He was an important part of one of the most successful defensive units in college football history and played in the NFL with the New York Giants.
Brandon Sanders is synonymous with winning football in Tucson since arriving at Arizona in 1992 from San Diego’s Helix High School, following in the footsteps of accomplished defensive backs from that school such as Allan Durden, Chuck Cecil and Jeff Hammerschmidt.
“I didn’t even know who he was when I got here,” Pueblo senior back Ruben Rivera admitted the other day.
“But once I got to know him, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a really cool dude.'”
Hard to fathom: At one point, Sanders’ own players at Pueblo did not know of his illustrious football background from 20 to 25 years ago. This is a guy who has been on Sports Illustrated’s cover with Tedy Bruschi and other Desert Swarm members in 1994. He played pro football for the New York Football Giants.
“Hey, I’m not recognizable,” he said with a laugh. “Here’s the deal, I’m average, ordinary coach Sanders. Every now and then, the group before them and these guys (at Pueblo) want me to post a highlight tape. So you know I’ll post some things on Twitter and all that stuff so they get a chance to see me and they see a lot of my former teammates come.
“They have a healthy respect that I least know what I’m talking about when it comes to football.”
Omar Ibanez, another standout senior who plays on both lines and fullback, said he is familiar with Sanders’ football exploits because his coach makes it that way.
“I know everything about him … U of A, Giants, all that … He likes to brag about it a little bit,” Ibanez said. “He’s shown it on Twitter. Go check it out.”
This is a video Sanders has put together about his biggest hits that he shows his players:
This “really cool dude” is an appropriate way to describe Sanders, who will start his fifth season as the head coach of the Warriors tonight in their opener at Tucson High School. The Badgers, who return to play at Gridley Stadium for the first time in two years after a water flooding problem last season, are coming off a convincing 63-6 win in their opener last week at Phoenix Maryvale.
He coaches practice with a strong sense of confidence, and he is mostly even-keel, rarely going into drill sergeant mode with his players. In fact, he sings at practice.
“This is it,” he sang Kenny Loggins’ song out loud at Pueblo’s practice Tuesday. “That is a song,” he had to tell his young players.
“Everything he tells me I put it into consideration,” Rivera said. “He likes to have fun. He’s a really fun guy. Every now and the, he turns into a drill sergeant but he’s really cool.”
Added Ibanez: “He’s more of a talker but Coach Sanders has some fire in him. He’s meant a a lot for me understanding of how to read offenses and how to read defenses. It’s helped me read the field and really just be smarter with the game. With him, it’s not only what you’re doing but why you are doing it.”
When Sanders, 45, completed his Arizona career in 1995, a time in which he was part of the famed Desert Swarm defense in 1992 and 1993, Pueblo’s current players were still at least six years from being born.
.@DavidKellyTNN interviewing @PuebloAthletics football coach @coachBSanders18 — of #ArizonaWildcats #DesertSwarm and #NYGiants fame — as the Warriors prepare for Friday's showdown against rival Tucson High @FootballBadgers pic.twitter.com/SadFQ1l0Zy
He completed his playing career with the Las Vegas Outlaws of the old XFL in 2001, the same year many of the Warriors were born. Before that he played with the New York Giants from 1997 to 1999.
Prior to Pueblo hiring Sanders to be its head coach in 2014, the Warriors did not have a winning season since they finished 6-5 in 2002. They had not advanced to the playoffs since 1990.
Helping as an assistant coach at Catalina Foothills High School and Pima College previously, it took Sanders only one year to have a winning season (7-3 in 2014) with the Warriors. In just two years, he coached them to the playoffs (first-round loss to Estrella Mountain in 2015 to cap a 7-5 season). The Warriors returned to the playoffs last year, finishing 8-3 with a first round loss to Salpointe, which beat the Warriors 42-0 in that game after defeating them by the same score during the regular season.
“We have to embrace how far we went last year … we won a lot of games,” he said. “We played a tough Salpointe team a couple of times. I think our biggest thing is showing up. There’s a lot of hurdles we have to mentally overcome. You’re talking about many years of not winning.
“You’re talking years about not being to face a team like a Tucson High, like a Sunnyside, like a Salpointe, where we couldn’t even put them on the schedule. We just weren’t competitive. My thing is, can we compete? Do we believe? I think if we believe and we can compete, we’ll hustle and do everything else. We’re a physical team so we’ll definitely get that.”
Having gone 28-14 with two playoff appearances in four years under Sanders after the school was 28-75 in the previous 10 seasons, it’s obvious that Sanders is using his knowledge gained under Dick Tomey and the various coaches he has come in contact with over his playing career.
Tomey often visits and stays in contact with Sanders regularly. “He’s my mentor,” Sanders says.
“For sure, there’s a lot of him with what I do,” Sanders continued. “There’s a lot of Coach John Fox, a lot of coach Jim Fassel (while with the Giants). I’ve been blessed to have played under a lot of player coaches, guys who really care, guys you look at what they do from a schematic and fundamental standpoint, absolutely.”
An unlikely source of support is from a former rival coach in the Pac-10 — UCLA’s Terry Donahue, whose background with Tomey runs deep as assistants with the Bruins. Donahue runs the California Showcase events that are a free non-profit operation designed to help high school seniors get noticed by college recruiters.
“Coach Donahue has been the best since I’ve been here helping in L.A. and he helps a lot of these kids especially with our kind of kids, not just here at Pueblo but all around,” Sanders said. “He’s about helping all these kids.”
Ibanez and Rivera, for example, believe they have a future in football, whereas when they started their careers with the Warriors they weren’t so sure.
“I thought I might go to the Air Force, but now I believe I can make the most of this opportunity playing football,” Rivera said.
The game with Tucson High tonight, considered a neighborhood rival by Ibanez and Rivera, can help them get on the right path to what could be a memorable senior season. Both said they know many of the Badgers going back to their Pop Warner days.
Justin Argraves’ team is coming off a 4-6 season after reaching the playoffs the previous two seasons. The Warriors have not played the Badgers since the 2012 opener, won by Tucson 50-6 at Pueblo. That game was played six years ago to this day. Sanders has made it a point to get Tucson back on the schedule to help get the most out of his players.
“It’s a big-time rivalry,” Sanders said. “You look at us. We still have not got our respect. We understand that. We get that people don’t believe in what we do and they may not believe in what I do. That’s fine by me.
“At the end of the day, when we step between these white lines we still have to go out and earn our respect.”
Return to Gridley!!! Welcome home! pic.twitter.com/QDXAcEdIm9
Talking to the Warriors there is a sense that this game with the Badgers has been circled on their calendar since school ended last school year in May. Pueblo has 29 seniors and juniors who continue to feel the sting of those two losses to Salpointe last year and they feel like they are still climbing the hill after not advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs under Sanders.
No doubt, they feel that a Class 4A team such as themselves going against a Class 6A team like Tucson High is a test of how far Sanders has taken them to this point.
We feel good. We feel prepared. We’ve been preparing for all summer,” Ibanez said. “We’ve been preparing not only this game but for this season getting our plays down.
“We’ve been watching film on (Tucson). We know what their tendencies are. Really just studying them and focusing on what they’ll be doing. We’ll prepare for that. We’ll always prepare for the worst and prepare for the best.
VICTORY BADGERS WIN!! 🏈 63-6 pic.twitter.com/6G0WI13yjm
“We’ve been part of big games. We’ve been in the playoffs two years that I’ve been here. We have a big rivalry game against Sunnyside and all that. Every game we play is big and every game we have to treat it like we’re going against the No. 1 team in the nation.”
Rivera added, “I feel like coming off last year we got knocked out in the first round of the playoffs so that’s like a chip on our shoulder. We came out this summer working really hard. We have a lot of returners so this year our team is full of seniors. We’ve been working hard in the weight room and on the field. Everything has been clicking together.”
More than once they said they go about themselves of and off the field, the “Warrior Way.” Sanders uses the hashtag #WarriorBlock as his way to show his program’s toughness. He instills that fighting underdog mentality with his players — the kind of edge that made Desert Swarm so ruthless against opposing offenses 25 years ago.
“My seniors, I prepared them for this since they were freshmen,” Sanders said. “You talk about Omar Ibanez, you talk about (senior tackle) Flavio Gonzalez, you talk about Ruben Rivera, you talk about Ricardo Medina, our quarterback … I mean we have a lot of guys who have been through the wars, actually some of them even played when they were freshmen and sophomores.
“They’ve been through the wars. There hasn’t been a stage they haven’t seen. Last year we saw Salpointe in the playoffs. … They’ve been around the block so I don’t expect the moment against Tucson High to be too big. I just expect them to focus in and be ready.”
Trying to understand why folks want to down talk my program? All we do is work it’s like some wanna see us fail.. Just remember when I bang back it’s a reaction.. I won’t knock no pork chop off your plate if you don’t knock one off of mine #WarriorBlock
Given his success at Pueblo, might Sanders with his energy and enthusiasm for the game — he looks like he could still play and hit an NFL receiver hard on the field — be yearning for a college gig or even an NFL assistant position?
His love for Pueblo is evident as athletic director. He is always seen at every sporting event actively supporting the Warriors. He is never complacent with what he does.
“Man, I get asked the at a lot, ‘Will you move on to something else?'” he said. “Here’s what I know — I focus on the job that I’ve been doing. Opportunities may arise. Now, are those opportunities better than being here at Pueblo? You have to judge that for your family or anything else.
“My job is here right now. If it means being here the next 10 to 15 years, it means that I have to make sure we’re ready to go and play. I am here for the long haul. Our guys know that. Our JV kids now. Our freshmen know. Everything I’ve done to build this program, it means a lot. This program means a lot to me.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.