Oct. 19, 2015
By Todd Burlage
If validation is needed as to how one unexpected twist of fate can change the course of an entire career, then first-year University of Notre Dame assistant coach Mike Sanford provides all the necessary proof.
The son of a long-time and successful college and professional football coach, Sanford has been groomed for his new job as the Fighting Irish offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach all the way back to his grade school days.
But a funny thing happened to Sanford about eight years ago on a flight from Las Vegas to San Jose, California that charted a course to his eventual arrival at Notre Dame.
But before we get to the most important jet ride of Sanford’s life, let’s first back up a bit.
Shortly after graduating in 2005 from Boise State, Sanford was hired into an entry-level coaching job at UNLV where his father, Mike Sanford Sr., was the head coach. After paying his dues there for two years, Sanford Jr. was ready to leave dad’s coaching shadow, branch out, and find his own way.
That’s about the same time reports broke in December of 2006 that Jim Harbaugh was to be introduced as the head coach at Stanford.
“The news was on SportsCenter and my wife [Anne-Marie] called and told me I needed to get on an airplane, immediately, fly out to Stanford, and talk to Jim [Harbaugh] about a job,” Sanford Jr. recalls. “Then my dad came into my office right after that and told me the very same thing: get on a plane immediately.”
For background, this career advice didn’t come out of nowhere. Sanford Sr. was the San Diego Chargers wide receivers coach in 1999 when Harbaugh was the starting quarterback and Sanford Jr. was a ball boy there, a job description that included throwing with Harbaugh during training camp and pre-game warmups.
“That’s how my relationship with Jim Harbaugh started,” says Sanford Jr., who was a talented enough quarterback to become a steady reserve at Boise State.
Fast forward about eight years and there sits Sanford Jr. on a tarmac at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas: a 25-year-old armed only with uncertainty, hope, his finest suit, a desire to reunite with Harbaugh, and a few bucks borrowed from dad.
“I was just going to go to [Harbaugh’s] press conference, see if I could grab a couple of minutes of his time. I was hopeful but I really had no idea,” says Sanford Jr., whose impromptu interview came much sooner than expected.
Sitting in the rear of the airplane, while rehearsing his presentation and minding his own business, fate intervened when Harbaugh, of all people, entered the same flight and headed down the center aisle toward Sanford.
Talk about a space invasion.
“I was all set. I had my speech planned. I was ready,” Sanford Jr. says with a laugh. “But everybody has a plan until you get hit in the mouth. Coach Harbaugh was coming right towards me, that didn’t fit my plan … so I ducked!”
Still on the tarmac and calculating his next move, Sanford Jr. called his wife, who delivered a calming message. “This is obviously God’s plan coming together right in front of all of our eyes,” she says.
As aerial intervention would have it, Harbaugh had a vacant seat next to him, giving Sanford a place to sit, a captive audience during the 45-minute flight, and a chance to sell himself to the man who became his new boss at Stanford about 30 days later.
“To me, every job that I had a chance to get over the next six years, to really get my coaching career started, came out of that meeting,” Sanford says.
Holding a position at Stanford simply titled “offensive assistant,” Sanford Jr. worked alongside Harbaugh as a complementary quarterbacks coach where the eager understudy digested the intricacies of the West Coast Offense.
Sanford Jr. spent two years in that role before accepting a promotion in 2009 at Yale University as the tight ends/fullbacks coach and recruiting coordinator.
As is the case with most young coaches, Sanford Jr. frequently relocated during his formative years to better advance his career.
He spent one year at Yale and one year at Western Kentucky before Harbaugh’s replacement and current Stanford head coach, David Shaw, brought Sanford back to Palo Alto as recruiting coordinator and a high-level offensive assistant coach. In three seasons there from 2011-13, Sanford helped lead the Cardinal to three BCS bowl games and developed wide receiver Ty Montgomery and running back Stepfan Taylor into future NFL players.
After growing into one of the brightest young coaches in the country, Sanford Jr. returned to his alma mater last season as the offensive coordinator at Boise State, where he helped the Broncos average 39.7 points a game and finish 12-2 with an upset victory over Arizona in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was paying attention, and scheduled a face-to-face meeting with Sanford Jr. last February in Park City, Utah. Both coaches were sold: Kelly by a desire for a fresh set of offensive eyes, and Sanford by a chance to work under one of the best in the business.
“After the meeting with Coach Kelly, I knew it was going to be a great fit. It was just great communication, great dialogue and great intellect. It was a really enjoyable conversation and I wanted to be around that,” said Sanford Jr., now 33. “As a young coach, when you’re trying to learn and you’re trying to grow, you want to be surrounded by people that have been highly successful in this business.”
The Next Chapter
Football coaches, by nature, are creatures of habit. If something works, why mess with it?
Coaches often talk about being adaptable, though most are reluctant to change.
And with more than 30 years in the business, Brian Kelly has understandably become comfortable with his processes and routines, especially when making personnel decisions.
Since taking his first Division I head coaching job at Central Michigan in 2004, Kelly has spent a large percentage of his assistant hires on coaches he shared time with during 17 seasons coaching at Division II Grand Valley State from 1987 to 2003.
Comfort level and loyalty have guided Kelly well with his assistant hires. Kelly ranks third in career wins among all active Division I coaches behind only Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and Steve Spurrier at South Carolina.
But as some late-season struggles hit the Irish last season, Kelly decided the time was right to infuse his program with “somebody that could turn the room upside down,” enter Mike Sanford.
“As [the offensive staff] got a chance to think about it, and we’ve been at it a long time, we came to an agreement,” Kelly said of a refreshing and needed dynamic Sanford Jr. could bring to practices and offensive meetings. “We’re going to get somebody in here that is going to keep us on our toes, is going to bring that room up to a level that is going to create such synergy and energy on a day-to-day basis that it’s going to make everybody better.”
The current order of business for Kelly’s new hire is making a couple young and inexperienced Irish quarterbacks better.
Coming out of spring football with fifth-year senior Everett Golson and talented junior Malik Zaire as the starting quarterback options — with those two playing ahead of talented up-and-comers sophomore DeShone Kizer and freshman Brandon Wimbush — Notre Dame seemed stacked at this position group about five months ago.
But Golson’s pre-season transfer to Florida State and Zaire’s broken ankle against Virginia in the second game of the season at Virginia flipped Sanford’s depth chart upside down. And while the players changed, the coaching philosophy remained the same.
“I want my guys to feel like there is a reason why I am coaching them to do certain things, and it’s not just because I think it’s a good idea,” Sanford Jr. says. “I’m coaching these philosophies because they are going to lead to success within certain schemes. It’s important that they understand that.”
Growing up in a football family, Sanford Jr. has moved around a lot, at one point spending about two and a half years as a quarterback and student at nearby Penn High School in Mishawaka, while Sanford Sr. was the Notre Dame quarterbacks coach under Bob Davie from 1997-98.
“I think military kids even spend at least three years in one place,” jokes Sanford, who lost count of how many different states and stops he has hit. Sanford Sr., now the head coach at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, said a football foundation helped put his son on the fast path to coaching success and Notre Dame’s structure and standards provide a perfect fit.
“Going into a program like Notre Dame, having been at Stanford and Yale, academics is obviously important to the kids and their families, and it’s important to Mike too,” Sanford Sr. says. “When you’ve recruited to that before, I think it creates a smooth transition.”
Sanford Sr. gives an answer before the question is even finished when the subject comes up about his son’s meteoric 10-year rise from grunt graduate assistant to premier offensive coordinator.
“He’s all about the players, that’s the most important thing,” Sanford Sr. says. “And he has a great balance of high expectations, being tough on them, but at the same time, having a great relationship with his players. And I don’t think that formula fits any better than it does at Notre Dame.”