Sanford, Rebels deserve to be proud


Mike Sanford's reaction following his football team's upset of Arizona State on Saturday night is precisely why the celebration rule that cast a dark cloud over the Brigham Young-Washington game a week earlier needs to be shredded like unnecessary documents.

College football without emotion is Sarah Palin without the rimless glasses.

I mean, what's the point?

Sanford choked up a bit when first discussing UNLV's 23-20 overtime victory at Sun Devil Stadium, the weight of three losing seasons and rightful speculation about whether he's up to the task of coaching the Rebels parked squarely on his shoulders.

It was the best win of his life, Sanford said minutes after the victory.

He deserved it. His players definitely did. They deserved whatever animated and emotional reply they chose to express.

"There was a lot of that for me personally because of what we've been through and what our players have been through and how hard they have worked," Sanford said at practice Sunday. "It was a confirmation of all the things we've been trying to do. They completely bought in. We weren't perfect. We made mistakes. But we played hard for four quarters and beyond.

"Obviously, we haven't arrived. But we made a significant step."

Bill Parcells often comes off as a conceited lump, but his claim that a football team's ability is almost always what its record states couldn't be more accurate.

For three seasons under Sanford, the Rebels went 6-29 and were underskilled, undercoached and seemed incapable of changing either flaw.

But this season, they are 2-1 and own one of the most significant wins in school history. The talent is improved and in-game coaching decisions aren't nearly as inconsistent, though there is a good chance I will heave my head at full force into the nearest brick wall the next time they don't give Frank Summers the ball on fourth-and-short.

(An image, I assume, that will now cause Sanford never to give Summers the ball on such a play).

UNLV could lose the rest of its games this season, finish 2-10 and still be better than three previous two-win outfits under Sanford. It would be a dismal and hilarious role to play -- being labeled the best of such a wretched collection of teams -- but one the Rebels likely won't encounter.

There is something more to this than a favorable schedule with six home games to go. Somewhere, at some point, all the losing seems to have eaten a hole into the guts of this team's leaders, one they have thus far refused to let grow much larger.

At some point, seniors Summers and Casey Flair and Jacob Hales and juniors Jason Beauchamp and Ryan Wolfe took a stick, drew the proverbial line and insisted the buffoonery stop.

That attitude, mixed with exciting young talent like freshmen wide receiver Phillip Payne and safety Beau Orth -- players not conditioned to accept a culture of losing -- has changed how this team plays and how the program is perceived.

Will it mean two wins or three or four or five or six this year? Nobody knows.

But no matter how conservative Arizona State played UNLV or how much it really prepared for the Rebels with a game against Georgia looming this week, no matter how little Dennis Erickson wanted to reveal to the Bulldogs and in the process paid for it dearly, the importance of winning that game in that stadium against those odds can't be overstated for Sanford's team.

"There is no guarantee any of our seniors will play football again after this year," Summers said. "We have to take advantage of the opportunity now. There have been too many games of woulda, coulda, shoulda here. Now it needs to be about 'do.' I remind the guys about that every day.

"I know you're not supposed to think about the past, but I also think it's good to know where you came from so you don't keep making the same mistakes. The victory is great. We're thankful and grateful for it. But if we go get blown out by Iowa State (at home this Saturday), nobody will remember it. This next game is as important or more than the one we just played."

Emotion is why we watch college football. The kind Sanford and his players showed Saturday night in a stunned stadium out in Tempe, Ariz., after knocking out the 15th-ranked team in the nation.

The best win of his life.

Made better by how much he and his players deserved it.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.