Sin City's savior? High school hire Tony Sanchez chasing history at UNLV

·Columnist
Rebel Park football practice field on the UNLV campus. (UNLV)
Rebel Park football practice field on the UNLV campus. (UNLV)

LAS VEGAS – College football's most intriguing new coach casually pulls a chair up in the middle of the UNLV football locker room last Saturday afternoon, stares out at a small collection of parents whose sons he is recruiting and flashes a content smile.

"Questions?" Tony Sanchez says. "Concerns? Ask me anything."

He means it, and not because the guy is a natural salesman with so much passion for his new job that he can spin everything into a positive. Say, the less-than-palatial UNLV weight room which, like most things around here, could use a modern overhaul?

Sanchez, without being asked, notes there is more than enough actual weight to lift in order to get strong enough to win, implying that some flashy, splashy space holds no real value.

"I just need some junkyard dogs," he says, as a couple old-school fathers nod in agreement.

This may be Tony Sanchez's first ever National Signing Day as a college coach, but he appears completely at ease. He wasn't giving those parents a recruiting spiel as much as holding a group conversation. There is a comfort level with the crowd, jokes and laughs, familiarity not formality, that comes, he says, from essentially being one of them.

"Forty-five days ago," Sanchez reminds them, "I was in your seats, on the other side of this."

Sanchez is a rare breed; the college football coach hired directly from the high school ranks. He’s just the fifth in the modern era – Jim Bradley to New Mexico State in 1973, Bob Commings to Iowa in 1974, Gerry Faust to Notre Dame in 1981 and Todd Dodge to North Texas in 2007.

None lasted very long.

UNLV is arguably the worst program in the country, posting a pathetic eight two-win seasons across the last 11 years. It's been to four bowl games … ever. The glory days are that time they finished tied for third in their division of the Mountain West.

Through the years the school has tried to hire old legends, up-and-coming assistants and proven winners at lower divisions. Nothing worked. So it rolled the dice on this guy who went 85-5 the last eight seasons across town at Bishop Gorman High School.

Tony Sanchez speaks during his introductory UNLV press conference. (AP)
Tony Sanchez speaks during his introductory UNLV press conference. (AP)

History be damned, Vegas bet on the high school coach.

Sanchez even carries himself like a high school coach, which is an endearing quality. There is no aura of self-importance. There are no guarded concerns over image. He isn't running with some massive entourage. He just sounds excited when he notes he no longer has to reserve the bus.

UNLV isn't built around the cult of the coach, the effort of making the head guy seem larger than life in the hopes recruits and their parents are swept up in it.

Part of that is pragmatic – what's he supposed to do, regale with tales of past BCS titles won or his days on some NFL staff? He has no pedigree. He comes from no significant coaching tree. Yet he is now Nick Saban's and Urban Meyer's professional peer.

"I'm 41 years old and I'm a Division-I football coach," he says. "I don't know how it gets any better than this."

High school coaches aren't supposed to be famous. They are guys around the school, around the neighborhood, around the way. They are regular folks, approachable and consistent. They rake their own leaves.

The bells and whistles of the big-time are baffling. When he got the job in mid-December, UNLV tried to give him a courtesy Mercedes to drive. This, after all, is Vegas. A little flash makes sense.

Sanchez eyed it warily. He noted to his athletic director that while he has, indeed, always wanted a Mercedes ("Who hasn't?" he said) and he sure was thankful … it's not him.

"Can I get a big, black American-made truck?" he asked.

A Silverado was delivered the next day.

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This may be Sanchez's first signing day as a college coach, but hardly his first signing day. At Bishop Gorman he saw 38 players go to high-major football in the last six years alone.

Just about every single major program coach, head and assistant, rolled through his office at some point. He saw how they all worked – "the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. He's also volunteered at various national all-star games and befriended high school coaches big and small, not just across Nevada but the country. He's heard the stories.

He has a simple mantra about what he thinks will work: be genuine.

"Raw and real," Sanchez said. "And raw and real could be a real buttoned-up guy; if that's you, that's you. If you are more a cowboy boot and jean guy, 'Here's who we are,' that's fine.

"If you're not that, the kids and I would recognize it right away. This guy is full of it. Who is this guy?"

The schools with the most advantages still sign the best players, but Sanchez came to understand the best actual recruiters came from all different places. When asked about the best recruiters he dealt with, he named, among a slew of assistants, some of whom he hired for his staff, just two head coaches: Duke's David Cutcliffe – "his knowledge of the game, his education, the way he carries himself" – and Kentucky's Mark Stoops – "a lot of energy, he's just himself."

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Sanchez says UNLV will be passionate, positive and honest, which goes well beyond NCAA statutes.

It's about using his high school coach viewpoint to be up front with players and parents about exactly where they stand in the process, even their slot on a recruiting big board, which seems taboo in other places. He's seen too many bait-and-switches and empty promises, too many recruiters who've been at this for years, preying on the naiveté of a family going through it for the first time. He vows to try a different way.

"I think it will benefit me, I really do," he said of the open dialogues. "I think our way is going to be successful. I need them to trust me completely."

This has always been his way. After playing and graduating from New Mexico State he found himself selling photocopiers for PTS Office Systems out of Las Cruces.

Tony Sanchez shouts to a player during a Bishop Gorman (Nev.) win. (USAT)
Tony Sanchez shouts to a player during a Bishop Gorman (Nev.) win. (USAT)

"I actually sold service more than anything," he said. "I'd tell them, 'It's going to break down. I guarantee it.'

"They'd be like, 'What are you talking about? Who tells you what they are selling is going to break down?'

"But it's a copier," he continued. "They all break down. I'd say, 'I'm just being honest, but here's the thing, we'll be there to help.'"

His pitch worked. He was so honest he convinced the warden at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility to buy 13 copiers.

"Biggest sale in company history," Sanchez laughed.

It didn't deliver any satisfaction though. He missed football and soon returned as a high school assistant in New Mexico and Texas before getting a head job in San Ramon, Calif., and then Gorman, the moneyed juggernaut of the state of Nevada.

Now suddenly he's sitting in UNLV's locker room, selling the Rebels, his own way. Ask me anything. He jokes, he relates, he listens.

When one question comes about the schedule for a player if he signs, Sanchez makes a point to emphatically note how important socially he believes a young man's final semester in high school is; that precious time to relax with family and friends. Come July, however, he needs him on campus to get ahead academically and toward a degree.

The parents agree. He doesn't appear to be coming at them, as much as from them.

As for sending your kid off to Sin City, well, Sanchez moved his family here eight years ago. He talks directly about how his daughter, 13, and son, 10, have thrived, how his wife loves it, all of it. Part of the recruiting weekend features a ride on the 550-foot tall "High Roller" Ferris Wheel at the LINQ casino, to show not only the fun and majesty of the Las Vegas Strip, but more importantly all the neighborhoods in the distance, all the church spires and park fields where two million locals live like the rest of America.

"When I'm talking to parents about it, I'm talking from experience," Sanchez said. "We moved here. I'm part of this community, I've lived here, been a Little League dad here. I've done it. I'm not brand new coming in. This is home. I love this city.

"So it's a little easier to get it across to moms and dads."

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As for whether a high school coach can actually coach, all Sanchez can do is prove it when the season comes. He notes that guys such as Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Baylor's Art Briles rose quickly from the high school ranks to major college stardom, using just brief stops as offensive coordinators where they were brought in to run their "high school offenses." It's a different era.

The gamedays will come, though. The spring practices, the work on raising funds for program upgrades and the speeches to draw local fans back to games. That's all part of the job. He'll either succeed or fail.

Wednesday is Day One though, the first 20-25 kids willing to sign up for the new era of the Rebels, to say yes to the high school coach wearing a simple T-shirt and pullover. UNLV won't rock the Rivals.com standings, but that's to be expected. This isn't some overnight deal. No one is expecting USC. No one thinks this is going to be easy. They just want respectability here.

Sanchez hosted about 25 recruits with scholarship offers in the whirlwind days since he got the job. A whopping 20 of them are expected to sign on Wednesday, including four of five from the final weekend before signing day.

College football's most intriguing new coach is acting how a high school coach would act, talking like a high school coach would talk, connecting like a regular guy would connect.

It's the only way Tony Sanchez knows. The job title changed. He hasn't.