UNLV might be taking a risk by hiring Bishop Gorman coach Tony Sanchez, but it’s a calculated risk.
The school is investing $500,000 a year, in a four-year deal pending approval by the Nevada Board of Regents. That’s a lot for a high school coach, but puts him at the bottom of the ladder in the Mountain West Conference, and ahead of only a handful of Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
Sanchez, 40, has led Bishop Gorman to six consecutive state titles and a 85-5 record, including a 15-0 record and the No. 1 spot in the Super 25 rankings this season. He’s only the third man in the last 40 years to go directly from being a high school coach to the head coach of a Division I/FBS program.
Sanchez said he knows there may be those who are skeptical about a high school coach taking over a college program, but he is not concerned.
“Being ranked No. 1 in the country and being undefeated, I felt it would be the right time for this move for me,” Sanchez said during a news conference Thursday. “I know some may doubt whether a high school coach can make this move. It’s very understandable. It hasn’t happened enough times in college to know if it works.”
The other former high school coaches who made the leap, Gerry Faust and Todd Dodge, were not that successful. Faust was 30-26 in five seasons (1981-85) at Notre Dame while Dodge was 6-37 in four seasons seasons at North Texas from 2007 to 2010.
But at Bishop Gorman, Sanchez is in a system that more closely resembles a college than a typical high school. The Gaels’ first six games this season were against out-of-state teams and personalities such as Muhammad Ali, Snoop Dogg and Dana White have been in the stands during games.
Bishop Gorman’s facilities, including a 56-acre campus and a new 41,000-foot training facility, are some of the best in the nation for a high school, due in part to Sanchez’s fund-raising efforts and his connections with Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, the primary owners of the Ultimate Fighting Championships and Station Casinos, LLC. UNLV has pledged to improve its facilities and might be counting heavily on Sanchez’s fund-raising efforts. UNLV’s athletic program has a budget shortfall of $2 million and the Rebels play football at Sam Boyd Stadium, which was built in 1971.
“It’s not going to happen with just one family, it’s going to be the entire community,” Sanchez when asked about the Fertitas. “We are going to dig in, and we are going to make this Las Vegas’ football program.”
Sanchez list former Fresno State coach Pat Hill as one of his mentors. Hill said he’s volunteered to help Sanchez put together a staff.
“I think in him you have a guy at UNLV who understands the city and understands its strengths,” Hill said. “I was there (as UNLV’s offensive coordinator in 1981-82) when Randall Cunningham was there. You can develop a very good football team in Las Vegas. I like his approach. He knows to be the best you have to play the best. A lot of coaches don’t want to stick their neck out like that.”
Outgoing UNLV President Don Snyder acknowledged Sanchez represents an nontraditional hire, but he conceded it was time to try a different approach after traditional hires have not worked. UNLV has had a better than .500 record only once since 2003.
“We need to be competitive when it comes to our athletics,” Snyder said by phone at the news conference. “Historically, that has not been the case with our football program. As we began this process, we agreed we wanted a coach with passion and dedication, a teacher who embraces change. We found that person in Tony Sanchez. He is the right guy at the right time to move the UNLV football program in the right direction.”
Sanchez told his players of his decision to take the UNLV job on Wednesday. After the meeting, tight end Alize’ Jones congratulated Sanchez on Twitter: “It’s been one heck of a ride! Learned so much from this man right here, Love you Coach and congrats!”
Sanchez’ younger brother, Kenny Sanchez, is Bishop Gorman’s defensive coordinator and is expected to take over as the Gaels’ head coach. He has been named interim coach, pending the approval of his brother’s contract at UNLV that would formally create the opening.
Tony Sanchez said he would not announce his staff at UNLV until next week, but that it would be an experienced group with plenty of college experience.
Sanchez has sent more than 30 players to college football teams. While he hopes to land some of Bishop Gorman’s players, he must recruit Las Vegas heavily for UNLV to be successful.
“There are kids in many high schools across the valley that leave every year to play college football and we need to be on their radar. There are big-time kids,” Sanchez said. “We need to be their first choice.”
Sanchez said every top program in the country has been through Gorman during his time there. “With my roots in California and my roots in national all-star games… I’ve got a pretty good barometer (on recruiting),” he said.
Sanchez played wide receiver and defensive back at Granada High in Livermore, Calif., Laney College in Oakland and New Mexico State. His only previous college coaching experience was his first coaching job, in 1996 as an undergraduate assistant at New Mexico State.
In 1998, he became an assistant at Onate, N.M., coaching wide receivers. From there he went to Irvin, Texas, as the receivers coach and then back to Onate in 2011 as the defensive backs coach, then as the school’s defensive coordinator in 2003. In 2004, he went to California (San Ramon, Calif.) as the head coach, winning the Contra Costa Times East Bay Coach of the year in 2007 before becoming the head coach at Bishop Gorman in 2009.