UNLV is not an easy place to win football games. Since 1990, UNLV has employed five head football coaches. Those five gentlemen, including one who won a previous mythical national championship at Southern Cal and one who produced an absurd winning percentage at FCS Montana prior to arriving on The Strip, produced a cumulative record of 89-205. For those new to college football, winning less than a third of your games is not typically the hallmark of a successful program. Their last three coaches have included an eventual College Football Hall of Fame inductee who won five Pac-10 titles and posted a 104-35-4 mark in two separate stints at Southern Cal, the offensive coordinator of a BCS buster, and what appeared to be an up-and-coming coach from the FCS level. Now the Rebels have gone where (almost) no team has gone before and hired a coach straight out of
Tony Sanchez has accomplished nearly everything at the high school level. Coaching at Bishop Gorman High School (in Nevada), he won a state title in each of his six seasons. Noticing his great success, and in need of a head football coach, UNLV hired him to lead their program in December.
It is not unprecedented for successful high school coaches to transition to successful coaches at the FBS level. Art Briles and Gus Malzahn spring to mind as two former high school coaches who have enjoyed great success at the FBS level as well. However, both Briles and Malzahn began their FBS careers as assistants. Based on my research, the only coach in the last decade to jump straight from the high school ranks to an FBS coaching position prior to Tony Sanchez was Todd Dodge. Like Sanchez, Dodge was an uber-successful high school coach. Dodge coached Southlake Carroll High School in Texas to three consecutive state titles in the 5A classification before heading to North Texas prior to the 2007 season. The Mean Green had fallen on hard times, winning just five games in the two years preceding Dodge’s arrival, but they had experienced success in the not too distant past, winning four consecutive Sun Belt titles from 2001-2004 in the first four years of the conference. Dodge’s arrival did not produce a renaissance. In three and half years, his teams won just six of 43 games and finished with a 3-23 Sun Belt record.
So the track record for high school coaches moving directly from Friday Night Lights to the top spot of an FBS program is both short and uninspiring. A sample size of one doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what to expect. In the absence of a good sample, let’s take a look at how UNLV performed the past four seasons under head coach Bobby Hauck relative to their conference brethren in terms of record, Yards per Play (YPP), Yards per Play Allowed (YPA), Net Yards per Play (YPP Net), Offensive Touchdowns (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). The number in parentheses is UNLV’s ranking within the Mountain West.
How will Tony Sanchez do at UNLV? Your guess is as good as mine. He has not been on a college football staff since 1996 when he was a student assistant at New Mexico State. UNLV is obviously taking a big risk in hiring a high school coach to lead their program. However, a team like UNLV needs to take risks. If Sanchez fails, so what? He will be in lockstep with pretty much every other coach the Rebels have had. Instead of hiring a retread (see Turner, Ron) or a hot young coordinator (see McElwain, Jim), the Rebels took a chance on a local high school coach with a great track record (in high school of course). If nothing else, UNLV will likely give Sanchez plenty of time to succeed. Mike Sanford won two games each of his first three seasons and was allowed to stay for five years. Bobby Hauck did about the same, winning two games during each of his first three seasons without being fired. In fact, he was not even let go after the disappointing 2014 campaign as he submitted his own resignation. What college team could be more conducive to taking a big risk than one housed in Las Vegas? Sanchez may not succeed, but if nothing else, the Rebels have tried something different.