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Smeltzer: Could the ‘Magic Man’ Make the Penn State Wrestling Dynasty Disappear?

Photo by Penn State athletics: David Taylor

David Taylor isn’t a founding father of Penn State wrestling.

The program existed for 100 years before he arrived on campus.

But as far as the team becoming an empire, Taylor was there for the start of it all.

Taylor was part of four national championship squads from 2011-14, and those four titles have evolved into 11 in 13 years. Since wrestling his last college match, Taylor’s stayed in the Penn State family while building a fantastic freestyle career headlined by an Olympic Gold Medal.

But all good things must come to an end. Taylor’s shocking appointment as Oklahoma State’s head coach signifies the conclusion of his involvement with the Penn State wrestling program.

For what feels like forever, people have been wondering when the Penn State reign would end.

Not many would have predicted that the man who led the charge in ending that reign would be one of the integral parts in starting it.

Now, that thought is in everybody wrestling fan and pundit’s head.

If two of the greatest legends in Penn State wrestling history had never met, their paths would still be similar.

In the late 1990s, a kid from Salt Lake City won four state titles and 127 of 130 matches.

Cael Sanderson was his name. Any wrestling fan should know the rest.

After high school, Sanderson embarked on what some consider to be the greatest college career of all time regardless of sport. He wrestled 159 times for Iowa State and never lost, becoming the second wrestler to win four national titles and the first— and still only— to win wrestling’s greatest individual honor, the Dan Hodge Trophy, three times.

When Sanderson won a Gold Medal at the 2004 Summer Games— one of many parallels with his future pupil— he was already a special assistant at his alma mater. Three years later, he became the head coach. Two years after that, he left for State College. Soon, he’d be working with a wrestler who, like many, idolized him.

Like Sanderson had done roughly a decade in a half before, Taylor was a four-time state champ.

Taylor was committed to Iowa State with plans to wrestle for his idol. When Sanderson took the Penn State job, Taylor went with him. The college wrestling world would never be the same.

In the last year of the pre-Cael era, Penn State finished the dual meet season with a losing record and placed 17th at the NCAA championships.

Two seasons later, Penn State won its first national title, with Taylor being a national runner-up as a redshirt freshman.

That was just the beginning for Penn State and Taylor.

Taylor came closer than most to matching Sanderson’s legendary career. He won two national titles, two Hodge Trophies, made four NCAA finals and was part of Sanderson’s first four team champions.

Taylor was a central figure in starting the Penn State wrestling dynasty.

Now, he’ll be trying to end it. If Taylor’s close to as good at coaching as Sanderson is, he has a real chance to do it.

Although this isn’t exactly the same situation as Sanderson’s move to Penn State, like with many things in Taylor’s career, the Sanderson parallels are there.

Like Sanderson, this move involves Taylor leaving his alma mater.

Taylor was never a member of Cael’s coaching staff. But he was a big part of the Nittany Lion Wrestling Club and has coaching experience through the M2 training center, located in Pleasant Gap, which he owns and where he’s helped wrestlers such as future national champ Levi Haines.

Now, Taylor will have to move from Happy Valley to the Southwest. That’s the reverse of what Sanderson did when he left Iowa State for Penn State.

This is also already generally thought to be the most shocking hire since Penn State pulled Cael away from his alma mater.

Less than three weeks ago, Taylor, the reigning Gold Medalist at 86KG was thought by many to be the best wrestler in the world, and he still could be the best.

A pair of losses to another Penn State wrestling legend, four-time national champ Aaron Brooks, ended Taylor’s dream of winning consecutive gold medals, and has ultimately created the chance for him to come to Stillwater.

As with any coaching hire of any sport, a question is: What happens next?

Is Taylor, who’s never been on a college coaching staff ready to handle one of America’s most historic programs?

Will Taylor be able to scoop up some of America’s top talent, particularly in Pennsylvania, a state which he knows well and which Penn State dominates?

Are some members of the NLWC family coming with Taylor?

We don’t know any of the answers yet and we won’t know all of them for a while, but it’s probably a good bet that Taylor will take at least one of Sanderson’s assistants.

Jimmy Kennedy happens to be Taylor’s brother in law.

Insider Christian Pyles of FloWrestling projects that Taylor will take NLWC member Thomas Gilman with him to Stillwater.

So if those two end up making the move, who else does Taylor hire?

Could it be NLWC member Kyle Dake, who will be competing for Gold in Paris in July?

We don’t know the answers, and we’re excited to find out.

Cael Sanderson isn’t going anywhere. As long as the best wrestling coach today and maybe of all time is in the nation’s top recruiting hotbed, Penn State will be a force.

But if Taylor’s brilliance on the mat translates to coaching, the combination of that and OSU donors being pissed off at a once proud program finishing no better than 10th over the past three years should worry the rest of the college wrestling world.

Penn State shouldn’t panic. Things are still pretty Happy in the Valley. But the days of the NCAA team championship being a forgone conclusion thanks to Sanderson’s empire might not be around much longer, and Cael’s greatest wrestler could be the catalyst.


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