good recruiting, emphasizing enjoyment of the sport and a fair amount of luck.

But that’s all “How To Win At Sports 101” stuff. Iowa, Ohio State and Oklahoma State are all well aware that it’s important to land great recruits and let them have fun. What’s happening at Penn State right now is … different. The program is notoriously buttoned-up, so there are no all-access documentaries to provide a window into what’s unique about the Nittany Lions’ game plan — hence the eye-reading theory.

“It’s hard to put your finger on the best ways to evaluate talent,” Cody Sanderson said, chuckling about the insinuation that he and his brother might be able to tell a wrestler’s future via retina scans. “Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes you’re wrong.”

Penn State has rarely been wrong, which is a huge part of why the team is heavily favored to win Cael Sanderson’s eighth team title this weekend. Elite recruits Nolf, Bo Nickal (a senior going for his third NCAA title), Vincenzo Joseph (two titles already as a junior) and Mark Hall (defending 174-pound champ) all ended up being as good or better than their blue-chip status as high schoolers.

“[Penn State coaches] can definitely spot love of the sport,” said Christian Pyles, senior editor of, the sport’s pre-eminent home. “All of the top guys are really good, and they work hard, and they win. It’s very hard to get to the actual truth of how they practice and compete.”

This class of seniors, led by Nolf, Nickal and Shakur Rasheed, is a good example of another Penn State strategy that has been crucial: convincing instant starters to not instantly start. Most of the best PSU wrestlers during this run have sat a season as redshirts, which sounds great in theory but can be difficult to sell to an 18-year-old who knows he could already be challenging for a national title.

During the 2014-15 season in Happy Valley, this class’ first on campus, Nickal looked around and saw his fellow freshmen dominating in practice and at open tournaments and knew they’d be good someday — just not for another year.

“You could tell how hard we were working to help our teammates get better,” Nickal said. “It was tough to know you couldn’t win a national title yourself that season, but I felt like we’d be special.”

Penn State should again dominate at NCAAs. Three Nittany Lions — Nolf, Nickal and Hall — enter the tournament as unbeaten No. 1 seeds. Four more wrestlers — Joseph, Rasheed, Nick Lee and Anthony Cassar — are top-three seeds. If chalk holds, or comes even close, PSU should win the team title by 40 or more points. And with the way Penn State has been performing in Friday night’s crucial semifinal round, with 16 straight semi wins the past few years, it’s possible that the team title will be sewn up before the last day of competition.

“What we’ve seen out of this group is, the bigger the match, the better they wrestle,” Cael Sanderson said.

Two weeks ago, before Penn State’s team win at the Big Ten championships, Nickal said that this year’s group was ready for the postseason.

How could he tell?

Nickal took a long pause, searching for the best way to put into words that Penn State felt very good about its chances. Then he said, “You can see it in our eyes.”

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