Mike Sanford, one of college football’s brightest offensive minds and a former Hilltopper assistant, has been named the 20th head football coach at Western Kentucky University, Director of Athletics Todd Stewart announced on Wednesday.
Sanford, a 12-year college coaching veteran who coached quarterbacks on The Hill in 2010, returns to WKU following six seasons of success and achievement at Stanford, Boise State and, most recently, Notre Dame. A former quarterback at Boise State (2000-04), Sanford brings coaching experience from three Fiesta Bowls and two Rose Bowls, along with playing experience in the Humanitarian, Fort Worth and Liberty Bowls.
With accomplishments at every level, Sanford spent the previous two seasons as the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame where he tutored Fighting Irish quarterback Deshone Kizer to stellar performances while in South Bend. Kizer had near-record breaking marks in Notre Dame single-game history for rushing yards by a quarterback (second), touchdown passes (t-second) and total offense (seventh) to go along with the single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (10) in 2015. Kizer finished his career at Notre Dame with the best per-game total offense average in school history (272.2), the highest points responsible for per-game mark (15.6) and the second-best passing efficiency rating (147.7).
The Fighting Irish averaged 466.4 yards of total offense per game in 2015, the third-most in program history and the most since 2005, to go along with a near-record 34.2 points per game that season – three points shy of the program record. The year was capped by Sanford’s fifth-consecutive appearance in a New Year’s Six or BCS Bowl Game, the 2016 BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
Prior to Notre Dame, Sanford spent one season at his alma mater, Boise State, in 2014, where he guided a Broncos offense that was one of just five FBS schools to rank among the top 30 nationally in all four major offensive statistical categories (scoring, total offense, passing offense and rushing offense). The Broncos went 12-2 that year, won a Mountain West Conference championship and defeated Pac-12 South champion Arizona in the Vizio Fiesta Bowl. Quarterback Grant Hedrick led the FBS in completion percentage (70.8), while ranking seventh in passing yards per attempt (8.91), ninth in passing efficiency (157.2), 13th in passing yardage (3,696) and 14th in total offense per game (306.3).
While Sanford’s development of quarterbacks is well documented, his work with Boise State running back Jay Ajayi is even more notable. In Sanford’s offense, Ajayi led the FBS in scoring with 13.7 points per game and become the only player in FBS history to record 1,800 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in the same season. The current Miami Dolphin and Pro Bowl candidate set Boise State single-season records for rushing yards (1,823), rushing touchdowns (28), all-purpose yards (2,358) and carries (347) under Sanford.
Everywhere Sanford has been, great players have followed. He helped bring in top 15 recruiting classes each of his two seasons at Notre Dame, the top-rated class in the Mountain West during his season at Boise State, and back-to-back top 20 national recruiting classes – including a top-five class in 2012 – each of his final two seasons at Stanford while serving as the program’s recruiting coordinator. Twenty-three members of the Cardinal’s 2012 and 2013 signing classes were rated in the top 25 nationally at their respective positions while 22 were rated at least four stars, including six five-star selections.
During his second stop in Palo Alto, Sanford helped the Cardinal capture Pac-12 Championships and Rose Bowl appearances in both 2012 and 2013, as well as a Fiesta Bowl trip to cap the 2011 season. As the running backs coach from 2011-12, Sanford was instrumental in the development of Doak Walk Award and 2013 Rose Bowl offensive MVP Stepfan Taylor, Stanford’s all-time career leading rusher (4,300). Taylor set the Cardinal program record for total touchdowns (45) and is second all-time in career rushing touchdowns (40). Sanford then moved into the quarterbacks room in 2013 where he mentored then-sophomore Kevin Hogan, a 2016 NFL Draft fifth round selection.
Sanford spent the 2010 season at WKU on Willie Taggart’s first coaching staff as the passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach after one year at Yale – his first full-time coaching position – where he coached the tight ends, fullbacks and served as recruiting coordinator in 2009. Sanford spent two years on Jim Harbaugh’s staff at Stanford as an offensive assistant from 2007-08 and enjoyed a two-year run as a graduate assistant at UNLV under his father, Mike Sr., then the head coach of the Rebels.
A father of three, Peyton (6), Gunnar (2) and Griffin (1 mo.), Sanford is married to the former Anne-Marie Mitchell. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Boise State in 2005.