“There was a time when sports were a shining beacon of admiration. In the professional world, it has become a moneymaking machine for the owners and players. The scandal indulgent fans, super egos, over paid self-anointed super stars have made a travesty of the sports world. Corporations have destroyed the purity of the game, where profit overrides the sport itself.”
Pat R. O’Malley, letter to the editor, Ann Arbor.com, December 2011.
It’s true. It seems like sports today focuses on athletes in trouble or holding out for more money or about a coach who just signed a contract for ridiculous money. But that’s what makes Indiana State football coach Mike Sanford different. He’s an “old school coach” whose three great passions in life are his faith, his family and football. Even with his many accomplishments throughout his coaching career, Sanford is as down-to-earth and genuine as they come and his reasons for coaching are simple.
“I’ve been coaching football a long time and I love what I do,” Sanford said. “I feel like it is a combination of my job and my passion. It’s what I enjoy doing and it’s what I feel like is my mission in life.”
Sanford’s mission has resulted in success at every stop along his coaching path. The Sycamore faithful can rest assured that their new football coach knows what he’s doing between the goal posts.
Sanford came to Indiana State from Utah State University where he helped guide the Aggies to an 11-2 record and a #18 BCS ranking. He was the offensive coordinator for Urban Meyer at the University of Utah in 2004 when the Utes went 12-0.
He has served as the offensive coordinator at Louisville and Stanford, and was the head football coach at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas after having spent three seasons coaching with the San Diego Chargers in the NFL. Sanford has been an assistant coach at University of Southern California, Long Beach State, VMI and West Point.
He also served an assistant coach at Purdue and Notre Dame, and has maintained some strategic ties with Indiana high school coaches as well as connections that will assist with recruiting in Indiana and the region.
“This is our third time in the state of Indiana,” Sanford said. “When I coached at Purdue in 1987 and 1988, our kids were in elementary school there in West Lafayette. When I was at Notre Dame in 1997-98, our daughter got her degree from there. Our son went to Mishawaka Penn High School and they won the state championship in football.”
A former student-athlete himself, Sanford played quarterback at USC and was a part of its 1974 National Championship team.
As impressive as Sanford’s football résumé is, it’s his personality, demeanor and sincerity that really stand out. He admits his great love for the game of football, but it pales in comparison to his relationship with Christ and the love he has for his family.
Sanford has been married to his wife Melinda as long as he has been coaching – 36 years – and together they have two children and four granddaughters. His summer consisted of recruiting, camps and getting ready for the season but he did get a little down time. He and Melinda spent much of the month of July in California with family and more importantly, babysitting their granddaughters.
Sycamore Athletics Director Ron Prettyman knew exactly what he was getting when he hired Sanford in December.
“Coach Mike Sanford is a man of integrity and character and that’s very important to me in the leadership of our athletics department,” Prettyman said. “I’ve known Coach Sanford for a long time, both socially and professionally. I’ve watched his career and we’ve talked off the cuff several times about having the opportunity to work together somewhere in our careers. When our opportunity came up and Mike showed a level of interest, he was certainly someone I was interested in. Through the interview process, we got to know each other better and it just confirmed that he was the right man for the job. His experience as a football coach, both at the collegiate level and in the professional ranks, has prepared him to be successful at Indiana State.”
What better way to get to know Coach Sanford than his owns words…
Questions and Answers with Coach Mike Sanford
Why do you coach?
I would say it’s the relationships with the kids and the coaches that you develop over a period of time and the opportunity you have as a coach to have an influence on young men for good. I have an on-the-field mission and an off-the-field mission. My on-the-field mission is to win a Missouri Valley Conference championship, go to the playoffs and win a national championship. Trent Miles did an excellent job with this program to get it to this point and I want to take it to the next level and that next step would be a championship. Off-the-field, the first thing I feel very strong about is making sure our guys get their degrees and helping them along that process and putting them in a position where they’re successful academically. I want to improve our team GPA. I think it is at 2.85 right now and our goal is to get it above a 3.0, which people don’t realize is a very good GPA for football because you have so many guys.
Tell us about the coaching staff
It’s a great situation. Myself included, we have some older coaches on our staff and then we have a lot of young coaches. I feel a calling, mission to help them be better coaches, better husbands, better fathers, better men and I also feel that same thing for developing that in our players. Helping them be better men and eventually better husbands and fathers down the road. Nowadays, I really believe there is a crisis in leadership, integrity, and commitment of men and I want to help them, mentor them and educate them to be better and stronger in those areas.
How would you describe your coaching style?
I think coaching football is not exactly, but similar, to being a father. In my opinion, through experience, study, research, but more than anything experience, to be a good parent, you have to have a good balance of discipline, being tough on your kids, being demanding, putting high expectations on them on the one hand and then balancing that with love, caring, concern. Letting them know that you really care about them. That’s also my style as a coach. You put high expectations on them and high goals and high standards and you have to have discipline and boundaries for them to operate with but you also want to have a healthy coach-player relationship and really get to know them.
Coaching is different than it was maybe 10-15 years ago in that you, as a coach, are expected not only to coach them as players, put a good product on the field, help them to graduate, have a good APR (academic progress rate), all of those things, but you’re also expected not to have issues and problems with your players and that’s very important to me. On the front end, you try to make it a positive and help develop them as men, but the other part of that is you’ve got to be very involved with them, get to know them, know who they’re hanging out with, how they’re living, what they’re doing. And that’s uncomfortable sometimes for some coaches and sometimes uncomfortable for players, but you have to be involved with them. A good parent has to be involved with their kids and know what they’re doing, with whom they’re hanging out and what the negative and positive influences are that are going to take them either way. And there’s a whole balancing act there.
What are your interests outside of coaching?
I’m not very good and I don’t play enough, but I like to play golf. I enjoy golf. I really enjoy being with my family. I really enjoy hanging out with my wife. We are really good friends. We have a good balance of husband-wife love and friendship. I just like hanging out with her. I like going to the beach. I like the mountains. I ski a little bit but I am not very good, once again, because I don’t do it enough.
Where are your favorite places to visit?
My wife and I met and went to school at the University of Southern California so we are southern California people. We have a timeshare property that we always go to in Newport Beach and that’s where our family goes and that’s a cool place. The other place we love to go is as a result of coaching at the University of Utah and Utah State. We fell in love with Park City, Utah. My dad was a maintenance supervisor for Pan American Airlines and so we went to Hawaii a lot and so I really like Hawaii. And then my wife and I took a trip to Italy and we loved it.
What is your greatest coaching memory?
I have two. The first one would be my first year back at USC when we went to the Rose Bowl in 1989. It was Bo Schembechler’s last game at Michigan and we beat them. My second would be the whole year and experience at Utah in 2004 when we went undefeated and ended up either 3rd or 4th in the nation.
What can fans expect from the Sycamores this season?
My desire would be a team that loves to play the game, plays with a lot of enthusiasm and excitement and not only starts well, but finishes well. I want us to be a fast-playing team, not only tempo-wise between plays, but during plays to play fast. I want to have a balance of being complicated enough where we are hard to go against but simple enough where our guys can play fast and go fast. That’s how I would like to see our team this year.
Tina Dechausay formerly worked for ISU Athletics.