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November 29, 2022

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With Tony Sanchez leading the charge, UNLV football poised for revival

Tony Sanchez

Nick Coletsos / Special to The Sunday

Among the changes made by UNLV head football coach Tony Sanchez is a redesign of the team’s uniforms, which now tout the valley’s history. Red-and-black pants have a diamond design from the old Stardust sign, and white pants display “Las Vegas” in block letters.

Assistant football coaches from three universities patiently wait in the lobby of Tony Sanchez’s office for their turn to speak with the Bishop Gorman High coach during the height of recruiting season.

Tony Sanchez is winning the publicity battle

Within days of becoming UNLV’s football coach, Tony Sanchez was interviewed on ESPN Radio by Colin Cowherd.

It was the start of national headlines for Sanchez by heavyweight publications and personalties, including and Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel.

The reports all had a similar tone: Sanchez was a risk worth taking for UNLV.

“I don’t bring high school football coaches on my show much,” Cowherd told his audience. “But Tony Sanchez built such a dominating high school program — state champions, state champions, state champions — UNLV said, ‘We are going to roll the dice, and high school guy, you are going to be our next football coach.’ I’m glad somebody thinks out of the box and doesn’t go to another recycled coach.”

Here’s a look at what else has been said about Sanchez nationally.

Grantland, Feb. 17

What Happens in Vegas: High School Legend Tony Sanchez Takes Aim at Hapless UNLV — and Coaching History

In Sanchez’s eyes, the structural advantages that made his Bishop Gorman teams virtually unbeatable within state lines also make him uniquely prepared to take the reins of a substantially larger operation. The logistics of running a program at Gorman are on a different scale than at a run-of-the-mill neighborhood high school: The budget is larger, the donors have deeper pockets, the road trips are longer and more complicated. How many high school coaches have experience chartering planes to play in nationally televised games several states away? How many have already had a hand in building a facility like the one at Gorman, which easily eclipses the university’s existing complex in terms of size, cost and amenities? The first priority for UNLV is improving its decrepit facilities, the same ones (former coach Mike) Sanford derided upon his ouster as the worst in the country. ...

More than on any other factor, UNLV’s gamble on Sanchez, and vice versa, is based precisely on that kind of trust. Sanchez boasts a connection and familiarity with his adopted hometown that none of his predecessors brought to the job or managed to develop while they were there. The most daunting obstacle in the Rebels’ path out of the cellar isn’t money or talent — it’s apathy, a lingering void in which fundraising and recruiting are impossible to cultivate. Sanchez has hurled himself at that challenge armed with energy, confidence and a track record as the biggest fish in a vastly smaller pond. Above all else, he has the job because he’s the only person in the city with a real shot at persuading Las Vegas to think of itself as a football town.

Yahoo Sports, Feb. 4

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

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.

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.

CBS Sports, March 11

Connected and confident, Tony Sanchez is ready to run wild at UNLV

Tony Sanchez is connected. We’re talking Sinatra-level hooked up. In this boom-and-bust town, there are not many better things to be. ... Snoop Dogg entrusted his son to him. So did Randall Cunningham. Muhammad Ali’s grandson was a Gael. Connected? Actor Ving Rhames was commissioned to do the team’s pregame hype video. How many high schools have pregame hype videos?

On this day, they see firsthand why Sanchez is considered a great coach.

Forget about capturing the state championship in all six of his seasons at Gorman, winning the mythical national championship last fall and boasting an 85-5 record. What helped Sanchez earn the reputation as an elite coach is what happens off the field — his keen attention to detail, logging long work hours and building strong relationships with players.

Sanchez is engaged in a lengthy conversation with a former player who is about to graduate from college and is seeking career advice. Sanchez urges him to stay true to himself and not to settle.

They’re more than just words. It’s how Sanchez lives his life.

Sanchez has made his own sacrifices throughout his career in an effort not to settle, from taking a brief coaching hiatus in the 1990s to selling photocopy machines in New Mexico because the job paid better, to living in the spare room of his best man’s parents’ house for six months to take a coaching job in his native Northern California, to his latest — and perhaps most defining — challenge: trying to prove his worth after making the rare direct leap from coaching high school to college football.

“I get inspired easily,” said Sanchez, who in December was named UNLV’s head football coach. “People will see fake fast, so just be real. Be yourself. Be truthful. It is harder to get people to believe in what you want them to if they can’t genuinely look at you and see you believe in it more than them.”

Sanchez already has believers in UNLV administrators, who hired him with the confidence he can reverse two trends: one, UNLV has won two games in eight of the past 12 seasons and has just four bowl-game appearances all-time; more importantly, to show UNLV’s gamble in hiring a high school coach won’t flop, as have most similar moves in college history.

Judging by Sanchez’s first months on the job, he already has proven to be different than past UNLV coaches. From recruiting higher-caliber players and getting verbal commitments early in the recruiting cycle to raising money for program upgrades and new Las Vegas-themed uniforms, Sanchez has made a splash. It’s one that believers say could carry the team to unseen heights in the coming seasons.

The most significant change so far came during Sanchez’s first weeks on the job. He hired a who’s who of assistant coaches, building a staff brimming with the experience critics claim he lacks. The assistants came from big-conference schools such as Nebraska, Colorado and Southern Cal because they believed in Sanchez.

Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, who has nearly three decades of coaching experience, was Nebraska’s interim head coach before coming to UNLV. He was one of the assistants in Sanchez’s office at Gorman the day Sanchez mentored his former player. Cotton and the other coaches noted Sanchez’s character and approach, and they maintained a relationship with him while courting his players at Gorman.

“No. 1 (reason I came to UNLV) was because of coach Sanchez,” said Andy LaRussa, UNLV’s special teams coordinator who previously was at Colorado. “His energy. His enthusiasm. His excitement. I was really excited with what he was preaching, what he had done at Gorman.”

• • •

Marc Philippi was supposed to be Gorman’s quarterback. But he was beat out by a younger player — probably because at 5 feet, 11 inches, Philippi wasn’t the ideal quarterback size. Sanchez moved him to defense. Three years later, he was one of Gorman’s best defenders at safety and received a full scholarship to UNLV.

Sanchez, one could argue, saved Philippi’s career with the position change. The two now are reunited, with Philippi one of three former Gorman players on the UNLV roster.

“It’s such a unique situation — (we’re) the only players in America whose high school coach is their college coach,” Philippi joked.

Philippi quickly became the team’s authority on all things Sanchez, getting questioned by teammates about what to expect from their new coach. As national media outlets started finding their way to Las Vegas to document Sanchez trying to make magic at UNLV, Philippi became the team’s unofficial spokesman. His answers, whether in confidence to a teammate or publicly to a reporter, haven’t changed: Sanchez is the real deal.

“I remember my junior year (at Gorman), college coaches coming in (to recruit) and saying your practices are just like ours, with the strict schedule,” Philippi said. “Sanchez is a high-energy kind of coach. He expects a lot from you, but at the end of the day, he has your best interest in mind.”

Part of building a winning program at UNLV is getting players to believe in the vision. The process started with Sanchez, who always is direct in his assessment of players, telling the athletes something they didn’t want to hear.

“I am honest; let’s talk about how successful we are and we are not,” Sanchez said. “Let’s talk about what we have done in the past. People talk about tradition; we have none — let’s be honest. ... After a while, they got it — this guy is willing to work.”

Sanchez quickly earned players’ respect, especially from the upperclassmen, because he’s adamant the building process won’t include playing for the next season or using younger players to develop them for future seasons.

As farfetched as it sounds, Sanchez’s No. 1 goal is winning a Mountain West championship. Another goal, of course, is beating rival UNR.

“The guy is a winner,” senior quarterback Blake Decker said. “He steps into the room and that is all he talks about. That affects the players. It’s almost contagious. We should go out and compete with every team we play. That is, honestly, a different attitude from last year.”

And Philippi is entrusting Sanchez to revive his career again. After two UNLV seasons at linebacker, Sanchez is switching Philippi back to offense as a fullback.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV football head coach Tony Sanchez yells orders to his players during the Spring Showcase, the last official gathering for the Rebels before August on Saturday, April 18, 2015.

• • •

If 41-year-old Sanchez seems prepared for his first college gig, it’s because he had a few years to organize a plan. He interviewed for a small-school head coaching job two years ago but didn’t get the position.

“I had to put a lot of stuff in motion — how I wanted to structure things, how I wanted to recruit,” Sanchez said of the interview two years ago. “That got the ball rolling for me. Going into this transition to UNLV, it made it that much easier because I had thought about it.”

Sanchez took meticulous notes when coaches recruited at Gorman, documenting what worked and what he’d change if he got an opportunity to coach college ball. By the time he got the UNLV job in mid-December, he knew how to hit the ground running — the players he wanted to offer a scholarship to, areas to recruit, coaches he hoped to hire and ways to organize spring practice.

This isn’t his first rebuild. Until Sanchez arrived in 2004, Cal High in Northern California was a perennial loser, the high school version of UNLV. In Sanchez’s first season, the team won four games, the equivalent of three years’ worth of wins. By the time Sanchez left for Bishop Gorman in 2008, Cal High had given national power De La Salle a few scares.

Some surely wondered why he would leave coaching in New Mexico, where he had used commissions from his sales job to put a down payment on a 3,000-square-foot home and where his wife had family, for the unknown Cal High. Some again questioned why he would leave the comfort of Cal High for Bishop Gorman, which had fired its previous coach after just two seasons despite a 26-2 record and a state championship. But those moves paved Sanchez’s way to UNLV, where he received a four-year contract worth $500,000 annually.

Sanchez hasn’t changed with the money either, opting to drive a Chevy truck even though he was offered a luxury car. He hasn’t stopped working hard; in fact, he interrupted a family vacation this month in Washington, D.C., for a radio interview and recruiting. He raves about his wife, Tessie, embracing his new job and supporting his career moves, and he still brings his son, Jason, to photo shoots and attends his baseball and football games like any proud dad.

“For the most part, nothing has been overwhelming,” Sanchez said. “There hasn’t been anything we have gotten involved in where it was, ‘Wow, I really don’t understand how this works.’ ”

Click to enlarge photo

Tony Sanchez speaks after being announced as the new UNLV football team head coach by athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy and director of media relations Mark Wallington in the Stan Fulton Building ballroom on Thursday, December 11, 2014.

Bettors, oddsmakers not sold on Rebels

Within days last month of UNLV’s season-win total being established at 2.5 games by CG Technology, gamblers aggressively wagered against the Rebels, forcing oddsmakers to adjust.

The line opened at minus-125 on the over (win $10 for every $12.50 bet), meaning the Rebels were a slight favorite to win three or more of 12 games. But the line shifted from plus-105 on the under to minus-120, indicating bettors lack confidence in Sanchez’s Rebels and are hammering the under 2.5 wins.

“They’re big, big underdogs in all of the games,” said Tony Miller, sports director at the Golden Nugget. “I think Tony Sanchez is going to do a good job, but going up against coaches like (Jim) Harbaugh and (Jim) Mora (Jr.), unfortunately it’s going to take some time. It looks like a long season.”

UNLV is plus-32 for its home opener Sept. 12 against UCLA, coached by Mora Jr. The following week at Michigan, the Rebels are a 33-point underdog against Harbaugh’s team. And in a true sign of no confidence, UNLV is the second-lowest of win totals posted at CG. Only Kansas, at 1.5, is worse.

“If this were last year’s team, then maybe (2.5 wins) would be accurate,” UNLV senior quarterback Blake Decker said. “But we are a different UNLV football team — different from last year and different from the team predicted to win two games. We are going to shock some people for sure.”

• • •

In Sanchez, UNLV got more than a football coach. It got someone willing, and qualified, to help sell the program to the community.

Sanchez has spoken to Rotary clubs, visited elementary schools, thrown out the first pitch at a Little League ceremony and was the commencement speaker for the Nevada Connections Academy — all with the mission of promoting the UNLV brand. Sanchez tells everyone it’s not his team, “it’s our team.”

For UNLV to have a winning program, Sanchez needs the support of Southern Nevadans. He compares drumming up interest to being a politician on the campaign trail.

“I’m campaigning for UNLV football and the importance it has, and what it can do for our community,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez was so impressive to the Boulder City Sunrise Rotary Club, members have planned two outings to home games.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez with members of the Boulder City Sunrise Rotary Club after speaking to the group this spring.

“I wanted to grab a helmet and go in, man,” said Kevin Lampman, the club’s president. “He definitely got us motivated to go to the games and support the team and support the school. I want to be on his team.”

More often than not, locals wait to see if the Rebels, or other sports franchises such as UNLV basketball, produce a winning team before showing up on game day. But Sanchez hopes to buck that trend. He knows backing is needed immediately if the community wants a winner.

Sanchez has instituted “the New Era” slogan for marketing and advertising, promising that during his coaching tenure, he will turn around UNLV’s perennial losing program.

Sanchez’s words resonated strongly with recruit Donovan Outlaw of Coronado High, who when he saw a billboard with the new era message while driving to the airport for a recruiting visit at UNR, canceled the trip and verbally committed to UNLV.

On Twitter, Sanchez and others use #NewEra to update followers on progress with training or to remind people to attend community events. In late April, a Twitter post showing three new sets of uniforms was favorited and retweeted by thousands of people, an indication of the community’s appetite for change.

The gear also underscores the importance of Las Vegas to Sanchez’s master plan. The back of both helmets features a 3-inch sticker of the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign. The team’s white pants include block letters that spell LAS VEGAS. Players’ red and black pants have a diamond design from the old Stardust sign, now housed at the Neon Museum.

“We have the right idea of how to sell Las Vegas and our university,” Sanchez said. “Sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time, and I have been very fortunate in my life to have those opportunities. Las Vegas, with the way the economy is now, with the growth of the city to 2 million people, it is a lot more family oriented. People are seeing the relevance and importance of having a successful athletic program.”

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV football player Antonio Zepeda (87) shakes off defenders during the Spring Showcase, the last official gathering for the Rebels and coach Tony Sanchez before August on Saturday, April 18, 2015.

• • •

With Sanchez at the helm, UNLV has made a splash in the offseason and created a buzz. Now, the Rebels have to play a game — and the result likely won’t be as positive.

UNLV’s schedule is difficult, especially the first three weeks — at Northern Illinois to open the season, followed by the home opener against UCLA and at Michigan. During the 2015 Mountain West Football Media Days at the Cosmopolitan, the Rebels will be projected to finish toward the bottom of the 12-team league.

But Sanchez lost only five games during the past six seasons. He doesn’t plan to lose six games before Halloween.

“Why not?” he said when asked if he could have a winning program. “We are in Vegas. We believe we can do it.”

Still, history — both at UNLV and nationally among coaches who jump from high school to college — doesn’t engender much confidence. Todd Dodge was revered at Southlake Carroll High before struggling at North Texas 10 years ago. Gerry Faust was a high school coaching legend in Ohio but couldn’t duplicate the championships at Notre Dame in the early to mid-1980s.

Sanchez, who repeatedly has been asked about his jump to the big leagues, is quick to point out the high school-to-college comparisons don’t end with Faust and Dodge.

Art Briles of Baylor went from high school coach in Texas to running backs coach at Texas Tech to head coach at Houston. Baylor is now a top-10 program. And Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was 63-8-1 in high school before successfully jumping into college coaching as an offensive coordinator.

“The thing that is exciting is how many guys have made a big impact on the game of college football coming from high school recently,” Sanchez said. “A lot of them didn’t make that straight jump, but they made pretty quick transitions in.”

If his first seven months at UNLV are an indication, Sanchez might be the next Malzahn or Briles, not the next Dodge. Sanchez clearly has won the offseason.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at

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