Few can offer a more qualified opinion of Mike Sanford than Brian Polian.
The former Notre Dame assistant spent a season coaching with Sanford on the Stanford staff under David Shaw. Polian, who just finished his second season as the head coach at Nevada, also schemed against Sanford during his debut fall as offensive coordinator at Boise State.
The two remain close and Sanford used Polian as a sounding board in weighing a move to South Bend. From Polian’s perspective, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would be making an inspired hire in Sanford, the son of former Notre Dame assistant Mike Sanford Sr.
“I think they’re getting a really good offensive football mind,” Polian said. “One of the great things about Mike, if you look at the offense he worked in at Stanford and the offense he ran at Boise State, you can see that he’s not married to one single scheme. He’s a guy that’s flexible.
“Obviously, Notre Dame runs Brian’s offense and everybody knows that, but Mike is intelligent enough and flexible enough to learn the offense and the places where he’ll be able to influence it, he will. He has a wealth of knowledge.”
Before moving to Boise State as offensive coordinator last season, Sanford spent the previous three years on staff at Stanford, coaching running backs, quarterbacks and receivers. He also served as the Cardinal recruiting coordinator for two seasons before returning to Boise, his alma mater.
Sanford broke into coaching at Yale (tight ends/fullbacks) in 2009, spending one season there before moving to Western Kentucky (quarterbacks) the following season. He joined the Stanford staff the following season.
Polian, who ranked among Notre Dame’s top recruiters during his five years at Notre Dame, gave Sanford a stamp of approval in chasing talent too. Polian actually preceded Sanford as the Cardinal recruiting coordinator and they collaborated in assembling the program’s Top 10 class of 2012.
“I think you’re getting a very successful energetic recruiter,” Polian said. “In this day and age, that’s as big a deal as anything else. He’s high energy. Relates well to kids, parents, high school coaches. He’s a bulldog about recruiting, turns over every stone, not going to be out-worked.”
Polian got a detailed view of Sanford’s development the past two seasons by coaching against a Boise State program with Sanford and also without. Two years ago Boise State beat Nevada with its backup quarterback, run-first approach and conservative pass game. The Broncos threw for just 150 yards.
A season later with Sanford on board, Boise State quarterback Grant Hedrick developed into more than a run game complement. In a 51-46 win over Nevada, Hedrick completed 26-of-31 passes for 346 yards and two scores. The run game also went for 224 yards and four scores.
“What he did very successfully at Boise State, he combined a lot of the run and play action concepts that he liked at Stanford, melded it to head coach Bryan Harsin, who came up as an offensive coordinator himself,” Polian said. “It takes a unique person to be able to combine those offenses together. I was impressed.
“I thought they were creative, not only in the pass game, but in the run game as well. They did a really nice job getting the ball to their playmakers in space. Shoot, a year earlier that quarterback was a backup and he led them to a Fiesta Bowl win.”
Polian also believes Sanford can cope with the expectations at Notre Dame, which carry national weight. Sanford’s father coached Irish quarterbacks (1996-98) and is now the head coach at Indiana State.
“He understands the pressure cooker that he’s going into,” Polian said. “I don’t think it will bother him. I think he’ll know the community well, and that’s advantageous for him. He’s not a guy who seeks the limelight, so no concern there.”