Sanchez sets bar at Bishop Gorman
It was 2007, and Sanchez, a hotshot 30-something in his first head-coaching position, had rebuilt the program at San Ramon (Calif.) California High School in his native East Bay. In four seasons, he took the school from doormat status to a berth in the North Coast Section finals.
There, it lost 37-0 to stalwart Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, an experience that threatened to derail the coach's progress. It instead filled him with resolve to compete even harder. But Sanchez, a second-generation American of Puerto Rican and English descent, did not simply put his head down and push forward.
No, he is a thinking man's coach, so Sanchez called to Bellevue (Wash.), the program that three years prior had ended De La Salle's national-record 151-game winning streak. He wanted a taste of the magic that took down the giant. The next season, Cal High played at Bellevue, losing by seven points.
"Our kids learned that night to compete," Sanchez said.
Late in that same season, his team stayed with its East Bay nemesis for four quarters. A touchdown in the final three minutes unlocked a 14-14 tie and won it for De La Salle, but Sanchez considered the moment as close to a moral victory as exists in football.
The experience shaped his philosophy on aggressive scheduling and ultimately, after Sanchez landed in 2009 at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, allowed him to transform a solid Nevada program into a national power of his own.
Under the 39-year-old Sanchez, Gorman has captured four consecutive 4A titles in Nevada, winning by an average margin of 44.5 points in the championship games. The coach is 60-5 in his fifth season and the recipient of numerous honors for his teams' athletic and scholastic achievement.
On Friday night at 10 p.m. ET, Bishop Gorman, 4-1 and ranked No. 32 nationally in the Student Sports Fab 50, hosts No. 1 Booker T. Washington of Miami on ESPNU.
The game marks the latest Sanchez scheduling delight. This year alone, Gorman has faced traditional powers Phoenix Mountain Pointe, Anaheim (Calif.) Servite, Rancho Santa Margarita (Calif.) Santa Margarita Catholic, Encino (Calif.) Crespi and Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic.
Marquee foes over the past four seasons included Olney (Md.) Our Lady of Good Counsel, Honolulu St. Louis, Scottsdale (Ariz.) Chaparral, Seffner (Fla.) Armwood, and, for good measure, De La Salle.
The Spartans defeated Gorman 28-14 in 2010, Sanchez's second season at the school, but it failed to slow the coach.
That's just not his style.
The more he's pushed, the more he pushes.
"We don't know how long any of us are going to be here. We might as well go and enjoy it, right?"
Sanchez takes pride in working his team so hard during the week that Friday feels like the easiest day. It's an old-school philosophy for an old-school coach whose players are drilled to thrive on pressure and form a work ethic not unlike the kind that allowed De La Salle to go 12 full seasons without a defeat.
"I was a gifted athlete before I ever started playing football," said Notre Dame's starting right tackle, Ronnie Stanley, a 2012 Bishop Gorman graduate who played three seasons for Sanchez. "But I wouldn't necessarily say that I was a good football player even after I had played for a while.
"I was relying on my ability and my size, and that might have continued if not for coach Sanchez. He made me develop from a good athlete into an athletic football player."
Stanley said he began college notably more prepared because of his time at Gorman. The school, in Sanchez's four years, has landed recruits at Duke, Arizona, Fresno State, Colorado State, UNLV, Miami, Notre Dame, UTEP, Navy, Washington, Cal, USC, Oregon and Stanford. Gorman's 2014 class features safety Armand Perry, committed to Arizona State, Alabama prospect Nick Gates at offensive tackle and quarterback Randall Cunningham II, with offers from the likes of LSU, Mississippi State and Baylor.
A few months after Sanchez left Cal High for Gorman, he met Todd Lyght.
Yes, that Todd Lyght. The former Notre Dame All-American, 12-year NFL veteran and All-Pro cornerback, he lived nearby the school and wanted to get into coaching. He called Sanchez, and the coach invited Lyght out to the school for an offseason workout, offering Lyght a position as Gorman's junior-varsity defensive coordinator.
Lyght took it. A few weeks later, Sanchez promoted him to secondary coach on the varsity. Together, they won two state titles before Lyght left to coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.
"Now that I look back on it, he was making me try out," Lyght said. "He wanted to gauge my commitment to the program. That's just the type of guy Tony is -- everybody has to prove themselves to him every day. And that's the key, not just to football but in life."
Lyght said he was amazed by Sanchez's meticulous scheduling of practices.
"It was run like a [major-college] practice," Lyght said, "which is very rare in high school these days.
"Tony definitely has that vision."
It's nothing special, according to Sanchez. He's taken football this seriously since he was a kid. He fell for the game as a third- or fourth-grader, he said, when a friend's mom took him to a high school game and he was awestruck by a linebacker with a mohawk shaved into his head.
Sanchez starred as a receiver and defensive back at Livermore (Calif.) Granada High School. The squad struggled in his senior year. Not enough athletes, said former Granada coach Mike Alcott.
But Sanchez refused to hear excuses for the team's poor play.
"He never stopped hustling," Alcott said. "And to be stuck on a team like that and perform the way he did, it says so much about his character."
Sanchez carried his passion for football to Laney College in Oakland and to New Mexico State. He caught 42 passes as a senior under Jim Hess. Sanchez got into coaching in 1996 and bounced from NMSU to high schools in Las Cruces, N.M., and El Paso, Texas. For nine months in the middle of it, he quit coaching to sell digital copy machines before big break arrived back home in the East Bay.
"It's amazing what you think you know as a player when you have no clue," Sanchez said. "You start coaching, and you go, 'Wow, football is the ultimate team game.' There's nothing like trying to teach and translate and get 100 guys to execute."
A former finalist for the MaxPreps national coach of the year and the Oakland Raiders NFL coach of the year in 2007, Sanchez said he's happy at Gorman but would pay attention to college opportunities.
Alcott, his old high school coach, now retired in Las Vegas and a fixture on the Gorman sideline, said he'd like to see Sanchez get the chance. He'd be good. He's always good, Alcott said.
"It would have to be big," Sanchez said. "But I never say never. If it's meant to happen, it will."
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