Late Saturday night, as the Colorado football team was clearing out of its locker room at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz., offensive coordinator Mike Sanford and tight ends coach Clay Patterson spent several minutes talking on the sidelines.
A 43-20 loss to Arizona created the feeling that change was coming for the winless Buffaloes (0-5, 0-2 Pac-12), but Sanford and Patterson didn’t know what was next for the program.
A few hours later, back in Boulder, Sanford learned his job was changing. Just 23 hours after Saturday’s opening kickoff, Sanford was at a press conference being introduced as the interim head coach, taking the reins from Karl Dorrell, who was fired Sunday.
“I think just the suddenness of it,” Sanford said of the hardest part of the transition.
The 40-year-old Sanford is in his 17th year of coaching and has never experienced this type of situation before. Neither has his father, Mike Sanford Sr., who is a 45-year coaching veteran now leading a high school program in Nevada.
“I told (my dad) that this is certainly a new one for me personally,” Sanford said.
Sanford was hired by Dorrell on Dec. 17 to fix the Buffaloes’ offense. For a variety of reasons, that hasn’t happened. The Buffs have actually regressed, in terms of scoring punch, since last season, going from 18.8 points per game in 2021 to 13.4 so far this year.
Now, with seven games to play in the regular season, Sanford has an opportunity to turn around the entire program and possibly put himself in the running for the full-time job as the Buffs’ head coach.
Sanford insists, however, that he’s not even thinking about auditioning for the head coaching position at CU.
“No. 1, I’m looking this at this nothing about candidacy and all about players, all about these young men in front of me,” he said. “If I make it about something that it’s not today, then I think that you start worrying about the wrong things. I think the most important thing is getting these players to believe, getting these players to realize that they are capable of doing things that they haven’t done yet this season. That’s my job right now.”
On a bye, CU can’t win or lose a game this week, but Sanford said they can win the week internally.
“We have to improve this bye week and then go out and recruit for two days, and then come back restored, energized and give them everything I’ve got,” he said. “I really am taking it from the mindset of I’m doing everything in my power to continue on the greatness of this program, and we’re going to continue to do that for a little bit longer.”
When Sanford called his father on Sunday and told him the news, his father told him this is a great opportunity, but didn’t focus on what this could mean for Sanford.
“Make sure that every single one of the players on our roster, they feel cared for, they feel like there’s hope and there’s a vision for where we’re going then you just leave everything else up to what happens,” Sanford said. “That’s the biggest thing that I took away from him is just don’t worry about what’s six months down the road.
“Amongst the challenges, amongst the sudden change and almost a feeling and a sense of where am I, what am I doing?, I’m reminded that I’m here for a reason. I’ve been called to this purpose, to serve these players, to love these players and to do everything in my power to continue to make sure that this staff wraps our arms around these players and then demands changes that need to be made for us to go win some football games.”
In addition to focusing on the current players, Sanford knows the importance of recruiting. It’s possible Sanford and the rest of the staff are let go after the season, but he’ll still continue to do what he can for CU.
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“If we’re stagnant on (recruiting), that’s going to actually set back our program,” Sanford said. “I want to do anything from my perspective that I can over the course of these next eight weeks, in addition to helping these players, to help this program move forward.”
While Sanford focuses on leading the Buffs, his bosses – athletic director Rick George, chancellor Phil DiStefano and president Todd Saliman – will evaluate candidates and figure how who will become the full-time coach.
Put together a highly successful eight weeks and Sanford could put himself in the running for the job – not that he’s worried about it at this point.
“I think it would be important for me to be an asset for them in this endeavor for these next couple of months, and then see where the chips fall,” Sanford said.
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