Mike Sanford the elder – 59-years-old and head coach at FCS school Indiana State – is a one-man band.
“I believe I’m the only guy that has ever left USC to go to Notre Dame or has left Notre Dame to go to USC,” said Sanford, the father of 33-year-old Mike Sanford, Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach.
“I’ve seen it from both sides.”
Both sides indeed. He was a quarterback on the Trojans’ squad when Anthony Davis led a furious second-half comeback to overcome a 24-6 deficit in the Los Angeles Coliseum in ’74. He was an integral part of the kick coverage team in Notre Dame Stadium in ‘75, assisting on a tackle of Vagas Ferguson. He was on the losing end of Notre Dame’s 49-19 “green jersey game” in the 1977 national championship season.
Twenty years later – on the heels of serving as his alma mater’s receivers coach – Sanford came to Notre Dame after being tabbed by first-year head coach Bob Davie to coach quarterbacks in 1997. Sanford spent two seasons in South Bend before a three-year stint in the NFL as the San Diego Chargers’ receivers coach.
The first time the Trojans came to Notre Dame Stadium with Sanford on the Irish staff, he was given a not-so-friendly reminder about the value of allegiances.
“The (USC) band came out and yelled a lot of obscenities at me and called me a traitor,” Sanford laughed.
Sanford’s career also includes a stint as an assistant at Purdue, an offensive coordinator’s role at Stanford, Utah and Louisville, and head-coaching gigs at UNLV and now Indiana State, where the Sycamores went from one to eight victories from Sanford’s first to second year on the job.
“I just signed a five-year extension, so I’m going to be around coaching a long time, God-willing,” Sanford said. “I’m enjoying being a head coach at this level. It’s been great.”
He’s not the only Sanford that’s going to be around the football business for quite some time. His son, who at 32-years-of-age landed the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks job at Boise State, will hold the same position at Notre Dame, the school where his father once coached.
“The interesting thing about that is we keep coming back to Indiana,” Sanford said. “Mike and I have been in Indiana three times.
“When I coached at Purdue, I think he started kindergarten in West Lafayette, and then at Notre Dame, he went to Penn High School. Then I came back to Indiana State and now he’s coming back to Indiana for the third time also.”
The following is the Friday morning interview conducted with Sanford.
(Editor’s note: Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach is not Mike Sanford, Jr. Mike the father’s middle name is Charles; Mike the son’s middle names are Gunnar and William – his grandfathers’ names. Henceforth, Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator will simply be known at Mike Sanford unless otherwise noted.)
TIM PRISTER: From your most objective viewpoint of his abilities as a coach, what do you see in Mike and what makes him such an up-and-comer in this profession?
MIKE SANFORD: No. 1, you’ve got to be committed to what you’re doing and love what you’re doing, and I think he does.
I tried to discourage him from coaching to pursue other things when he was a player at Boise State. But he said he wanted to be a coach, he wanted to start out as a graduate assistant, and I saw a real spark and love for the game and love for coaching when he was a graduate assistant for me at UNLV.
Obviously, he’s very intelligent. Not only does he love the game and is committed to it, but he’s passionate about it. He’s been around a lot of football his whole life. During my coaching career, he was a ball boy when I was at USC and Notre Dame. He’s been around coaches and football. He’s been around a lot of good people and good coaches -- both as a player and as a coach -- who have helped shape him.
Plus, I think he’s got a really good personality and is a great recruiter.
TP: Was he the kind of kid growing up who always wanted to learn the process of coaching and the X’s and O’s?
MS: Early on, he just wanted to be with his dad and I wanted him with me. He came to training camp with me at different places. Whether we stayed in a dorm or stayed some other place, he would stay with me. He was at practice with me all the time.
He started learning the game a little bit by osmosis, not him asking a ton of questions. But he was always observant, always looking. Then he really started getting into the X’s and O’s part of it. It took off when he was at Boise State. He played for Dirk Koetter, who was the head coach when he first got there, and then he was under Chris Petersen, followed by Mark Helfrich. So he played under some good people at Boise State.
TP: How did he deal with the life of a coach’s kid as it pertains to moving from one place to the next?
MS: It’s interesting that you ask that because sometimes that’s the hard thing about being a coach’s kid. I really believe both of our kids – our daughter Lindsay is a Notre Dame graduate – benefitted from the experience. She started at Notre Dame when I started coaching there, and then she finished there. She’s married to a Notre Dame grad and they have three children. They live in San Francisco.
I think it was good for both of my kids. It forced them out of their comfort zone and forced them to make friends and go outside of themselves. It also made our family really close because we really had to rely on each other. I think it turned out being a real positive for our kids because of the way they handled it.
TP: So from a football standpoint, I’m sure you’ve analyzed the way he’s called a game. You’ve got a ton of experience as a play-caller yourself. What do you see as his greatest strengths as a play-caller?
MS: I’ve been really impressed watching him not just as his dad, but as a football coach, with how he’s grown and specifically the (evolution) of his play-calling. I think he has a real feel for it, a real knack for it.
He’s got a good background from his time at Stanford about understanding the importance of running the football and being committed to running the football, but also taking shots at the right time. He has a real good balance of being able to take shots on people at the right time, being aggressive and staying true to the run game. He also has some interesting trick-type plays mixed into the game plan.
TP: So if you were on the other side of the football field from him, what would be the greatest challenge to you as a coach preparing for his play-calling?
MS: Unpredictability would be one thing, and yet there are things you’re going to see that he understands and is committed to in the run game. You’ve got to be ready to defend the ball being thrown down the field several times a game, and I think that changes how people defend you.
TP: What’s been the best, most pertinent advice offered to him along the way as he’s developed into a play-caller?
MS: Always be learning, always be growing, and you’ve never arrived. Always work to be improving, studying in the off-season, and learning everything you can learn. Be around good people, which he’s going to be around in Coach (Brian) Kelly, Coach (Mike) Denbrock and the whole coaching staff there.
TP: What was your reaction when you first heard about Notre Dame’s interest in Mike?
MS: We’ve been working through a lot of opportunities. He’s been involved in other opportunities. I don’t feel comfortable saying what those are, but he’s had other chances and he’s talked to me about those situations. Some of them were really good programs, but they were situations that weren’t the right fit for him and where he is at in his career.
I felt this one was a great fit for him, great timing for him, great people that tie into his background because he has knowledge of the situation. He’s been (around Notre Dame), went to Penn High School, and knows what Notre Dame is all about.
Selfishly as a father, we’re excited to have him three-and-a-half hours away in the state of Indiana with our grandkids.
TP: With the career you’ve chosen, it’s so difficult to stay close to your family as they grow up. This has got to be awesome for you.
MS: I can’t describe how awesome it is.
TP: I’m not sure we’ve read anything about Mike Sanford the younger as a quarterback. What kind of player was he?
MS: Tall but athletic. He’s 6-foot-4, but he was athletic. He loved the X and O part of the game. He was a really smart quarterback. He competed and came very close at Boise State with Jared Zabransky to be the starter. Jared edged him out, and he was the guy that led them to the win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
So Mike was a backup. He was on the headsets signaling plays with Chris Petersen on the other end of the phone, and that was a great experience for developing him as a coach.
TP: So what do you see in the future for the young Mike Sanford?
MS: It’s hard for me to talk about that because I know too much about this profession to talk about anything that’s guaranteed. But I think he has a tremendous future and I’m excited for this opportunity. I think it’s all about where you are right now, and I’m excited for him to be the offensive coordinator and quarterback coach at Notre Dame.
TP: What makes you most proud of your son?
MS: I’m proud of his character, what kind of person he is. I think he made some decisions about some other coaching opportunities for the right reasons. I’m proud of what kind of man he is, what kind of dad he is. I’m proud that his faith is very important to him, and then I’m also very proud of what kind of football coach he is.
The great thing about him is that he cares about the players. He’s in coaching for the right reasons. He loves working with the players and he cares about them. I’m proud of that.
TP: You were a USC guy and then you came to Notre Dame. You obviously have respect for both places. What does it mean to you to see your son coaching at Notre Dame?
MS: It’s tremendous. There’s nothing like it. I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for Notre Dame.
As a kid, I grew up with a (Notre Dame) poster on my wall. I was recruited by Notre Dame. When I came to my decision, Notre Dame was in the mix, along with USC and Stanford. I ended up going to USC, but I had a poster on my wall growing up that Notre Dame sent me, and it was that place above the door of the Basilica that says, “God, Country, Notre Dame.”
I love that and I love what Notre Dame stands for. I’m very excited about my son being a part of that.