March 2, 2015
When Mike Sanford’s father, also named Mike, left the University of Southern California football staff to become an assistant coach at Notre Dame in 1997, the younger Sanford quickly earned a spot as a ball boy on the visitor’s sideline at Notre Dame Stadium on those glorious Saturday afternoons in the fall.
When USC played at Notre Dame in 1997, the Trojans’ head coach at the time, John Robinson, realized that the boy who had been his ball boy on the Trojans’ sideline in Los Angeles, was now on his sideline at Notre Dame, only he was decked out in Notre Dame gear rather than Trojan colors.
It didn’t matter.
“He came over and gave me a big old hug,” Sanford said, laughing about crossing paths with Robinson. While growing up on college football sidelines Sanford learned the game and saw human drama play out. Those insights helped him forge a remarkable coaching career, one that has led him back to Notre Dame Stadium. Only this time he’ll be on the Fighting Irish sideline.
Sanford left his job as the offensive coordinator at Boise State University to take over the same job at Notre Dame. Growing up, Sanford turned the football sidelines into his own classroom. He didn’t just watch the events taking place before him and around him unfold–he studied them. More importantly, he understood them.
Standing on the sidelines, a person can hear the thunderous collisions of offensive and defensive linemen ramming ahead in a fierce battle for precious inches. Those sounds of triumph and anguish taught Sanford the importance of a punishing physical running attack.
Standing on the sidelines, a person can see a quarterback drop back and loft a perfect pass that floats over the shoulder of a wide receiver, who hauls it in to finish off a deep strike into enemy territory. What Sanford learned was the critical nature of a vertical attack and the way match-ups and angles converge to dissect a defense. Standing on the sidelines, a person can witness exchanges between coaches and players, between coaches and other coaches, between players and other players. What Sanford learned was the value of building relationships, creating a bond that football’s hottest fires can’t tear apart.
Building insights from a unique perspective has allowed Sanford to emerge as one of the rising young stars in the profession. He brings a creative approach to Notre Dame while understanding the need for physical toughness and, in particular, the need for the glue that relationships bring to a team.
“I had a chance to be on some sidelines that were pretty spectacular,” Sanford recalled. “In 1998, the year after Michigan won the national championship, Notre Dame upset Michigan in its home opener.
“On the Michigan sideline, there was a phenomenal looking creature playing quarterback for Michigan named Drew Henson, but not as phenomenal looking of a character named Tom Brady who also was playing quarterback,” Sanford says jokingly.
“As a ball boy, you have a chance at a very young age to see very intimately what happens on the sideline and the communication that takes place. I could see the quarterback controversy that was taking place at Michigan.”
Those kind of moments, and having a father whose coaching career has ranged from being an assistant coach at Notre Dame, USC and the San Diego Chargers in the National Football League to his current position as head coach of the Indiana State University Sycamores, have enabled Sanford to understand the fabric of football’s soul.
“At the end of the day, what I’ve learned about coaching is all based on relationships,” Sanford said. “One thing I learned from my dad was that the relationships he built with his players were really deep. Even myself, as a young kid, growing up around the USC players and the Notre Dame players, I had a chance to forge some pretty special relationships. To see that all come to a head in an emotional game-day atmosphere, it was pretty unbelievable, even spectacular, if you will.
“Everything I do is based on the relationships. I think you build really good relationships with the staff and players feed off that positive energy. They can tell when things are right. Obviously, when the players feel very comfortable, and the quarterback in particular feels comfortable being able to voice his opinion if he likes something or he does not like something, I think that ends up being a really positive thing for an offense because you want that quarterback to have a strong voice in the room.”
Sanford grew to love Notre Dame when he was the ball boy for the Irish in 1997 and 1998 before his father took a job with the Chargers. His five years as an assistant coach at Stanford allowed him to see the Irish program from a different angle, but both perspectives should enable him to thrive in South Bend.
Being familiar with the Irish program and the area, and having a positive experience as a student-athlete at Penn High School in nearby Mishawaka, Indiana, played into Sanford’s decision to leave Boise State and come to Notre Dame. “I feel I really have an understanding of the profile of the program and the profile of the student-athletes you recruit at Notre Dame,” Sanford said. “We went head to head in recruiting at Stanford with Notre Dame on a ton of kids. I think, for me, I knew what kind of players they had here in place because we battled it out on recruits. I knew there were some really good players here and really good people here.”
Sanford also wanted to coach for Brian Kelly and once again be immersed in the Notre Dame culture.
“I’m really excited to work for someone who has been a head football coach for over 20 years,” Sanford said of Kelly. “Very rarely in your career do you have a chance to learn under somebody who has that kind of experience and who has seen the highs and lows of being a head football coach for that long and has built up his reputation from a smaller football level to mid-major and obviously now to the biggest stage in football.
“And, quite frankly, the last reason and probably the biggest reason I’m here, it’s Notre Dame. I know that sounds cliche, but to me, it’s the most powerful brand in college athletics. It’s to have a chance to be a part of that and have a chance to be a part of, hopefully, what our goal is, to win it all, and to work to build that. There’s been some heavy lifting that’s already taken place with Coach Kelly and his staff. Hopefully, I get a chance to be a part of that.” Sanford loves the attacking offense Kelly has crafted at Notre Dame.
“Since Coach Kelly has been here, Notre Dame is pushing the ball down the field,” Sanford said. “They’re on the cutting edge, with a lot of their route concepts … like (former Oakland Raiders coach/owner) Al Davis said, ‘Throw it over the wall.'”
Sanford believes Notre Dame’s personnel will give the Irish an opportunity to push the ball down the field. “The biggest challenge I see is, if we want to win championships . . . the teams that win championships consistently have had a very dominating, physical run game,” Sanford said. “We have been that, and we have to become that. We have to establish that mentality with the way that we finish our blocks, with the way that we finish our runs, in our style of play, so people know that when Notre Dame comes to town, it’s going to be an extremely physical football game. You better buckle up your chinstrap.
“I really do believe you can live in both worlds. You can be a physical, downhill running team, but yet not sacrifice the ability to push the ball down the field and be on the cutting edge in the passing game. I think we have the personnel to do it. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done to put our roster in this position offensively to have a chance to be very balanced and take advantage of opportunities to run the ball and throw it over the wall.”
At Boise State, Sanford’s 2014 offense lit up the scoreboard for 39.7 points a game (ninth in the nation). The Broncos won the Mountain West Conference title and knocked off Arizona 38-30 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Sanford, who was a quarterback at Boise State, arrived after the Broncos suffered through an 8-5 season, a rarity for a program that is the winningest in college football since 2000. He found the expectations were staggering, and the heat from fans proved to be white hot.
“People think it’s just a program that is a fun, spirited program, and you’re always on the cutting edge of creativity, yet there’s tremendous pressure from the community,” Sanford said about coaching at Boise State. “They want to win, and they want to win big, every single game. They don’t want to score one more point than their opponents. They want to score 40 more points than their opponents.
“I enjoyed that challenge. I felt like I was challenged as the offensive coordinator in terms of having high expectations. Yet, for us, we as a program had not won a Mountain West championship outright since 2009. As successful as those teams have been, that was our goal. That was our main mission. To see those guys start to believe and fixate on the process and take it day by day and game by game, I thought it really led to our turnaround in our program, of enjoying the process. Every win was a big win for us. It wasn’t just another win, it was a big one and we celebrated wins. We were able to achieve our goal, which was to win a Mountain West Conference championship outright and win a bowl game. It obviously came to a great crescendo by beating Arizona, a team that gave Oregon its only regular-season loss.”
Rod Pawlik, who coached Sanford for two seasons when Sanford was a quarterback at Penn High School, said Sanford had a remarkably high football IQ at a young age.
“Mike was around football his whole life, and you could tell he understood the game and what was going on,” Pawlik said. “He knew a lot about the game. He had a good understanding of defenses and coverages at a young age.”
Pawlik thinks Sanford will excel at Notre Dame.
“Mike has patience and he didn’t seem to get rattled easy,” Pawlik said. “As an offensive coordinator, that’s something you have to have. You’re going to have things thrown at you that you may not expect, and you have to adapt to those things that are taking place at that time. I’ve heard nothing but good things about him from other coaches who have come in here and talked about him.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent