Kragthorpe: Mike Sanford blends in well with USU football staff
Mike Sanford was unbeatable in his last season at Utah and was judged unsuccessful at subsequent stops. He's probably overqualified for his current role, and he's overjoyed to be performing in it.
That pretty much covers the past eight years of Sanford's life, a period that accounts for only about one-fourth of his football coaching career. He's working with Utah State's running backs and tight ends, hardly a glamorous job description.
Actually, that's what he likes about it.
"This has been really fun for me," Sanford said, standing on the Romney Stadium field after a recent practice. "I've really enjoyed the hands-on coaching. It's kind of like how I first got into this profession and what I love about this profession, and I'm having an opportunity to do it right now."
Sanford tends to be the overlooked figure of Utah's coaching staff of 2004, when the Utes went 12-0. That's because coach Urban Meyer largely was credited with the offensive scheme and quarterbacks coach Dan Mullen accompanied Meyer to Florida and helped win two national championships, then became Mississippi State's coach.
Yet Sanford was the Utes' offensive coordinator and play-caller for those two seasons, credentials that earned him the UNLV job. He went 16-43 in five years with the Rebels, although he came much closer to producing a turnaround than those numbers suggest. UNLV was 5-7 in each of his last two seasons.
"I mean, we were right there to go to a bowl game and get it over the hump, but we just didn't," he said. "That was very, very frustrating."
Then came his unusual tenure as Louisville's offensive coordinator. In October, Sanford was forced out during his second season. Let's just say those Utah, UNLV and Louisville eras defy any common categorizing, except for adding to Sanford's experience.
"You can't let the past affect you negatively or positively, either way," he said. "You've got to deal with where you are."
Which is in Logan, united with USU coach Gary Andersen, the defensive line coach of the '04 Utes. Sanford, 57, filled the Aggies' vacancy when running backs coach Ilaisa Tuiaki joined Utah's staff. Those hirings created an intriguing contrast. Only three of Utah's nine assistant coaches have worked at other Football Bowl Subdivision schools (USU, Idaho and San Diego State). Sanford himself has coached at Army, VMI, Long Beach State, Purdue, USC, Notre Dame, Stanford, Utah, UNLV and Louisville, in addition to the San Diego Chargers.
That experience makes him valuable to Matt Wells, USU's first-year offensive coordinator. Sanford's apparent lack of ego makes his advice even more welcomed.
"He's very, very insightful â¦ but he doesn't push anything," Wells said. "Really, I knew it was going to be a good situation, but he's better than advertised. A lot of guys I talked to have tremendous respect for him, but it's even better than I thought it would be."
As a position coach, Sanford is being asked to develop replacements for running backs Robert Turbin and Michael Smith, drafted into the NFL. The Aggies have a potential star in Kerwynn Williams, and Joe Hill and Robert Marshall are improving in an effort to provide depth. Sanford believes he's joining USU's program at just the right time, and this will be an interesting season for him.
He'll have reunions with Utah and UNLV in Logan, while trying to extend his run of success with Andersen. In '04 with the Utes, Sanford became impressed with Andersen, and is not surprised by his impact in Logan. After all, Sanford said, "We're unbeaten together."