Sanford’s got a plan and he’s not afraid to tell you about it

Evan Heichelbech is the sports editor for the College Heights Herald during Fall 2017.

Evan Heichelbech

When Jeff Brohm accepted the Purdue head coaching job in early December, he left the WKU football program at the peak of its brief Division 1 existence. Naturally, this created an inherent challenge for whoever the man to succeed him on the sidelines inside Smith Stadium would be.

We now know the man is Mike Sanford and the challenge is steep, uphill and will require the Hilltoppers to become mountain climbers in order for the rookie head coach to keep WKU at the summit of Conference USA in his first season.

Within this larger challenge, Sanford faces a number of other obstacles to maintaining the new standard of success set by Brohm and athletic director Todd Stewart in recent years.

The key to any model of success in coaching — no matter how different each blueprint may be — begins and ends with recruiting. At Wednesday’s National Signing Day, Sanford finalized his first recruiting class as a head coach, signing 23 total players and getting a couple of ESPN three-star prospects on signing day.

“We laid out those five goals and certainly I’ll continue to speak of those goals until people tell me to stop talking about those goals,” Sanford said on Wednesday. “And then I’ll talk more about them.”

No matter how the major recruiting services rank WKU’s 2017 class, Sanford did a more-than commendable job, and it was only the beginning executions of the well-traveled offensive guru’s plan.

Sanford, 34, is the youngest head coach in the FBS who was hired just over a month-and-a-half ago. When Brohm left, he eventually took 17 of the Hilltoppers’ commits with him to Purdue, leaving Sanford with little time to get enough young men to buy into his system and believe in a first-time head coach in order to fill a recruiting class. He had to scramble to get a coaching staff together, carefully picking a collection of talent — old and young, alumni and stranger, experienced and fresh — to form a crew he trusted to help him hit a home run in his first job. The only way he was able to jump over all of those immediate hurdles was because he had a plan.

At his introductory press conference on Dec. 14, Sanford came to answer questions from some of the local media and fans, but he also came equipped with some questions of his own.

Where have we been? Where are we now? Where are we going? Around those rhetorical questions, Sanford framed and revealed his fivefold plan of action, more popularly known now as #ThePursuit17.

He said he wanted to graduate every player, serve the community, win the C-USA Championship, defeat a Power 5 team every year and eventually win a New Year’s Six bowl game. He said he knew those aspirations were “lofty goals” and maybe they’re “far-reaching” at this point. But he said it all with confidence and an enthusiasm that could make anyone forget he had just signed his first head coaching contract hours earlier.

Just one week ago, former WKU greats Forrest Lamp and Taywan Taylor showcased their talents at the Senior Bowl, representing the Hilltopper program on the national landscape. As logical and practical as it may have seemed when Brohm was promoted from within the program in 2013, his hiring was a program-altering move. Brohm’s fast, exciting brand of football worked. That was the major part of his plan and it’s part of the reason why Lamp and Taylor are two of the program’s most decorated players ever. If Brohm was able to realize his goals as a first-time head coach, there’s no reason Sanford can’t either.

Whether he’s tweeting about an upcoming WKU sporting event, walking around the campus cafeteria meeting students, or gearing up with stripes and a whistle to serve as the referee for scrimmages for youngsters at halftime of WKU home basketball games, Sanford is always working. He’s always working to share his energy and passion for the everyday “pursuit” he insists will make his plan work. I’m convinced he hasn’t rested a single day since he arrived.

As I mentioned in a previous column,  the pedigree Todd Stewart now searches for and is expected to get, in a head coach is higher than it ever has been here on the Hill. As hard as it is to predict the success of a rookie head coach, I’m confident that when tested with the more demanding questions, Sanford will find the answers. All he needs is his plan.

Evan Heichelbech can be reached at 502-415-1817 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @evanheich.