Notre Dame OC Mike Sanford learned to answer "why"

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Mike Sanford is focused on the X’s and O’s … and the “Whys.”

At Notre Dame, as in his previous stops, it isn’t enough for the first-year offensive coordinator to direct his players as to where to go and what to do. That kind of blank, robotic obedience won’t win games, or championships.

With junior quarterback Malik Zaire, as well as his teammates, it’s crucial not only to memorize a scheme, but understand how and why that scheme is operated.

“What I do appreciate about Malik is that his willingness to (take coaching) is immediate, but then he’s going to step back, process the information, communicate the information back to you and ask the ‘Why?’” Sanford said.

“That’s what I love about coaching at Notre Dame, or coaching kids of this caliber. As a coach, you’re going to be challenged on the ‘why.’ It’s not just, ‘Run through a wall for me.’ They’re going to ask, ‘Why?’

“Then you tell them exactly why, and they’re going to run through a wall for you.”

Of course, Sanford is no stranger to the Whys. With previous coaching stops at academic powerhouses Yale and Stanford, the son of a football coach learned not just how to teach X’s and O’s, but to communicate the reasoning behind every intricacy of the offense.

In turn, iron sharpened iron, and Sanford developed into a better coach.

“My first full-time coaching job was at Yale,” Sanford said. “You talk about intellectual horsepower in that room. That was a great opportunity for me, right out of the gate as a graduate assistant and a quality control guy, to deal with the ‘Whys.’

“It really challenged me in a way that I wanted that in every place that I went to coach at. That’s a big part of what you do.”

And at Notre Dame, that element is accounted for – especially at the quarterback position.

From the moment he stepped on campus in the spring, Sanford found that Zaire was ready to learn. The 6-foot, 222-pound quarterback was already somewhat accomplished, having been named the MVP of the Irish’s Music City Bowl victory the previous December in his first career start.

But he wasn’t a finished product, and he knew it.

These days, so few quarterbacks do.

“I think it’s pretty rare,” Sanford said of Zaire’s willingness to be coached. “It’s rarer than you would think, especially with the stakes at play with coaching at any Division I football program. You’d think that everybody would want to be like that, but a lot of these guys have different backgrounds.

“Some of these guys have been told that they’re the greatest thing, and you don’t have to change a thing from the minute they stepped on your college campus. That’s the furthest thing from who he is.”

Zaire is so far to the opposite extreme, in fact, that Sanford is never safe from the “Whys.”

Not after midnight, and not on opposite coasts.

“At some point he was on west coast time, probably when he was out at Elite 11 (earlier this summer), and I was on east coast time,” Sanford explained. “It was well after midnight. He asked me a question. I was like, ‘Malik, just simplify, man.’

“It was like a 17-sentence text message, just about body mechanics and stuff like that. ‘Coach, I’ve been noticing I’ve been doing this.’ But it’s all stuff in the best interest of him wanting to advance.”

Sanford’s ability to communicate — the how, the when and especially the why — first landed the former Boise State quarterback on Brian Kelly’s radar last spring, and has continued to impress the head coach ever since.

“Mike does a great job,” Kelly said. “He's a great communicator. I think if you're clear on your communication you can reach players regardless of what the age is, and he does a very good job of communicating.”

As Notre Dame prepares for its season opener on Sept. 5, Sanford will undoubtedly have his X’s, O’s and Whys in order.

That way, his players won’t hesitate to run through walls.

Or Longhorns.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame coach Mike Sanford talks to the quarterbacks during practice at Culver Academies, Friday, August 7, 2015 in Culver. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ