Comparing The Coaching Careers Of Dan Gable And Cael Sanderson

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The two greatest coaches in NCAA wrestling history are Dan Gable and Cael Sanderson. Though Gable's career ended in 1997, while Sanderson was still in high school, Cael may continue to coach for a decade or more.

This upcoming season Gable's former team (Iowa) and Cael's current team (Penn State) will likely be the top two contenders for the 2020 NCAA team title in Minneapolis. It would represent the Hawkeyes' 24th championship or the Nittany Lions' 10th.

A comparison between the two will always be difficult, for many reasons. The landscape of college wrestling is different, from conference makeup to scoring structure to media coverage. Although they coached in different eras, it is still fun to line the two up side-by-side.

There will be three total comparisons in this article: The first is just Cael's run at PSU against Gable's first 10 years at Iowa (even though it is years 4-13 for Cael, we're not going to compare those. Sue me). The second is Gable's first 13 years coaching lined up opposite Cael's first 13 years as a head coach. The final piece is a projection of Cael's career and the trajectory he would have to go on to meet and/or exceed Gable.

This is strictly a "by the numbers" comparison. I have no idea how one would even quantify things like wrestler development, intelligent use of scholarship money, preparation for the post collegiate world, and relationships with their athletes. Those things honestly come down to a matter of preference, and whichever guy you prefer, well I'm sure he's great at all of those things.

Let's dig into the stats.

Gable at Iowa vs Cael at Penn State

This portion covers Cael's tenure as head coach of the Nittany Lions as compared to Gable's first 10 years at the helm of the Hawkeyes. Again, I am aware Cael previously was head coach of Iowa State for three years, and we will get to that next. What this is meant to look at is the first decade each spent at the school they are most closely associated to.

We're looking at average NCAA finish, average points scored by their teams at NCAAs, plus total number of All-Americans and national champs.

Cael at Penn State

Year

NCAA

Points

AAs

Champs

2010

9

49

3

0

2011

1

107.5

5

1

2012

1

143

6

3

2013

1

123.5

5

2

2014

1

109.5

7

2

2015

6

67.5

5

1

2016

1

123

6

2

2017

1

146.5

6

5

2018

1

141.5

8

4

2019

1

137.5

7

3

Total

2.3

114.85

58

23

This stuff is pretty well known. Cael inherited a team that finished 17th at the national tournament in 2009 with six qualifiers. The Nittany Lions went 8-12-2 in duals that year, but Cael did luck into both of the placers being freshmen: Quentin Wright was 6th as a true freshman and Frank Molinaro was eighth as a redshirt freshman, and Dan Vallimont had placed third the year before.

We all know what happened from there: Cyler Sanderson joined his brother in Happy Valley and placed sixth, Molinaro moved up to fifth, and Vallimont made the finals, all while Quentin Wright was redshirting. Six of Cael's 14 dual losses came during this first season, but help was on the way.

The "double" recruiting class that included Ed Ruth and David Taylor started the next year as redshirt freshmen, plus they picked up a key transfer in Andrew Long, who only spent one year in State College but proved to be a worthwhile mercenary, helping kick off the dynasty by getting third at 133. The Nittany Lions tied with Cornell at the Southern Scuffle, but beat them by 14 at NCAAs.

Cael's PSU Dual Record

Year

Win

Loss

Tie

2010

13

6

1

2011

17

1

1

2012

13

1

0

2013

13

1

0

2014

15

1

0

2015

11

4

0

2016

16

0

0

2017

14

0

0

2018

14

0

0

2019

14

0

0

Total

140

14

2

Ruth and Taylor won team titles all four years they started, before the legendary "punt" year in 2015. They redshirted Nico Megaludis, Zain Retherford, Jason Nolf, and Bo Nickal that season, all of whom made the finals in 2016, kicking off the second four-peat. Again, four of Cael's 14 dual losses came during 2014-15 season, when they finished sixth at NCAAs.

As it currently stands, Penn State is riding a 59 match winning streak heading into this season (the record is 76). They've won 90.4% of their duals since Cael took over. Also not included above is that they've had 37 finalists. Additionally, the team has won six of the 10 Big Ten tournament titles in this span.

Although the scoring system is different, and brackets weren't uniform, it should be noted that the adjusted totals for the Hawkeyes (something we'll get into later) are all higher than the numbers you'll see below.

Gable's First 10 at Iowa

Year

NCAA

Points

AAs

Champs

1977

3

84

5

1

1978

1

94.5

6

0

1979

1

122.5

6

2

1980

1

110.75

8

2

1981

1

129.75

9

2

1982

1

131.75

8

3

1983

1

155

9

4

1984

1

123.75

8

1

1985

1

145.25

9

2

1986

1

158

8

5

Total

1.2

125.525

76

22

In terms of inherited teams, Gable replaced Gary Kurdelmeier the year after the Black & Gold scored 123.25 points with three national champs on their way to a team title. So Gable definitely came into a better situation, but did not necessarily kick off his time in Iowa City with the same kind of absurd "double" recruiting class that Cael got when he brought some ISU guys over. Again, this is only meant to provide context because it is impossible to quantify exactly how the programs would have done had these coaches not taken their jobs.

On straight numbers though, Gable's Iowa teams have a clear advantage in terms of titles (9 to 8), consecutive titles (9 vs 4 twice), and All-Americans (76-58), while PSU had one more champ during the first decade. The +18 margin in All-Americans (and +6 in finalists as Iowa had 43 total) explains the Hawkeyes putting up 10 more points per tournament, on average.

Gable's teams were particularly strong in 1983 and 1986, which certainly helps the average. Ranking the raw points of these years 1-20, Iowa has three of the top four, but PSU holds four of the top seven, implying a bit more consistency at the top. The Hawkeyes have six of the Top-10, and eight of the Top-15, so year-over-year they likely had more overall scorers, which plays out in the number of AAs. But the story for Penn State has been their high end scorers, which is backed up by the fact that five of the 12 highest point scorers in NCAA tournament history are all Nittany Lions from the Cael era, while only two of the Top-20 came from the first 10 years of Gable's tenure at Iowa.

The non-champ teams account for the three lowest scores of these decades.

Gable's Duals

Year

Win

Loss

Tie

1977

17

1

1

1978

15

1

0

1979

19

0

0

1980

17

1

0

1981

21

1

0

1982

16

0

1

1983

17

1

0

1984

16

1

0

1985

18

0

0

1986

16

1

0

Total

172

7

2

Getting into duals for a second, the rules were again different. Gable's teams wrestled more duals (as allowed by the NCAA), 25 more to be exact over this year 10 year span. His teams also lost fewer duals, in fact half as many. But Penn State had more undefeated seasons (4 to 2) and more unbeaten years (4 to 3). Iowa also never had a run like Penn State's 59 dual wins in a row, in fact the longest win streak during this time was just 36.

Ultimately, the dual record is somewhat inconsequential, as it has no bearing on a team's performance at the NCAA championships. It should be noted that Gable's squads won the Big Ten tournament title every year. Not just his first 10 years, but every single year he held the job.

Gable's First 13 years vs Cael's First 13 Years

What can't be ignored is that Cael was a head coach before he got to Penn State. This will be our shortest segment as the Iowa State years will, in all likelihood, factor the least into Cael's legacy, and the years 11-13 for Gable at Iowa were among his worst.

Cael ISU + PSU

Year

NCAA

Points

AAs

Champs

2007

2

88.5

4

1

2008

5

72

7

0

2009

3

84.5

4

1

2010

9

49

3

0

2011

1

107.5

5

1

2012

1

143

6

3

2013

1

123.5

5

2

2014

1

109.5

7

2

2015

6

67.5

5

1

2016

1

123

6

2

2017

1

146.5

6

5

2018

1

141.5

8

4

2019

1

137.5

7

3

Total

2.53846

107.19231

73

25

It is not as though Cael did poorly as head man of the Cyclones, in fact he won two team trophies in three years. It's just hard to compare finishes of second, fifth, and third with peeling off eight titles in nine years. Of note, he did qualify all 30 wrestlers for NCAAs in that time and did tally 15 AAs, but this was just the start of his career.

Trent Paulson was Cael's first national champ (Chris Campbell was Gable's), and Jake Varner made his first of four career finals. Varner would make his last one during Cael's first year in State College, and then ultimately follow his old coach to PSU, eventually winning an Olympic gold medal as part of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club.

Gable First 13

Year

NCAA

Points

AAs

Champs

1977

3

84

5

1

1978

1

94.5

6

0

1979

1

122.5

6

2

1980

1

110.75

8

2

1981

1

129.75

9

2

1982

1

131.75

8

3

1983

1

155

9

4

1984

1

123.75

8

1

1985

1

145.25

9

2

1986

1

158

8

5

1987

2

108

6

2

1988

2

85.5

5

1

1989

6

52.5

4

0

Total

1.692

115.481

91

25

The 1987 season was a legendary one. Iowa was chasing its 10th straight title, not only unprecedented in wrestling, but in all of men's collegiate sports at the Division 1 level. They wore an "X" on their warm-ups, and it was a part of their preseason team poster as well. The X was the Roman numeral for 10, and it was the focus of the entire year.

They split with Iowa State during the dual season, and then finished 25 points behind the Cyclones at the national tournament. That year was followed up by a second place finish to Arizona State, coached by Bobby Douglas, who has ties to both coaches. He is one of just six American men to beat Gable when he beat him 11-1 at the 1968 Olympic Trials, and he would go on to coach Cael at Iowa State and in the Olympics.

Then the 1989 season was the worst finish for Iowa of Gable's career.

Gable First 13 Years of Duals

Year

Win

Loss

Tie

1977

17

1

1

1978

15

1

0

1979

19

0

0

1980

17

1

0

1981

21

1

0

1982

16

0

1

1983

17

1

0

1984

16

1

0

1985

18

0

0

1986

16

1

0

1987

19

2

0

1988

16

3

0

1989

17

2

0

Total224142

He picked up seven losses during this span, but he's still six percentage points better than Cael's all-time dual record.

The Gable Specter vs Cael's Trajectory

Not that "beating" Gable should ultimately matter (I'm sure it won't help or hurt Cael sleep at night), but for those interested in comparing, it is the last seven years of Gable's coaching career that truly pushed him into the stratosphere.

While we only looked at raw scoring, The Open Mat did do the Top-200 Adjusted Team Scores back in April of 2018. A quick look down the list shows a ton of Black & Gold: all of the top seven, eight of the top nine and 11 of the Top-15. Included in the final eight years of Gable's 21 year tenure are spots 2-4, as well as #12 and #24. So between 1991 and 1997, Gable's teams accounted for 20% of the Top-25 highest scoring teams ever.

Gable had six wrestlers who were three-time champs during his career (I'm counting Joe Williams, who won his third title the year after Gable retired). He also coached three athletes who were four-time finalists: Ed Banach, Duane Goldman, and Lincoln McIlravy. Cael has already pushed beyond the number of 4x finalists.

The man they gave a statue earned 61 All-American honors, over half of whom made the finals (31) and 20 times his wrestlers won titles over the final eight seasons of his coaching career. His teams also averaged nearly 130 points per NCAA tournament over this span, and he won six more titles.

Gable's Illustrious Career

Year

NCAA

Points

AAs

Champs

1977

3

84

5

1

1978

1

94.5

6

0

1979

1

122.5

6

2

1980

1

110.75

8

2

1981

1

129.75

9

2

1982

1

131.75

8

3

1983

1

155

9

4

1984

1

123.75

8

1

1985

1

145.25

9

2

1986

1

158

8

5

1987

2

108

6

2

1988

2

85.5

5

1

1989

6

52.5

4

0

1990

3

102.75

6

2

1991

1

157

9

2

1992

1

149

9

3

1993

1

123.75

7

2

1994

2

76.5

6

2

1995

1

134

9

1

1996

1

122.5

7

3

1997

1

170

8

5

Total

1.571

120.798

152

45

What becomes abundantly clear is that there is almost no way Cael can "equal" Gable when it comes to a few stats. To equal his average NCAA finish, the teams coached by Sanderson would have to win the next 22 consecutive national tournaments. Using just Penn State, they'd have to win the next 13 straight times.

To exceed Gable's average career total at NCAAs, a Sanderson coached team would need to average 138.5 points over the next decade, a total his program has only exceeded three times. He could also do it by scoring a mean total of 132.6 points over the next 15 years. Factoring in only PSU, the "magic number" is 126.3 over the next 11 years (to equal Gable's career of 21 as a head coach).

In order to exceed the total number of AA honors, Cael has to average eight placers per year over the next decade, a total he has only hit one time (2018). A number he might be able to hit is total number of finalists, which could be accomplished by averaging four of them through 2029, a figure he's hit six times as a head coach. Even more likely a target is times a wrestler wins an individual title, which he needs "just" 21 more to move beyond.

Gable's All-Time Dual Ledger

Year

Win

Loss

Tie

1977

17

1

1

1978

15

1

0

1979

19

0

0

1980

17

1

0

1981

21

1

0

1982

16

0

1

1983

17

1

0

1984

16

1

0

1985

18

0

0

1986

16

1

0

1987

19

2

0

1988

16

3

0

1989

17

2

0

1990

19

2

1

1991

25

0

1

1992

16

0

0

1993

14

1

1

1994

11

3

0

1995

14

0

0

1996

17

0

0

1997

15

1

0

Total

355

21

5

It's also exceedingly unlikely Cael ever reaches or exceed's Gable's career number of dual wins, and more so his dual meet win percentage (93.8). He can certainly surpass undefeated seasons (5) and unbeaten years (7), as well as potentially breaking the NCAA record for consecutive dual meet victories. The most untouchable record though is probably total and consecutive Big Ten conference titles, which stands at 21.

But the one thing coaches in American sports are judged on is titles. Cael needs to double his current number of titles to overtake Gable, and he needs to win them at a 71.5% rate or better to exceed the Hawkeye legend's clip.

Again, there is no cut and dry way to say who the greatest college wrestling coach of all-time is. Gable set the standard, and Cael is well on his to being close to that level. The next 8-10 years will determine Sanderson's legacy, and we'll be covering it in gruesome detail.

I wonder when they'll put up the Cael statue outside of Rec Hall?

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