Western Kentucky on Wednesday officially unveiled Notre Dame offensive coordinator Mike Sanford as its next head coach, an announcement that came on the heels of reports Monday the second-year Irish assistant would take over in Bowling Green, Ky.
"This is an incredible opportunity for a tremendous football coach and an even better person,” coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Mike possesses all the qualities you’d want in a head coach — clear communication, organization, commitment, passion and an astute teacher of the game. As a coach’s kid, Mike learned these traits at a young age and developed them throughout his career, especially over his two years at Notre Dame. He’ll work tirelessly to not only uphold the standard of success at Western Kentucky, but also build upon it. He’s truly excited (for) this opportunity and I’m excited for him, Anne-Marie (his wife) and the kids.”
Sanford got his first full-time coaching gig at Western Kentucky in 2010, when he served as now-Oregon coach Willie Taggart’s passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Sanford, a former Boise State quarterback who attended Penn High School in South Bend from 1996-1998, also had stops at Stanford (running backs, recruiting coordinator, quarterbacks/wide receivers) and Boise State (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks) before being hired by Brian Kelly in the winter of 2015. Sanford's father, Mike, is the head coach at Indiana State and was Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach in 1997 and 1998.
Kelly’s goal in bringing in Sanford was to “turn the room upside down,” with the goal behind that quotable quip adding a fresh voice to Notre Dame’s offensive coaching structure. Mike Denbrock, who was the team’s offensive coordinator in 2014, was moved to an associate head coach/wide receivers role but became the play caller of the offense for Sanford’s two years on campus.
With Sanford heavily involved in gameplanning, Notre Dame’s offense exploded to rank 7th in S&P+ in 2015 and average 34.2 points per game. While the offense took a step back in 2016 (38th in S&P+, 30.9 points per game), Sanford can be credited with developing quarterback DeShone Kizer from being a relative unknown to a legitimate collegiate star and potential 2017 first-round NFL Draft pick. Sanford’s work with Brandon Wimbush, the redshirt freshman quarterback who will take over for Kizer next fall, could show itself in the future as well.
The Western Kentucky program Sanford will take over has had plenty of success over the last few years, including its first top 25 finish in 2015. The last three Western Kentucky coaches have gone on to become Power Five coaches, too, in Taggart (South Florida to Oregon), Bobby Petrino (certainly some extenuating circumstances there, but to Louisville) and Jeff Brohm (Purdue).
Sanford is the fourth Kelly assistant to land a head coaching job from Notre Dame, joining former offensive coordinators Charley Molnar (UMass) and Chuck Martin (Miami Ohio) and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (UConn). At 34 years old, Sanford is now the youngest head coach at the FBS level.