We previously identified the best active college football head coaches based on their FBS playing careers and the best active college basketball coaches based on their playing careers, and now we're doing the same for college wrestling coaches.
Here is how we did it. Each of the 75 active college wrestling coaches were ranked by their collegiate, folkstyle wrestling accomplishments. NCAA Championship were weighted heaviest, with All-American honors serving as the next criteria of success. The 13 top active coaches with the most successful collegiate careers earned either two or more individual NCAA titles or at least one title and four All-American honors during their time as college athletes.
1. Cael Sanderson
Current school: Penn State
Alma mater: Iowa State
Honors: In college, Cael Sanderson never lost. Never. Only four athletes in Division I NCAA history have ever won four individual NCAA titles, and of those four, Cael Sanderson is the only active wrestling coach who has accomplished such a feat. He also ended his career with that 159-0 record, a mark that stands as the most consecutive wins by a single wrestler. Over the course of his career, Sanderson won four conference titles, four NCAA Tournament Outstanding wrestler honors and three Hodge Trophies. He became the first freshman in NCAA wrestling history to earn the national tournament's Most Outstanding Wrestler honor, and his Cyclone legacy remains in high regard.
In addition to his collegiate success, Sanderson also won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. Now a coach for Penn State, Sanderson has carried his winning tradition into the wrestling room in State College where he has led his team to seven national team titles in the last eight years.
2. Tom Brands
Current school: Iowa
Alma mater: Iowa
Honors: Tom Brands is an Iowa wrestling great, and the former three-time national champion now stands at the helm of the same Hawkeye program where he competed as a legendary athlete. Having completed his collegiate career in 1992 with a 158-7-2 record, three national titles, four All-American honors, outstanding wrestler honors and one undefeated season, Brands went on to win the gold medal in the 1996 Olympic Games before transitioning fully into coaching and finding equal success.
As the head coach at his alma mater, Brands led Iowa to three consecutive NCAA championship titles from 2008-2010. His most recent coaching accomplishment came in 2018 when he helped guide freshman Spencer Lee to a national championship in the 125-pound bracket.
T-3. Jim Zalesky
Current school: Oregon State
Alma mater: Iowa
Honors: Jim Zalesky and Tom Brands share many accomplishments, most notably, their three NCAA titles and their four All-American honors, but the one of the few differences separating the collegiate careers of these two Hawkeyes is Brands' fourth-place finish as a freshman compared to Zalesky’s fifth-place finish as a freshman at the NCAA tournament. Though just edged out by his fellow Hawkeye in the list of all-time greats, Zalesky no doubt deserves a place on this list as one of the current active wrestling coaches with the most successful collegiate wrestling careers. An NCAA champion in 1982, 1983, and 1984, Zalensky wrestled under the legendary Dan Gable and ended his career on the longest winning streak (89) of an Iowa wrestler. As part of this streak, he finished his last two seasons undefeated and earned outstanding wrestler honors at the NCAA championships in 1984.
As a coach, Zalensky led Iowa to three consecutive NCAA championships (1998-2000) eight years before Brands accomplished the same feat. Now a coach for Oregon State, he has led the Beavers to seven Pac-10/12 titles, the most recent in 2016.
T-3. Mark Branch
Current School: Wyoming
Alma Mater: Oklahoma State University
Honors: A two-time NCAA Champion and four-time NCAA finalist for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, Mark Branch joins an impressive list of NCAA champion wrestlers coming out of Stillwater.
In his first NCAA appearance as a student-athlete for the Cowboys, Branch made a statement, taking home the national title at 167 pounds. He then finished second in 1995 and 1996 before ending his career back on top of the podium. His senior season also resulted in a Big 12 Athlete of the Year honor. In addition to his individual titles, Branch also helped Oklahoma State to its team title in 1994 and then helped coach the team to four more titles.
In 2008, Branch took an assistant coaching job at his alma mater before joining the coaching staff at Wyoming, exchanging one Cowboy coaching job for another. Branch's Wyoming team ranks 11th in this year’s poll and have made leaps this year, earning them a spot on NCAA.com’s underestimated teams list.
4. Cary Kolat
Current school: Campbell
Alma mater: Lock Haven
Honors: Cary Kolat began his collegiate wrestling career as a highly-touted recruit from Pennsylvania, and, choosing to stay local, Kolat starting racking up the wins for Penn State right away. He earned All-American honors as a freshman for the Nittany Lions, finishing runner-up in his first NCAA appearance. Kolat finished 3rd at NCAAs the following year but then transferred to Lock Haven where he won back-to-back national titles for the Bald Eagles. He ended his career with an undefeated season, two EWL titles and two Most Outstanding Wrestler honors in the EWL. He also earned a ninth-place finish at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney.
Kolat has been involved with wrestling as a standout athlete from the time he was in grade school, and he’s continued with the sport as a coach since his own athletic career ended. After his collegiate wrestling run came to a close, he joined the coaching staff at his alma mater, working with the Lock Haven wrestlers as an assistant. In 2003, he took a part-time coaching job at North Carolina and then ultimately moved into an entrepreneurial positions, starting his own website and running wrestling camps. He ultimately rejoined the Tar Heels and stayed in North Carolina through 2014. Kolat has also held assistant coaching positions with Lehigh, Wisconsin, West Virginia before taking the head coaching job at Campbell.
5. Pat Santoro
Current school: Lehigh University
Alma mater: Pittsburgh
Honors: The only University of Pittsburgh wrestler to earn four All-American honors, Pat Santoro recorded a sixth-place finish and a runner-up finish at the NCAA championships his first two years before capping off his career with two consecutive national titles. He served as team captain for two of his four years, just as his father, Dick Santoro, did during his career as a wrestler at Lehigh. The Pennsylvania native accomplished all of this, along with his three EWL titles, without a redshirt year.
Pat started coaching at his father’s alma mater, Lehigh, in 1994 before leaving to take a head coaching job at Maryland in 2003. During his five-year tenure at College Park, he guided the Terps to their first ACC title in 35 years before leaving to return to Lehigh the following season.
6. Damion Hahn
Current school: South Dakota State
Alma mater: University of Minnesota
Honors: A University of Minnesota Hall-of-Famer, Damion Hahn made a name for himself during his four years competing for the Gophers as he won two NCAA titles and four All-American honors. He finished fifth in his first two NCAA Championships and then earned two first-place finishes in his junior and and senior seasons. Hahn also earned three Big-10 titles during his career.
Prior to his new role at South Dakota State, Hahn worked with Cornell as an assistant coach, and then associate head coach, for 12 years, helping the Big Red to 11 EIWA championships, 11 top-10 team finishes at the NCAA Championships and 12 Ivy League titles. At South Dakota, he’s been working with 2018 NCAA champion Seth Gross and attempting to lead the Jackrabbits to national prominence again at the NCAA tournament.
7. John Smith
Current school: Oklahoma State University
Alma mater: Oklahoma State University
Honors: John Smith is Oklahoma State wrestling. The two-time NCAA champion and three-time All-American wrestled for the Cowboys from 1983-1988 before assuming a head coaching position at his alma mater in 1992. Prior to leaving the mat as an athlete, however, Smith also competed internationally, winning back-to-back gold medals at the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympic Games.
Smith has been a part of the Oklahoma State family for his entire career thus far, and under his lead, the Cowboys have won five national team titles. The first team championship came in 1994, Smith’s second year as head coach, and seven years later, he took Oklahoma State on a four-year championship run, winning the 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006 NCAA tournament as a team. He’s also coached 32 individual national champions and five Olympians.
8. Kerry McCoy
Current school: University of Maryland
Alma mater: Penn State University
Honors: Kerry McCoy’s accomplishments as a wrestler for Penn State from 1992-1997 added to the legacy that previous Nittany Lions established and help build the winning tradition continued by the current Penn State squad. A New York native, McCoy earned his first collegiate All-American honor in 1994 when he won the NCAA tournament outright in the heavyweight division. He became the 13th Penn State wrestler to earn an individual title at the national wrestling championship, and he earned a second title in 1997, during his dominant senior campaign. McCoy earned the Hodge Trophy, the "Heisman" of college wrestling, that same year. During his career, he also claimed three Big Ten Titles.
After his time on the mat ended, McCoy moved to coaching, where he worked as an assistant with Penn State immediately after graduation. He then took on a volunteer assistant coaching role with Lehigh, where he trained with the team and prepared for international competition. McCoy completed in two Olympic games, 2000 and 2004 before moving out to California for his first head coaching job with Stanford. In 2008, McCoy became the head coach of the University of Maryland where he now coaches his current team against his alma mater in the Big Ten.
9. Troy Nickerson
Current school: Northern Colorado
Alma mater: Cornell University
Honors: A New York Native like McCoy, Nickerson made his mark on the Cornell wrestling program during his career, winning the 2009 national championship and earning three additional All-American honors. As a freshman for the Big Red, Nickerson proved he could compete with the almost anyone in the collegiate sphere, finishing second at the national tournament. He followed that performance with a third-place finish the following year before winning the 125-pound division in 2009. Nickerson’s collegiate career ended with a fourth-place finish at the 2010 NCAA championships, and his career laid the groundwork for what would ultimately be a successful coaching career.
Nickerson took his first collegiate coaching job with Iowa State before earning his current job as the head coach of Northern Colorado.
10. Troy Steiner
Current school: California State University, Fresno
Alma mater: University of Iowa
Honors: A four-time All-American and 1992 NCAA Champion, Troy Steiner is another highly accomplished Iowa alum in the collegiate wrestling coaching world. After winning three high school state championships, Steiner went on to finish fifth in his first NCAA tournament, a statement finish that set him up for three more top-five finishes at the national tournament and three consecutive conference titles. In his sophomore year, Steiner placed second and then won the tournament a year later as a junior. Steiner placed third his senior year and then completed a successful freestyle career, earning a place on the U.S. National Team from 1992-2000.
Steiner and his brother Terry both work as successful wrestling coaches, Troy with Cal State and Terry with the women’s national team, and both were inducted into the North Dakota Hall of Fame in 1998.
11. Angel Escobedo
Current school: Indiana University
Alma mater: Indiana University
Honors: Angel Escobedo, a 2008 NCAA Champion, three-time Big 10 Champion and four-time All-American knows what it’s like to wrestle with the Indiana University logo on his singlet. As a Hoosier wrestler, he accumulated a 137-14 record on his way to achieving his conference and national titles and he’s back at his alma mater, coaching his team to Top 25 performances. Escobedo’s career as a Hoosier began in 2005, and he finished fourth at his first NCAA tournament, earning All-American honors. He then won the tournament the following year as a 125-pounder, and then finished fifth and third the following two years. He’s the only Hoosier wrestler to earn four All-American honors during his career, but now, as a coach, he’ll aim to add Indiana wrestlers to that list.
Before taking the head coaching job at Indiana, Escobedo worked with the Iowa State wrestling program for three years while competing internationally.
12. Rob Koll
Current school: Cornell
Alma mater: University of North Carolina
Honors: As a wrestler of the University of North Carolina, Rob Koll earned four All-American honors with his highest finish, a national championship win, coming in his final NCAA championship in 1988. His previous three finishes at the national tournament, 8th, 3rd and 3rd, made him one of the most successful wrestlers to graduate from the Tar Heel wrestling program. He also earned three ACC individual titles, helped the Tar Heels win three ACC team titles and graduated as the winningest athlete in conference history.
Koll comes from a family of wrestlers, as his father was also a national champion and ultimately an Olympic qualifier. Both of Koll’s sons also wrestle, and they compete for him as a part of the Cornell wrestling program. He’s been a part of the Cornell program as an assistant and then head coach since 1989.
13. Coleman Scott
Current school: North Carolina
Alma mater: Oklahoma State
Honors: As a collegiate wrestler at Oklahoma State, Coleman Scott wrestled under the long-time Cowboys coach John Smith, following in Smith’s own wrestling footsteps on his way to becoming an NCAA champion and a four-time All-American. Scott finished eighth at the national tournament his true freshman year, sneaking on to the All-American podium in his first trip to NCAAs. The following year he jumped three spots, earning a fifth-place finish and his second consecutive All-American honor. As a junior, Smith jumped weight classes from 125 pounds to 133 pounds, and he advanced to the finals of the NCAA tournament his junior season before winning the tournament the following year for his first individual title and his fourth All-American honor. During his collegiate career, Scott also won two Big 12 titles, one during his freshman year where he also won “Outstanding Wrestler” honors, and one during his junior year.
His versatility and strength on the mat also helped him achieve international success, as he won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics in the 60kg division. He then took an assistant coaching position at UNC in 2014 and has been with the program ever since, now as a head coach.