Tony Sanchez is not head coach material.
It’s the summer of 1992. Sanchez, a freshman wide receiver, steps on the field at Laney College for his first practice. He’s not happy to be here.
Sanchez had higher hopes for his football career. He had been one of the top high school players in Northern California, showing enough potential as a quick (if undersized) pass-catcher to draw interest from Division I programs. He should be lining up and running post routes for one of the Pac-10 teams that offered him a scholarship, not running laps at a tiny junior college in Oakland.
Although he was always enthusiastic in his work ethic on the field, the teenage version of Tony Sanchez wasn’t nearly as dedicated when it came to his studies. His grades were so bad that every Division I school stopped recruiting him during his senior year, and they were proven prescient when Sanchez ended up as an academic non-qualifier.
After mulling his football options (none, really), Sanchez enrolled at Laney, a program with a reputation for taking in talented but troubled players and giving them direction. It was headed by no-nonsense coach Stan Peters, a legend in Bay Area coaching circles for running a disciplined program on and off the field.
Peters liked Sanchez’s toughness and believed he could get him on track academically. He thought Sanchez could be a productive receiver at Laney and eventually move on to a D-1 school. But he didn’t see coaching in the young man’s future.
A coach? Really? The kid who flunked out of a chance to play big-time college football and couldn’t be trusted to show up for class? Was there any glint of a head coach in the 18-year-old Sanchez?
“Not really,” Peters says. “The rap on Tony was that he was a good athlete and a tough guy, but academically he wasn’t very good. He was a guy who might not be able to make it in college. He always had a great mind on the football field, so this isn’t a dumb guy we’re talking about. He knew his assignments. You never had to worry about him blowing plays. His understanding was there, but in terms of coaching, I didn’t see it then. The discipline wasn’t there, not to run a whole team.”
And yet here we are, 23 years later, and Sanchez is set for his first season as the head football coach at UNLV. And while his evolution has taken place over more than two decades, his transformation from an unfocused underachiever to an organizational czar tasked with turning around the moribund UNLV program can be traced back to that first practice at Laney.
Early on in that first session, as Sanchez waited in line for his reps, two receivers in front of him broke into a fight. Peters, a nail-spitting hard-ass straight out of central casting who coached at Laney for 40 years, stepped in to set the tone.
“I told both of them, ‘Start running the bleachers and I’ll see you in 45 minutes,’” says Peters, who retired in 2005. “When they were done, I told them, ‘You just wasted 45 minutes of practice. We don’t fight in this program, or you’re gone.’ That was Tony’s introduction to the way we did things. Tony was a physical guy, and he didn’t back down. But he wasn’t a hothead. He understood. It was either adapt or leave, and he adapted real quick. All our players understood discipline, on the field and off the field, and if you weren’t disciplined in our program, you were an outcast and then you were gone.”
Down to his last chance, Sanchez responded to the structure at Laney. He dove head-first into his academics and practiced the kind of personal discipline necessary to meet Laney’s academic standards. He met with tutors. He studied during his personal time. He began managing his life, taking on a course load that included four classes during the football season and five classes during the spring and summer.
“Stan’s an old-school tough dude,” Sanchez says. “I remember him saying, ‘Hey, you’re here for a reason, and it’s not a good one. You’re either going to figure it out, or you’re going to end up being a bum.’ And he was right. So my career from that point became about me trying to become the best version of myself.”
A switch had been flipped, and for Sanchez, the change was permanent. He left Laney after two years (with a 3.4 GPA) and headed to New Mexico State, where he lettered in football as a junior and senior. He also earned his degree in family and consumer science (and eventually a master’s degree in special education).
“I never took the academic end seriously,” Sanchez says. “I was a damn good player. I was a first-team All-State wide receiver in California, and that’s a pretty good football state. I played in the North-South Shrine Game. And I went to Laney Junior College.” He stretches out the name of the school, as if he still can’t believe he let it come to that, even today.
“It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever done. I got there and said to myself, ‘This was not the goal.’ It’s a great place, don’t get me wrong, but I never aspired to go to Laney. I had opportunities to go to Pac-10 schools. So when I looked in the mirror, I could do one of two things—bullshit myself, or admit I’m the one who screwed up and fix it.”
It was a lesson that became the cornerstone of Sanchez’s football philosophy.
It’s 2004, and Sanchez is interviewing for the head coach position at California High School in San Ramon—the kind of job that no one seemed to think he was cut out for during his playing days. He has been an assistant at the prep level in New Mexico and Texas for five years, mostly coaching wide receivers and defensive backs. While that may seem like a thin résumé for a head coaching job, Cal High principal Mark Corti is willing to think outside the box.
The program, to put it kindly, is in dire straits. The team is coming off a 2-8 campaign, and no one can remember the last time the Grizzlies even recorded a .500 season. Players are drifting away from the program and its culture of losing. The community is disengaged, the student body apathetic.
Sanchez is nervous. It’s the first time the 30-year-old has interviewed for a head coaching job. (He also sent a résumé to his alma mater, Granada High School in Livermore, Calif., but was not granted an interview.) He’s wearing a suit and talking about his blueprint for the program, and though Sanchez is not entirely convinced by his own pitch, Corti believes in the young coach’s long-term vision.
“Right from the first interview, you could tell he was genuine,” Corti says. “We knew he was the guy to turn it around. He knew what he was doing. His practices were detailed, fast-moving, structured and really well organized. He scouted and had the whole team watching film. His organization was off the charts.”
Sanchez’s plan is more comprehensive than X’s and O’s, however. It’s about discipline. It’s about holding kids accountable, teaching them how to channel their energy toward football and academics. It’s tough love. It’s making players run stairs when they make mistakes and pulling them aside afterward to explain why the punishment was necessary.
“It’s not just about winning games,” Sanchez says. “It’s about making that person in front of me a better person. That’s my driving force. If I ask someone to be accountable in their life, that’s going to make them better at everything—not just football. If I ask them to be more trustworthy, to be more hard-working, to study harder, well, guess what? They’re probably going to lift weights better and take care of their nutrition better. They’re probably going to practice harder and longer. They’re probably going to be the guys who don’t quit when things go bad.”
It sounds a lot like Stan Peters’ program at Laney, and that’s not a coincidence. Peters sees it in his protégé’s approach to team building.
“When Tony came back to the Bay Area at Cal High, their program was dead,” Peters says. “I used to recruit them, and they were shitty. When he got done there, his team was really physical and they had highly disciplined players. I went to watch practice, and they were running a drill and someone screwed up. Tony called him in and said, ‘Enough of this bullshit. Run to the cement wall (which was about 500 yards away) and when you get back, we’re going to do this thing right.’ So he was tough on them. Not like a crazy guy, but just in the sense that it was going to be done right, or someone was going to pay the price. That was the Laney way.”
That approach galvanized the team. Players began buying in and once Sanchez installed his system, the results started to show on the field. Cal High went 4-6 in Sanchez’s first season and improved to 8-3 with a playoff appearance in 2005. That represented a quantum leap for the program.
“The way he drew the kids in—he’s the best at that,” Corti says. “They really believed he had their best interest at heart. During games, Tony would raise his voice and get into a player a little bit to try to get him to improve. But [then] he’d give them a pat on the back and say, ‘I love you,’ and move on to the next play. As tough as he was on them, they really believed that he loved them. Those kids would do anything for him.”
With the capital earned from winning games, Sanchez was able to turn his focus to his other great strength—building.
He raised money and rebuilt the weight room. “It’s not just about the football players,” Corti says. “It’s about getting the community excited. Tony knows how to get everybody involved in the program. He’ll do this in Vegas, too. If you want to talk about enthusiasm, people just wrapped their arms around him.”
As the Cal High students and community embraced the team, the varsity roster swelled from 45 players in 2004 to 72 players in 2007, when the team went 11-2 and reached the North Coast Section 4A title game.
“The most overwhelming job I ever had was not UNLV,” Sanchez says. “It was the Cal job. We had bad facilities, bad uniforms. We were trying to raise money. Our [roster] numbers were in the low 40s. I was not only coaching players, but coaching my coaches. My brother Kenny (who’s the current Bishop Gorman coach) had never coached. Sean Manuel (who’s now the strength and offensive line coach at Bishop Gorman) had never coached. I was the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and I was [the] special teams [coach]. I did the whole thing [that first season]. And I had to stand up in front of the community and rally them at a place that hadn’t been successful. By the time we left, we were one of the most respected teams in Northern California.”
It was one of the most brilliant turnaround jobs in California high school history, and it caught the attention of the administrators at Bishop Gorman.
It’s fall 2014. Sanchez is reigning over the No. 1 high school football program in the country, in the midst of leading Bishop Gorman to a sixth consecutive state championship and the No. 1 spot in USA Today’s national rankings. And he’s getting restless.
Gorman lured him away from the Bay Area with the promise of being able to build something great, and Sanchez, being a builder at heart, agreed. He challenges himself to make Gorman into a powerhouse to rival any program in the country. He works to create relationships with the community, and he spearheads efforts to erect state-of-the-art facilities. He coordinates with college recruiters, who converge on the school to observe the Gaels’ talented roster. He develops the team’s academic program. He installs his offensive and defensive schemes. He guides the team through three undefeated seasons.
It’s the biggest job Sanchez has ever held, and he adapts to the responsibilities. The team is too big, the scope of the program too wide for Sanchez to micromanage the way he could when he took over the smaller Cal High program. At Gorman, Sanchez is the CEO. He maximizes his production by hiring good assistants and delegating when prudent. He oversees the entire production, on and off the field. He leaves his fingerprints all over the program. He builds.
Manuel, who played with Sanchez at Laney and New Mexico State and coached under him at Cal High, was able to witness Sanchez’s evolution firsthand.
“Back at Cal High, Tony would be firing and rehiring coaches on the sideline during games,” Manuel recalls with a laugh. “His drive to win was so great and he had such control over the program that he would have those moments. But by the time he got to Gorman, it was completely different. He really let off in terms of letting the coaches do what they do. I could tell he was wincing at times, but he did it. He really opened up. He let his brother Kenny run the whole defense. He let me control more of the blocking scheme. He got much better at delegating while still being in charge of the whole thing.”
By doing so, Sanchez had reached the pinnacle of high school football. Gorman was a good program, but by applying the lessons learned throughout his playing and coaching career and combining it with his drive to succeed (something that did not always come naturally, remember), Sanchez had made it the very best, the standard to which all other great programs strive.
The only problem is, with Gorman firmly positioned on top, there’s nowhere left to take the program. Sanchez wants to build. When another downtrodden program approaches him for a turnaround job, he listens.
It’s December 2014, and Sanchez is starting all over again.
Sanchez, now 40, has been named the head coach at UNLV, and as he moves into his new office and surveys the carnage in front of him—the conveyor belt of two-win seasons, the one-star talent, the limited budget, the second-rate (at best) facilities, the lack of community engagement—he sees his past.
When he looks at the need to rally the fan base and instill a new culture, he sees Cal High. When he looks at his players, young men who can be productive if given proper direction, he sees himself at Laney College. When he looks at the opportunity to build a program in need of new practice facilities, new uniforms, new locker rooms, he sees Bishop Gorman, circa 2009, full of potential just waiting to be realized.
Everything Tony Sanchez has ever been through—every lost opportunity, every job interview, every fundraiser, every rebuilding process, every one-on-one with a troubled player—has been preparing him to lead the UNLV football team.
Senior offensive lineman Ron Scoggins played at Bishop Gorman under Sanchez, so he knows the drill. Under Sanchez’s tutelage the first time around, he was diligent in his studies and graduated from Gorman with a 3.0 GPA. But last spring, under the previous regime, his grades deteriorated to the point where he had to be held out of UNLV’s spring practice. Talk was swirling that Scoggins—as some suggested about Sanchez once upon a time—wasn’t cut out for college.
When Sanchez was hired in December, he made it a priority to prod Scoggins back onto the right path. Eight months later, Scoggins is once again looking like a key cog in the Rebels’ offense after recording a 3.6 GPA last semester.
A UNLV staffer pointed the credit for Scoggins’ turnaround in one direction.
“That’s all Tony,” he said.
Seven Things to Watch
That’s my quarterback
Expectations may have been set a bit too high for quarterback Blake Decker last season. After putting up video-game numbers in junior college, he arrived at UNLV, took the reins from opening day and proceeded to complete just 57.6 percent of his passes for 2,886 yards, 15 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. With another offseason under his belt, the hope is that Decker is ready to command the offense as a senior and breathe some life into the Rebels’ passing attack. With sophomore Devonte Boyd (65 receptions, 980 yards in 2014) and sophomore Kendal Keys (24 receptions, 310 yards) as his top targets, Decker has enough firepower at receiver to make something happen.
Block someone, anyone!
In order for Decker to sling the ball, he’s going to need much better protection than he received last year, when opponents sacked him 34 times. Holdovers such as senior Ron Scoggins and newcomers such as junior Will Kreitler will be tasked with opening up running lanes and, most importantly, giving Decker time to operate.
Where are the wins?
The season win total line for UNLV is at 2½, and it’s difficult to spot three victories on the schedule. Home games against Idaho State (Sept. 26) and San Jose State (Oct. 10) look like the only winnable games in the first half of the season, and a home contest against Hawaii on Nov. 7 is another potential W. If the Rebels can bank those contests in the win column, Tony Sanchez’s first season can probably be considered a success.
Take the field
As the Rebels try to attract new fans, one aspect of the program that’s undergone an overhaul is the turf at Sam Boyd Stadium. The red-and-black Las Vegas-themed paint scheme should give UNLV’s home field a distinctly local flavor (and maybe provide a distraction if the Rebels fall behind by multiple scores).
Give them the damn ball
With a backfield committee comprised of junior Keith Whitely and freshmen Xzaviar Campbell and Lexington Thomas, the Rebels have talent at the running back position. The question is whether the offense will function well enough to put them in a position to succeed. Look for Whitely to handle most of the carries early in the season.
Tackle someone, anyone!
UNLV’s defense was pushed around way too easily last season, as opponents rushed for 293.8 yards per game against the Rebels and averaged 5.6 yards per carry. The defensive line has to be more stout at the point of attack, and that effort starts with senior end Sonny Sanitoa. The 6-foot-3, 270-pounder is the Rebels’ best lineman and a key leader of the defense.
Are people going to show up to watch “#TheNewEra” of UNLV football? The product on the field may not be great in Sanchez’s first season at the helm, but the administration is hoping the coach’s energy will keep the fans engaged until the wins start rolling in. Considering the fickle nature of the fan base, that’s a risky proposition. – MG