Richard Sanchez stepped back, watched his Santa Rita team execute a couple of plays in practice, and then proceeded to talk individually with a player for a couple of minutes.. Sometimes he raised his voice in displeasure. Sometimes he clapped and offered encouragement.
He did this continuously with a different player each time, as if he was a teacher in the classroom stopping desk-to-desk to evaluate a student’s work.
If the Eagles did not fully comprehend the impact of Sanchez — the dean of high school coaches in Southern Arizona in his 20th season — they certainly know him by now. When he took over the moribund program before last season, some of the parents did not even know of him, which indicated the state of Santa Rita football.
His return to coaching after eight years of retirement to coach the Eagles, who are at the Class 2A level because of declining enrollment, was even a surprise to him.
“When I first took the job, I just came over here to be the dean of students,” Sanchez said. “I ended up being the coach. I kind of inherited a job. But yeah, I knew it was going to be difficult. Some of the parents knew about me, but these kids didn’t know anything about football, really. They weren’t football savvy. Nobody got them into football.
“Now we’re trying to tell them, ‘Look, you take care of your family, take your grades, and then football comes next.’ So some of them are getting it and some we just have to convince that this is an important time in their life, where they have the opportunity to achieve something that they’re never gonna forget. They’re gonna pass on to their kids the lessons they’ve learned and any championships they win.”
Sanchez, who is 159-69 mostly at Sunnyside, won state titles in 2001 and 2003 with the Blue Devils. He took Sunnyside to the state championship game four times in his 18 years there. The Blue Devils reached the postseason 14 times in Sanchez’s 18 seasons.
During the five seasons before Sanchez took over at Sunnyside, it went 27-26 and only had won one postseason game.
He certainly knows of the time and effort it takes to build a winner. He is trying to bring Santa Rita back from the ashes.
The Eagles, who have 30 players now after dressing only 14 at the start of last season, are 15-75 since reaching the state title game in 2009 under Jeff Scurran. They snapped a 26-game losing streak last week, giving Sanchez his first win at Santa Rita after an 0-11 start, with the 48-0 win at San Carlos.
“I’m into challenges,” Sanchez said. “I thought my coaching career was over. These are pretty good kids. We have some athletic talent. They just got to get their mindset a little bit better.
“I mean, anybody can go coach a good team. The idea as a coach is to build the program, not a team. That’s what we’re trying to do here is to do is to build a program and not a team. The kids understand that. It’s no good to win a couple seasons or one season because you have the star athletes, and then after that they’re gone. That’s not coaching. Coaching is building a program and sustaining it for years.”
The victory last week gives Santa Rita more of a belief that positive results can occur from the teaching of Sanchez and his assistants who are former Sunnyside standouts such as Zach Holmes and Sanchez’s nephew Anthony Peralta.
“They played well enough to win. We’re glad for the win, but there’s still plenty mistakes made that we need to correct,” Sanchez said. “We’re just trying to have the kids take in the culture. I’m happy with what they’re doing. They’re doing really well in the classroom now. They’re good kids. They just needed some attention.”
He noticed a change in mood from the student body and faculty as Santa Rita prepared this week for 2A San Pedro power Benson at home.
“I had several students come in and tell me they are going to the Benson game, Sanchez said. “People are here were very hungry for a win. Nobody wants to be there when you lose.
“Once we won that game, the kids started saying, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s for real.’ Hopefully that that’s changing now with our student body.”
At 62 years old, and suffering from some health issues upon taking the job, the obvious question to ask Sanchez is whether his rebuilding project at Santa Rita is only temporary before he hands off the challenge to one of his assistants.
“During the offseason, the players didn’t think I was coming back,” he said. “They were just saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to leave us now right?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not leaving you guys.’ I’m not going anywhere. I am going to see this to the end.
“These young coaches are out here wanting to see it through the end. We want we want these guys to win for this community and this school. Look at this place (he looked over at new facilities and a well-kept practice field). It’s a beautiful place. Hey, , man, this is nice. We’re going to stay here. We’re going to try to get it to a point where we had it at Sunnyside. We can win championships here.”
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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.