LAS VEGAS — The Gaels of Bishop Thomas K. Gorman High School in Las Vegas boast the nation's top-ranked high-school football program, according to USA Today. The winner of six straight Nevada state championships, Bishop Gorman continued its historic streak with a 70-28 state championship game rout of Reno-based Reed High School on Dec. 6.
The architect for the school’s gridiron success, head coach Tony Sanchez, 40, was officially announced Dec. 18 as the new head coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), an NCAA Division I school just 11 miles down the road from Gorman.
One of two Catholic high schools in the entire state, Gorman has become a seedbed for future NCAA and likely NFL players. The team’s national exposure has helped lure the sons of celebrities, athletes and billionaires alike from across the country. Among the star players on the 2014 team include Biaggio Ali Walsh (grandson of boxing legend Muhammad Ali), Cordell Broadus (son of rapper Snoop Dogg) and Nicco Fertitta (son of billionaire entrepreneur Lorenzo Fertitta).
A devout Catholic, Sanchez won six state titles in six seasons and posted an 85-5 record in his time at Bishop Gorman. He’s believed to be one of four NCAA Division I head football coaches in 40 years to make the rare jump from high school to college head coach, as most high-school coaches start out as college assistants.
Sanchez, whose 2014 Bishop Gorman team played more nationally televised games on ESPN than UNLV this season, also produced 25 NCAA Division I scholarship players at programs like Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon, with as many as 11 graduating players from this year’s Gorman team expecting to sign national letters of intent in early 2015.
Just one day after his official UNLV hiring, Sanchez spoke with Register correspondent Chris Kudialis on his success at Gorman, the importance of faith in leadership and teaching Catholic values in a secular environment.
When you started at Bishop Gorman High School six years ago, did you ever imagine this turning into a college head-coaching job?
Yes, absolutely. I talked to coaches in the past about opportunities. I turned down some assistant-coaching jobs because I thought one day this would be an opportunity. I didn’t know which route it would come in and how it would transpire, but it’s something I had been preparing for and thinking about. And that’s one of the reasons I was able to put together a staff so fast. It wasn’t something all brand new or even overwhelming. It’s something I had thought about for a number of years.
At Gorman, you had a lot of celebrities’ sons on your teams and families at your games. Though the exposure can be beneficial for a program, did you feel any added pressure with that?
At the end of the day, you have to be yourself. And [regarding] all of the high-profile families and celebrities I’ve been around these last bunch of years, I think the thing they appreciated most was that I held every player to the same accountability standard and pursued excellence. At times, I’d get in a player’s face, regardless of who they were.
At the end of the day, it’s about developing a great football team. And you can’t do that by not treating people the same. Celebrities and successful people are high-profile for a reason. They know how to work, they know how to make sacrifices, and they appreciate it when the people leading their kids are doing the same thing.
What role does your Catholic faith have in coaching and mentoring players?
Faith has a role in developing who you are as a human being. In everything you do, you absolutely carry that with you. My faith is a big foundation of who I am, who my family is and the people I’ve surrounded myself with. Does it have a role in what I do as a coach? Absolutely, because it’s a part of who I am.
My staff and I do a great job of making sure kids understand why we’re working and what we’re trying to accomplish. Really, we’re trying to provide life-skill opportunities. We’re trying to teach them how to be a part of a community, how to work hard, how to be accountable and how to be good decision-makers. And that has all comes from faith.
What would your response be for people who might question a high-school coach’s readiness for an NCAA Division I head-coaching job?
When you take a position like this, people are going to question you regardless of what your background is — it’s the nature of the business.
At Bishop Gorman, I had a very unique situation. There aren’t many situations where you’re running a program that has the budget we did, that travels across the country like we did, that stays in hotels, that flies on planes and that has the budgetary responsibilities we did, in addition to working on staff. I was involved in a lot of projects at Gorman, like overseeing multimillion dollar facilities and a lot of things that made it a very unique experience.
On top of that, I think once everybody sees the entire staff I’m hiring, and they understand what direction we’re moving in, I think that’ll quiet a lot of critics. I think they’ll realize that I have the ability to surround myself with quality people with many years of experience and college success. And I’ll merge that with my passion and ability to coach this game. It’s going to be a fun deal.
There was a lot made about college coaches and scouts always being at Gorman workouts and the success your players had getting Division I scholarships. Do you feel that exposure, dealing with recruiting from the other side of the fence, helps you better prepare as a college coach and recruiter now yourself?
One hundred percent. We’ve had hundreds of coaches come through the facilities of Gorman over the past six years, and we’ve been inundated during these recruiting periods. The experience helps you really understand who does a good job of presenting a clear picture and what players care about. That understanding allowed me to develop what I want our team to look like, what I want our message to look like and how I want to formulate it. Most importantly, it helped me learn what we have to do when we’re talking to moms and dads and brothers and sisters and when we’re dealing with the student athletes who we want to invite to play at UNLV. We’ve got a plan, and I’m excited to go out there and present it.
You’re known especially for your fiery attitude as a coach and your drive to motivate players. Where does that come from?
Just the love of the life that God has blessed me and my family with. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunities that I’ve had in this game. I don’t think I’ve worked a day in my life. At the end of the day, you do what you love, and you spend your time doing it. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
My drive comes from the fact that I want to be successful. It’s not one of those deals where it’s never enough. But I think every day, when you wake up, you control your attitude and your effort, regardless of time or circumstance. If you wake up with a great attitude, you give your best effort and you’re organized, you’re going to have a chance to be successful. That’s one of those things we preach to our players and everyone in our offices. If we all have that and we’re moving in the right direction, then we’re going to have success.
You have two kids?
I do. My daughter Alyssa is 13, and she’ll be a freshman at Gorman next year. And my son Jason is 10 years old, and he’s in fifth grade at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. We’re also active members at (St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish) and love it there.
What do you appreciate most about the Catholic Church?
What I really appreciate is the outreach the Church provides not only in our community but across the world. The generosity of the Church is unbelievable: the giving and the opportunities it provides for people in need.
Do you have a patron saint?
Our Lady, Queen of Victory, for obvious reasons. The passion of Mary is reverent and powerful. She’s the ultimate example of greatness and humility, and I think all people of faith can learn from her example. I find great comfort in praying the Rosary to her.
What kind of impact do you hope you’ve left at Gorman and hope to leave at UNLV? Is there anything more to your job than wins and losses?
You’ve got to be successful to allow yourself to have the opportunity to preach the things you believe in. At the end of the day, wins and losses is the black-and-white thing that everybody looks at now. But 10 years later, are your kids productive members of our community? Are they good husbands? Are they good fathers? Are they giving back? And are they selfless servants of the communities they live in?
If they can answer Yes to those things, then we did a phenomenal job of not just winning football games, but also looking beyond that and developing future leaders.
Chris Kudialis writes from Las Vegas.