When Chad Klunder -- Notre Dame associate athletics director for football operations -- contacted Boise State offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford shortly after the conclusion of the 2015 recruiting campaign, he caught him at his family’s home-away-from-home in Park City, Utah.
Sanford was unwinding from the grind that is a recruiting campaign.
Klunder was calling to gauge Sanford’s interest in replacing Matt LaFleur as quarterbacks coach and becoming Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator. Sanford told Klunder he was vacationing with his family out West.
Interesting, mused Klunder, Coach Kelly and his family are out West now as well. Whereabouts was Kelly, Sanford wondered.
“Park City, Utah,” Klunder responded.
It didn’t take long for business to mix with pleasure. Likewise, it didn’t take Sanford long to decide that despite his great comfort zone at his alma mater in Boise, there was one place on the college football map that was, to the Sanford family, like no other.
“We were ‘throwing chalk’ and talking football,” laughed Sanford of his meeting with Kelly. “It was like a football clinic. It was great. I knew during the time we spent together talking football that it was going to be a great fit.
“I’m always trying to be around people I can learn from and I can have great discourse with. Good conversations and rational, logical thinking, and I had a chance to get that from Coach Kelly.”
Of course, Kelly had an advantage in his pursuit of Sanford. Sanford had spent the middle years of his high school days in South Bend, the son of then-Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford the eldest.
Other schools were pursuing the 33-year-old phenom, including Ohio State. Head coach Urban Meyer had his own ‘in’ with Sanford since his father had served as Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Utah.
Sanford had no intention of leaving Boise State after his first year as an offensive coordinator/play-caller, even when Meyer came calling. But the Notre Dame job was different.
“This Notre Dame thing came out of nowhere, and when I first heard about it, I had a different reaction because it’s Notre Dame,” Sanford said.
“Knowing that this place stands for something I want to be a part of – elite academics, a chance to explore from a spiritual standpoint, which is very important to me in my life, and then this is the Mecca of college football – I was quite excited when this opportunity came up. There was something inside me that felt different than any other job that had been out there.”
What a coincidence. Kelly was thinking along similarly regarding Sanford.
“We were looking at bringing in the best and the brightest,” Kelly said. “Mike Sanford was clearly a cut above everybody that we looked at.
“Mike Denbrock and I talked about it. We didn’t want somebody to be equal; we wanted somebody that was going to turn that room upside down, that was that good. We weren’t going to settle for somebody on the same plane. We wanted somebody that was going to challenge us on a day-to-day basis, and Mike does that.”
It’s no wonder Sanford – who first became a recruiting coordinator at Yale at the age of 26, and then coordinated Stanford’s recruiting efforts before he turned 30 – is considered one of the brightest young minds in the game and one of the most effective in-home recruiters in the country.
“As we got a chance to think about it, we wanted to bring somebody in here that is going to keep us on our toes,” Kelly said. “Somebody that is going to bring that room up to a level and is going to create synergy and energy that is going to make everybody better.”
Sanford took a productive Boise State offense and made it better following an 8-5 season in 2013, which, at Boise, is the equivalent of a losing season. Enter Sanford, who made quarterback Grant Hedrick considerably more productive and capped a 10-2 season in 2014 with a victory over Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.
The root of Sanford’s effectiveness is in his intelligence, his ability to communicate and his football background.
“I’ve had a pretty diverse background offensively,” Sanford said. “I’ve been around some spread offenses. My dad had the coordinator job at Utah under Urban Meyer. That was, at the time, revolutionary stuff. Triple-option offense from the shotgun hadn’t been done back in the early 2000s. I had a chance to GA in that offense (at UNLV).
“Then I went to Stanford. The biggest thing that I found is that to play championship football, a lot of times it comes down to who runs the football the best, and then who makes the explosive plays down the field in the throwing game.”
Combine the two philosophies and you have the makings of an offensive attack that is cutting edge because it offers such a full spectrum of things for which a defense must prepare.
“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,” said Sanford’s father, who has been a FBS head coach and offensive coordinator, and just made a seven-game improvement (from one victory to eight) at FCS Indiana State.
“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, be aggressive and stay true to the run game.”
Kelly has left the door open as to who would handle the play-calling in the fall. Sanford doesn’t seem too concerned about how it will all shake out.
“I enjoyed the highs and lows and growth of being a play-caller this season, but (Boise State head coach) Bryan Harsin was very involved having been an offensive coordinator,” Sanford said. “Both of us are former quarterbacks at Boise State.
“I just want to contribute in any way I can to Notre Dame. I know that’s the company line, but I want to help enhance this offense and hopefully find the best ways to do things. I’m not all that concerned about all the other stuff. I want to win a championship. I don’t think it’s a story. I think it’s going to happen organically as time goes on.”
Spend a few minutes listening to Sanford talk about selling the Notre Dame program to recruits and it’s no wonder Kelly targeted him as his No. 1 choice for the position.
“I love that part of being at Notre Dame, that you can legitimately and honestly look a kid in the eye and say, ‘You will get a football experience that will change your life,’” Sanford said.
“On the flip side, I can say we’re going to give you an opportunity to get a degree that is life-changing and will create an unbelievable network, whatever endeavor you choose. The power of that monogram is strong, not just in the football environment but in the real-world environment after football.”
Priority No. 1 for Sanford is developing his quarterbacks, particularly Everett Golson, who is the only signalcaller on the roster in his final year of eligibility.
“I want this to be the greatest year of his career at Notre Dame from the standpoint of personal, physical and football growth,” Sanford said. “I want him to leave this season and feel, ‘That was awesome!’
“That’s the most important job of a coach: to develop players. That’s what I take the most pride in. My biggest challenge and opportunity is to develop this group.”
He appears to have all the tools to do just that.