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Ex-UNLV football coach has mountain to climb at Faith Lutheran

Mike Sanford said his first full regular season as Faith Lutheran football coach sort of reminds him of his first year at UNLV in 2005 when the goal was to become competitive with Brigham Young, Utah and Texas Christian atop the Mountain West.

The Rebels never quite got there during his five years as coach, although they did win at 15th-ranked Arizona State in 2008. It also should be noted that unlike his successors, Sanford never lost to a Big Sky team or one better known for its marching band than its football team.

The objective now, or sometime in the future, at Faith Lutheran is to become competitive with Bishop Gorman and Liberty in Southern Nevada’s newly minted Class 5A. With the Gaels and Patriots having raised the bar to Sergey Bubka level, the challenge facing Faith Lutheran and the other 5A teams is much more monumental than the one with which Sanford was tasked at UNLV.

Bubka broke the world pole vault record 35 times and held it for more than 26 years — which, if memory serves, also is the amount of time that has passed since somebody around here scored a touchdown against Gorman.

Faith Lutheran qualified for the playoffs despite a 2-6 record. The Crusaders’ reward for sneaking in the backdoor: a first-round matchup at Gorman on Thursday.

Tough assignment

“We have a ton of respect for Gorman, and they’re really good … but we’re not feeling sorry for ourselves,” Sanford said. “We’re going to go out there and give it every ounce of what we’ve got.”

That is pretty much all he had to say about playing Gorman. Sanford instead mostly talked about where Faith Lutheran has been and where it hopes to go — always a good approach when you draw the blue and orange straw in the first round.

Faith Lutheran, a private Christian prep school founded in 1979, has played at every classification level as resources have become more plentiful and ambition more bold. But as Sanford said: “This 5A is the real deal.”

The former Southern California backup quarterback was an assistant at Army, Virginia Military Institute, Long Beach State, Purdue, USC, Notre Dame, the San Diego Chargers and Utah before landing the UNLV job, and he also guided Indiana State to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and its best season in 30 years.

He said he still is learning despite his age (66) and vast experience.

What he has learned at Faith is you’ve got to have some when it comes to the big picture.

Steep learning curve

“We are growing and building for the future. Every time this program has moved up, it has met the challenge, and that is what we expect,” Sanford said of the Crusaders having won the 2013 Class 3A title before setting sights on Bishop Gorman and the others.

What he didn’t anticipate were records of 2-6 and 1-3 after Faith’s league opener, a winnable game against Legacy, was canceled by COVID protocols.

“I will say that we must be better than we were this year,” Sanford said about the future and how he plans to approach it during the offseason.

But despite encountering a learning curve steeper than he probably expected, he also said it was a pleasure being back on the sidelines and teaching life lessons through a game for which he still has unwavering passion.

“It’s what I do, and I also love being at Faith Lutheran — having the opportunity to influence young people mentally, physically and also spiritually,” Mike Sanford said, sounding more earnest than his team’s effort on that glorious night in Tempe, Arizona, when the Rebels left town with their collective chin in the air and the competitive bar still in place.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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