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How Bills Coach Sean McDermott is Inspired by Penn State Wrestling

The former high school wrestler has long admired how Cael Sanderson runs the Nittany Lions' program.

Everybody who knows Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott knows about his wrestling background. It was his best sport as a high-school athlete, and he won back-to-back National Prep titles at La Salle College High School before pursuing football only at William & Mary.

McDermott on Monday talked a bit during a lengthy and wide-ranging zoom press conference about the Penn State program, which under coach Cael Sanderson has become the preeminent one in the nation.

The Nittany Lions this year are gunning for their ninth national championship in Sanderson's 13 seasons, which also have produced 29 individual national champions.

It's the kind of program McDermott aspires to run in Buffalo as he and his team prepare for their seventh playoff game in his five-year tenure.

The Bills will travel to Kansas City to meet the two-time defending AFC champion Chiefs in the divisional round on Sunday evening.

Once upon a time, in 2019, McDermott traveled to Penn State to see how it's done. Suffice to say he was impressed.

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"I have a ton of respect for Cael," McDermott said. "I mean, you look at not only his personal wrestling career ... but what he's been able to accomplish in the next chapter of his life. ... Just such a class guy off the mat, on the mat, how he handles things within that program. You know, just the culture he's built. You look at the amount of national championships they've won, and I think that's that speaks for itself, but also more broadly, how they've done it — not just what they've done, but how they've done it."

McDermott said it was "fascinating to watch the best of the best and how they do, with the habits they have, the environment around practice, the environment around the program."

The day McDermott visited was the team's final one at home before departing for the 2019 NCAA tournament, which it would win for the eighth time in 10 years under Sanderson, who had come up with a wonderful way to loosen up his athletes.

"This is the top program in America," McDermott said, "and they're playing dodgeball the day or two before they leave for nationals. And I think it's just really how an elite coach prepares his team for all parts of getting his players, his wrestlers in this case, to perform at their best in mind, body and spirit, right? Not just the body, but also the physiological part of of the approach and what goes into it."

The lesson McDermott learned was that hard work has to be balanced by at least a little play. But even though he's still at or near his fighting weight of 171 pounds these many years later and has a wrestling mat in his home, there was no desire to roll with wrestlers in the room that day.

"I'm not sure I would have fared all that well, and I may not have made it out alive, to be honest with you," he joked. "Those guys are are awfully good there. So it was nice just to sit back and watch. The level of wrestling was at an all-time high."

Nick Fierro is the publisher of Bills Central. Check out the latest Bills news at and follow Fierro on Twitter at @NickFierro. Email to