UNLV head football coach Tony Sanchez fell in love with New Mexico when he lived in the Land of Enchantment for eight years.
He played as a wide receiver at New Mexico State for two seasons, 1994 and 1995. He was in New Mexico long enough to grow a preference for green chile and wanting an egg on top of almost every meal.
But after his 2003 season as defensive coordinator at Oñate High School, Sanchez said he took “a leap of faith,” to coach at California High in San Ramon, the Bay Area of the Golden State, his original home.
“I knew I wanted to be a head coach,” Sanchez said in a phone interview with the Journal on Wednesday. “I felt like I needed to be in a high-profile area.”
Sanchez, 44, acknowledges that it was a bold move back then. Oñate won the 4A state title in 2002 with head coach Kelly McKee.
“Sometimes you go with your gut,” he said.
Sanchez knows that decision paid off as the California coaching job led to his big-time prep gig at Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, Nev., and then to where he is now, in his fourth season as head coach at UNLV. He believes this can be his best year yet with the Rebels (2-2), who play host to New Mexico (2-2) on Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.
Sanchez always wants to beat the Lobos, going back to his days as an Aggie. He went 0-2 against UNM, but he points out that he had a great game his senior year when he went for five catches, two of them for touchdowns.
That was among his great memories at NMSU, where he decided he would become a football coach. He worked as a graduate assistant for Jim Hess and stayed on the Aggies’ staff when Hess was replaced by Tony Samuel, who is the current defensive line coach for UNLV. The Rebels’ coaching staff also includes offensive coordinator Barney Cotton, who served in that same role at NMSU, 1997-2002. Longtime Sanchez friend Sean Manuel is the Rebels’ strength and conditioning coach. Sanchez and Manuel played football together at NMSU.
Coaching wasn’t so steady early on for Sanchez in New Mexico.
He took a one-year hiatus and worked as a salesman for a copypaper-machine company. He said he did well but missed football.
Sanchez said he never really thought he would become an NCAA Division I coach, and that he had planned to be a high school coach and special education teacher. He says the path has been a blessing.
Now he’s at the peak of his coaching career and UNLV has improved each year since he has arrived — three wins in his first year, four in his second and five last year.
Sanchez is now saying the Rebels are capable of reaching a bowl game this season and can contend for a MWC West Division title. Sanchez still believes, even after his starting quarterback, Armani Rogers, went down with a toe injury and will miss the next six weeks. Rogers led UNLV to a 2-2 record, with wins over UTEP and Prairie View A&M. He is No. 8 in the nation in rushing with 122 yards per game.
But Sanchez has confidence in Rogers’ replacement Max Gilliam, a Cal signee who starred at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., before going to UNLV. Gilliam is not the runner Rogers is but Gilliam can do some things that Rogers could not, Sanchez said.
“Max is a good football player,” Sanchez said. “He’s going to be just fine. Nothing is going to be easy in conference. The margin of victory is so small. It’s possible (for UNLV to make a bowl game).”