Andrea Canales 435d

Passion for football -- UNLV football -- drives coach Tony Sanchez

UNLV coach Tony Sanchez understands that he's unusual in the world of college football.

"I'm proud of the fact that there's not many people with my last name in this profession, especially doing what I'm doing right now," Sanchez said. "If that influences anybody, inspires anybody, that's great. Doesn't make me better than anyone else, but it's a good thing if it inspires people."

Sanchez, who is of Puerto Rican descent on his father's side, isn't merely unique for his Hispanic heritage, however. He is also one of the few college coaches to make the jump from high school coaching straight into a top job in the college ranks. However, as prestigious as it may be to coach at the NCAA level, Sanchez wasn't given an easy task.

"When I took over this team, you could argue that I took over the worst program in America," Sanchez said. In the four years previous to his arrival, the team only won 13 games, losing 38. Despite having little time to recruit before the 2015 season began, Sanchez led the Rebels to a 3-9 record in his first season. The team has won only twice so far this season, but has been far more competitive. "Our whole thing is keep perspective on progress," Sanchez said.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal has already raised its expectations, with columnist Ed Graney writing recently that the city's fans are demanding better from the UNLV team. "They play hard enough. They just don't execute all that well. They're young in numerous spots, and yet that explanation for losing has a shelf life that will quickly expire. Nobody wants to hear it, because if players are on the field, it's assumed they're capable of performing," Graney wrote of the team.

One bright spot has been improved recruiting, though the new players are still so youthful, their potential may take a while to reach.

"Last year, we had the best recruiting class in school history," Sanchez explained, listing the program's advances in his rapid-fire delivery that exemplifies both his energy and enthusiasm for whatever he cares about. "We've already fixed some of our facilities up and they look much better. We're feeding our kids better with the new nutritionist that we've hired. We've added to our strength training. Our kids have a lot more than they’ve ever had. So they're excited about it. They're also excited about the future."

To Sanchez, keeping his players inspired to play football is a key mission.

"We have a passionate group of kids who love the game. They've having fun playing it and there's some swagger involved there, and when they enjoy the process of what's going on, then you've got a real opportunity for success." Sanchez said. "Every organization has a culture. Our culture is going to be hard work, determination, great messaging, seeing things through. But there's always going to be the element of enjoyment, loving what you do, being passionate about it, working hard, having that common goal, and everybody being excited and fired up about it."

His time spent with his father's side of the family in New York helped foster a sense of the importance of culture.

"Before my grandma passed, we used to spend a decent amount of time there," Sanchez said. "It is such a beautiful culture, very family-oriented, from the music, to the food, to the family atmosphere. It made a big impact."

When it comes to football, however, Sanchez looked outside his family to learn the game.

"I didn't have a dad who played [American football]. My mom was from England, so she was a big soccer fan. I watched some of my buddies and I always wanted to play, and finally, when I got into seventh grade, I talked my mom into letting me play and just went out there and figured it out."

One crucial football development element that Sanchez did receive from his father, Fred, was due to work location, close to where the Oakland Raiders played.

"He was an Oakland police officer," explained Sanchez. "Obviously, we grew up big Raider fans. I spent a ton of time watching Raider games. Tim Brown was a hero of mine growing up. I was always a big Raider fan. That was kind of my hook into football, watching the Raiders growing up."

Sanchez was good enough as a wide receiver, the same position as his hero Brown, to play through college. He started coaching at the high school level the same year he graduated from New Mexico State, 1998.

Sanchez could end up close to the Raiders again, since the franchise may relocate to Las Vegas. Sanchez is thrilled at the possibility, which he views as beneficial for the Raiders and UNLV.

"To have a $1.9 billion stadium here, a new NFL franchise -- the town becomes even more jacked up about football. That becomes our home stadium, too," Sanchez said. "It won't do anything but help us."

Whether or not that happens, Sanchez is focused on the task at hand. Though he was a proven winner many times over as a high school coach, especially with his years of success at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, the college game is a new challenge.

"The biggest adjustment would be doing the 24, 365 of recruiting," Sanchez noted. "That and the fundraising."

Instructing his players about the game of football has been the familiar aspect of the role.

"We're developing them, working with strength and conditioning, making sure we're doing a good job of diet and nutrition, that we're doing a good job of teaching them the X's and O's, and helping them mature and evolve as athletes," Sanchez stated. "It's funny, because here I actually have a lot more help than I've ever had in my life. You come to college and you're not doing as much because there's a whole staff helping you out with it."

A whole community, actually, since Sanchez believes strongly in collaborative effort.

"There were a lot of people who already knew me from town, knew what I was about," Sanchez said of getting the Greater Las Vegas area to rally behind the Rebels as they rebuild. "They've been so supportive of me. It's just getting more community more engaged, involved and showing up to games. We're at record levels of fundraising right now. There's a lot we had to get done here. That's why we branded everything with Las Vegas, to show we appreciate the community and playing in it."

Sanchez, who goes out of his way to engage local media with regular news conferences and interviews, sees his coaching role as one that is dependent on his communication skills.

"The essence of leadership is influence. Can you influence those around you to have the same common goals and work in a positive direction?" Sanchez stated. "Whether that's communicating to recruits why this is a great opportunity and a place you should spend your time; whether that's communicating to your kids why it's so important to attack the weight room and eat right, manage the academic environment, and what we're trying to get done and accomplish on Saturday afternoons and evenings. You have to be a great communicator and you have to be a great leader."

Although Sanchez has been working as a head coach for some time now, he has taken tips from a number of coaches who have offered advice and lessons as mentors. He has also been open to guidance from outside the world of football, including Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta of UFC fame, who live in the area. Sanchez has high hopes for his team's future, yet he is putting his main focus on the remainder of the season. With upcoming games against the likes of San Diego State (televised on ESPNU), it won't get easier for UNLV.

"The biggest goal is the immediacy of this season and helping these young men win as many football games as possible so they can get into a bowl game," Sanchez said.

The importance of reaching that objective won't stop Sanchez from reveling in both the opportunity he has at UNLV and the joy of being a key part of the game of football, which he has loved since childhood.

"It's the greatest game in the history of the world," Sanchez said with conviction. "It's a serious game; there's people that get hired and fired, but at the end of the day, we all got into this because we love the game."

Read the Spanish-language version of this story here. Also, join One NaciĆ³n for a special that will air on Oct. 12 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.

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