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UNLV rolls the dice with Tony Sanchez

LAS VEGAS -- Tony Sanchez didn't need a history lesson in UNLV football when he agreed to become the school's new head coach. Sanchez was coming from Bishop Gorman High, a local prep powerhouse that he built into arguably the top high school football program in the country, so he was already well-versed in the Rebels' ability to lower the bar for the past 20 years.

However, there is one thing he always wondered: Why has Las Vegas itself, a place people flock to from all over the world, been perceived as a negative by past coaching staffs?

"You look what people have tried to hide so much, the Strip, and I just don't get it," Sanchez said.

Rather than keep recruits and their parents away from the Strip, it's the first place Sanchez takes them, specifically the High Roller, which bills itself as the world's tallest observation wheel. As the city's best views come into sight, Sanchez extols the socioeconomic opportunities Las Vegas has to offer, and draws on his own personal experience to explain why he thinks Vegas is a special place.

The son of a Puerto Rican father and an English mother, Sanchez is a rarity as a Latino head coach at the FBS level, and his story is vastly different than the one told by his predecessors. Unlike them, Sanchez was all in on Vegas well before UNLV came calling. Nearly seven years ago, he left a stable situation coaching football and teaching special education at a high school outside San Francisco, near where he grew up, and moved with his wife and two children to the desert.

At Gorman, a private Catholic school just outside Vegas, Sanchez went 85-5 in six seasons, winning a state championship in every season while becoming a prep fixture on national television. The Gaels finished the 2014 season ranked No. 1 in the country in most high school rankings. Thirty-four of his players received college scholarships -- 25 to FBS programs -- and he oversaw the construction of a football facility that would compare favorably with facilities in the Mountain West Conference, and put UNLV's to shame.

"Coming off a national championship, the stars kind of aligned for this to work out for Tony," said Rebels offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, whom Sanchez has called a mentor for nearly 20 years. "At this point in time, he was the perfect fit. Rather than trying to hide Vegas, we embrace Vegas. Tony is absolutely embracing Vegas."

The hope is that, in turn, that embrace will be reciprocated.

"UNLV truly should be Las Vegas' team and I don't know if that's really been done before," Sanchez said. "And a lot of changing that has to be getting out in caravans, speaking at Rotary Clubs, throwing out first pitches at Little League games and really going out and doing a lot of community outreach with myself, my coaches and our players to let everyone know that we don't want to be this separate entity. We truly want to be a community school.

"There's 2 million people here and a great tradition with basketball that shows the type of support this community is capable of providing. Honestly, in the past there hasn't been a commitment from the community or the university [to football]. There have been a lot of well-wishers, but I don't know how many people have really helped this program step forward. And that's where we're going to challenge everyone."

If Sanchez is successful, what will be most remarkable is not how he's able to conjure support from a historically apathetic fan base -- the Rebels drew just 15,674 fans per game at Sam Boyd Stadium last season -- but that he will be defying a trend that has always ended in failure.

Since 1974, only three other high school coaches have been hired as head coaches at what is now the FBS level, but only one -- Todd Dodge, who went 6-37 at North Texas from 2007-10-- occurred in the past 30 years. Sanchez hopes to succeed where Dodge failed by assembling a veteran staff, especially in key roles.

Dodge brought four coaches from his high school staff, and made two of them coordinators. Sanchez tapped Cotton, most recently the interim head coach at Nebraska after Bo Pelini's firing, to the run the offense, and Kent Baer, who has held nine other FBS defensive coordinator posts, to run the defense. The only holdover from his staff at Gorman is quarterbacks coach Ron O'Dell, who was Aaron Rodgers' high school quarterback coach and mentored Arizona's Anu Solomon at Gorman.

"He ran kind of a college program at the high school level," said UCLA coach Jim Mora, who signed receiver Cordell Broadus, the son of Snoop Dogg, out of Gorman in February. "He was advanced in the way he did things and the way he processed the game, taught the game, the expectations he had for his players, the facilities. I got to watch him a lot and it was very impressive. I don't think the transition will be as drastic as it would be for some others. I think Tony is very qualified to be doing what he's doing."

Sanchez, whose only previous experience coaching college football was as an undergraduate assistant at New Mexico State, where he played for two seasons, would have been nearly an impossible sell at most FBS programs, but not at UNLV, which has won just two games in eight of the previous 11 seasons. It also helps that former high school coaches have recently gone on to lead successful FBS programs. Auburn's Gus Malzahn, Baylor's Art Briles and Arizona State's Todd Graham may have worked as assistants before becoming head coaches, but their success has helped diminish the stigma Sanchez may have otherwise faced.

Malzahn thinks Sanchez will handle the transition just fine.

"I think his background [at Gorman] will definitely help him from the standpoint that he was already at a high-profile school. A team that was one of the best in the country and on national TV and everything that goes with that," Malzahn said. "Being a head coach [in college] feels exactly the same way as it felt in high school as far as dealing with your players and getting ready for practice and games and all that. The football is all the same."

What drew UNLV's interest wasn't just that Sanchez won. It's how he went about winning. His energy was infectious and the city took notice. Games were so well-attended that Fertitta Field, a football-only stadium named in honor of billionaire donors UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta and his brother Frank, underwent an expansion. In some of the well-to-do social circles in Las Vegas, Gorman football registered as far more relevant than UNLV.

"I was able to talk to some really wonderful people in college that could do really well in college football, but not necessarily in Vegas," UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said. "Two head coaches that had a lot of success, but it kept coming back to how to change the culture. We've had good coaches. Why did they fail? I don't have the magic bullet or magic answer, but it I kept going back to Tony."

The more people she introduced him to, the more sure she became he was the right fit. Ten minutes after Sanchez walked out following his introductory meeting with Kunzer-Murphy and Don Snyder, the school's interim president, Snyder looked at her and said, "We have to hire this guy."

She introduced him to her husband, a former high school football coach, and the response was the same: "He's the real deal."

Before the hire could become official, incoming president Dr. Len Jessup needed to sign off and when Snyder brought up Sanchez as a candidate, Jessup, a big sports fan who said he was introduced to the UNLV brand through the Jerry Tarkanian-coached basketball teams of the late 1980s, already was aware of what Sanchez built at Gorman.

Jessup, who previously had served as the dean of the Eller College of Management at Arizona, went to Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne, with whom he shares a close relationship, and a few members of Rich Rodriguez's football staff in Tucson to gather a few more opinions.

"They all said not many people had made the jump [from high school to college] successfully, but if anybody could, he could," Jessup said. "They thought he was stellar. 'You ought to go for him, he's a good bet.' They had just recruited [quarterback] Anu Solomon from [Gorman], so they knew the program really well and all gave him a thumbs up -- as a good guy and as a very successful coach."

In Vegas that has never been enough, but that's part of the appeal of a long shot, and here they know that better than anyone.