CHEYENNE – Tony Sanchez's coaching career path is similar to those who dream of strapping on shoulder pads and buckling chin straps every Saturday in the fall.
Sanchez got his bearings in 1998 at Onate High in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as a wide receivers/secondary coach, where he helped lead Onate High to the 2002 state championship. He then became the defensive coordinator in 2003 before taking over as the head coach at California High in San Ramon, California, where he spent five seasons on the sidelines.
His next stop arguably was the biggest. In 2009, Sanchez was named head coach at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, and he was tasked with rebuilding a proud program. Sanchez and his coaching staff went straight to work. They built relationships throughout the community – from players and parents to boosters and other donors. In a short time, Sanchez turned Bishop Gorman into a national powerhouse.
In his six seasons at the helm, Sanchez led Bishop Gorman to six straight Class 4A state championships, including its first one in 25 years in 2009, and an overall record of 85-5. Bishop Gorman finished each season ranked in the top 25 in the country.
"Gorman was just a magical time," Sanchez told WyoSports.
As he kept winning at Bishop Gorman, Sanchez continued to build the program. He helped raise funds for new facilities and built a schedule that featured games against teams ranked in the top 10 in the nation. He was named USA Today's All-USA Coach of the Year, as well as the U.S. Army All-American Bowl National Coach of the Year and the Rawlings National High School Coach of the Year in his final season coaching the Gaels.
Quite the run in just six years. But the story gets better.
In 2015, he was offered a job he couldn't pass up – head coach at Division I UNLV.
"Then, all of a sudden, a bunch of years later, you get this unbelievable opportunity to stay right here in Las Vegas and run a Division I football program, and again, it was an absolute blowup and rebuild here," said Sanchez, who is 120-26 all-time at the high school level.
Just like he did at Bishop Gorman, Sanchez dug in and went straight to work at UNLV. The Rebels went 3-9 in his first season, then 4-8 in 2016 and 5-7 in 2017. They finished just 4-8 last season, but Sanchez believes he is building a solid foundation for years to come.
"To get an opportunity to take (over) a program that hadn't had any type of sustained success, no back-to-back winning seasons for over 25-30 years, and try to build a consistent winner, and I believe we're on our way to doing it," he said.
UNLV has not had a winning record since 2013, when it finished 7-6. The last time it had back-to-back winning seasons came during the 1983-84 campaigns, when it went 7-4 and 11-2, respectively, as a member of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association.
"There's definitely been some bumps in the road, but it's been a fun journey, with some great kids and some great coaches along the way," Sanchez said.
Sanchez credits his experiences at the high school level, particularly at Bishop Gorman, for helping him get to where he is now. From going on week-long recruiting trips to meeting Division I coaches from all over the country, those moments helped prepare him for his current role.
"You got to literally sit in a front-row seat and see the good, the bad and the ugly when it came to recruiting, (and) who did a good job, who was average, the messaging," Sanchez said. "There's a lot of things that I got to see that you normally don't get to – the traveling around, going to a lot of spring ball (games) from teams all over the country, spending time in Stanford and in Nebraska, the University of Arizona, the University of Washington, Southern Cal, all these different schools.
"Over the years, I saw a lot, heard a lot, did a lot, and all those things really helped me hit the ground running recruiting. To me, it was more about surrounding yourself with quality people that have experience and can go out and help you build a program."
It also has been helpful to have some familiar faces around the UNLV football facilities. Sanchez brought over Ron O'Dell and Sean Manuel from Bishop Gorman to work on his staff. O'Dell serves as the quarterbacks coach, while Manuel is the director of strength and conditioning.
"That was big," Sanchez said. "(O'Dell) knows a lot of football.
"Having (Manuel) by my side is a big, big deal. He does a tremendous job. You ask any of our players, he's a really loved figure. He's tough on them, he understands them, and he really understands the science of sports medicine. But having a confidant like that right there with you every day is a big deal. A lot of trust involved there, and I completely trust in the things that he's doing."
Sanchez is just the fifth coach in the modern era of college football to move directly from being a head coach at the high school level to holding the same post at a Football Bowl Subdivision program.
In his mind, he's just getting started. But he'll always remember how he got to this point in his coaching career.
"It's humbling," Sanchez said. "It means being appreciative of the opportunity. There's a lot of guys that do a really good job and don't get those chances. I think it was a unique situation with how well we did in the city of Las Vegas at Gorman with ties to the community, and it just led to the opportunity. And it's about what you do with the opportunity.
"You're never as good as they say you are, (and) you're never as bad. Keep your head down, don't toot your horn, just keep on working."
Tyler Poslosky is a writer for WyoSports. He can be reached at 307-633-3123 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @TylerPoslosky.