Red Sanders

A searching essay appraising the man and the football wizard whose sudden death shocked the sports world
August 24, 1958

Henry Russell(Red) Sanders, who died suddenly and shockingly in a downtown Los Angeles hotelroom last week, was one of the few men in football coaching who genuinelymerited the accolade "wizard." Whatever special talents of psychologyand acumen coaching took, Red Sanders had them in abundance. His death leaves agaping hole not only at UCLA but in all Pacific Coast football. The West Coastnever held its head as high in the Rose Bowl as when a Sanders eleven took thefield to represent it.

UCLA teams underSanders so unmistakably bore the stamp of good coaching that you were alwaysaware it was the team that was good, not the players. Sanders got good footballplayers. All successful coaches have to. But just as often, Sanders madestandout stars out of boys other recruiters overlooked.

Sanders had anuncanny ability to seek out and take the measure of a boy's talent. The playerswere his creations, in a sense, and while he was gruff, even unfriendly to themin their presence, his face would glow with pride when describing theirexploits to the press or in after-dinner speeches. He alternately bedeviled andsweet-talked his squad, very much in the manner of a parent who disciplines hischildren and then is beset by remorse when he sees them innocently asleep atnight.

Sanders was amaster technician, particularly at defense. It was his firm belief that defensewins football games and championships. To prove his point, he stuck with thearchaic single-wing offense, the Model T Ford of football offenses, in whichthe opponents were never surprised, merely overpowered. Sanders' real offensewas the mistakes his iron-gang defensive line could force the opponents tomake.

He picked hisplayers for resoluteness of purpose rather than ingrained skill. He was fond ofsaying, "Winning is not the most important thing, it's the only thing."He could not tolerate players who did not similarly approach football as a highand holy art. Red had private moments of cynicism, but not about football. Hekept all-state halfbacks on the bench throughout their college careers wheneverhe thought he detected an attitude of scorn on their part, and he once admittedhe delved into the disciplinary history of athletes before allowing hisrecruiters to approach them.

He encouragedabsolute autonomy on the part of his players on game day but demanded completesubservience from them on the practice field. He drove himself and his playersferociously to build his football empire, but once he had the production linefunctioning—circa 1952, or four years after he had signed on at UCLA—he wasable to relax and run his operation much like a chairman of the board. ThePacific Coast Conference penalties two years ago brought him tumbling down fromhis chairmanship and back into shop foremanship once again. Red's life may verywell have been shortened by the necessity for him to get back to grass rootscoaching to reassemble the remnants of his squads. (His best players wererestricted to a half season of play in the last two seasons.)

DROVE HISSQUAD

Oldtimers aroundUCLA had never seen Red drive his squad—and himself—as hard as he did the pasttwo years. As tough and sardonic as a top sergeant with sore feet, a study inrefined sadism, he set about to turn a passel of nice kids into a gang ofrelentless roughnecks—and football craftsmen. And he did.

It would befutile and unworthy to pretend Red Sanders didn't play as hard as he worked. Heloved good music and good whisky. The music was Dixieland, the whisky JackDaniel's.

Red was aSoutherner by birth and predilection. He had some of the prejudices of theSouth when he first arrived in southern California because he didn't realizethey were prejudices. They were, if such a thing is possible, innocentlyacquired. The crime, if any, was heredity. But Sanders used the epithet forNegroes, for instance, so innocently in his early career that he once used itaddressing a mixed audience. It had never occurred to him it would be offensivebecause he had not intended it as such. As it turned out, it was the whitepersons in the audience who raised a public protest. The Negroes accepted it inthe spirit in which it had been used—as part of a joke. Sanders, in short,treated Negroes as friends, not as special citizens before whom it wasnecessary to put on a special set of manners.

With a largelysouthern coaching staff brought to Los Angeles with him from Vanderbilt inTennessee, Sanders played more Negroes than almost any university in the entirecountry, certainly more than his principal coast rivals. It has been claimedthat this was because UCLA, a state university, enrolled more, but thisargument is invalid. Football players are not selected from the student body atlarge in this day and age of big-time college football. They are selected ascarefully as members of the Union League Club, and it is perfectly possible tofind a topnotch football squad of one or many colors and one or many creeds.Red Sanders saw only football players, not minorities.

The bare bones ofSanders' record are evidence enough of his prowess as a coach. His careertotals were 102 wins, 41 losses, 3 ties. His UCLA totals were 66 wins, 19losses, 1 tie. His 1954 team was generally (but not universally) recognized asthe national champion—at least co-national champion. Sanders was Coach of theYear, an achievement in which he took great pride.

It was part ofSanders' coaching technique to be aloof. It was an attitude he carried overinto private life, and some hangers-on at the UCLA practice field have beenknown to puff with pride if "Coach" acknowledged their presence witheven a cordial "Hello." When he wanted to, Red Sanders could becaptivating. He had the intelligent man's unfailing sense of humor, but thejokes had to be wry and, on the whole, sophisticated.

He would driverecalcitrant players with sarcasm, but a sarcasm which sometimes even drew alaugh from the victim. "O'Farro," he would yell from his practice-fieldtower, "you ran up to that man like you were trying to borrow money fromhim."

He told hislinemen on occasion that "you guys are running through there like a bunchof Easter bunnies." He advised his teams to "hitch up your guts."He dealt always in superlatives and sprinkled them liberally through hismimeographed memos which led off his scouting reports distributed to the teamon game weeks. "UCLA now has its best offensive in history....""UCLA has the finest first team in its history...." And so on.

Unfailinglypolite, Sanders nevertheless never let people come too close. He was a shy man.He was an excellent public speaker, but suffered horribly from stage fright. Itis probable he had fewer close friends than any celebrated man in America. Heseemed always to be nursing some private disillusionment for which he bore nogrudge but which precluded his ever leading with his heart with anyone.

To those whodidn't know him, he could seem sometimes selfish and grasping. He was actuallygenerous. He had many admirers but he inspired awe along with affection. Thepersonality was so electric, one hesitated to touch it. Impatient withamenities, Sanders was a man whose friends even hesitated to claim friendship."I have covered Red for nine years and I think I know him better thananyone," one sportswriter confesses. "But at the end of that time Idon't think I knew him a lot better than the first time I met him."

WELCOMED RAFERJOHNSON

This had been abusy week for Red Sanders. Fall practice was to open on September first and Redwelcomed the invigoration a new football season always brought. On Wednesdaynight, he journeyed with a gay group of hundreds of students and sports fansout to the International Airport to welcome home one of UCLA's greatestathletes, Rafer Johnson, who, along with Kenny Washington and JackieRobinson—and Red Sanders—has insured that UCLA's athletic reputation willendure as long as games are played anywhere.

Sanders was in afestive mood as he posed cheerfully with Rafer (above) and Rafer's family afterwaiting nearly four hours for a plane that did not arrive until well pastmidnight, delayed by a bomb scare in New York.

The next morningSanders awoke late and went to his office for a coaches' staff luncheon. Heleft shortly after without saying where he was going.

At 4:30 p.m., theshocking news cracked over the radio and press teletypes. A man identified asRed Sanders had been found dead in a hotel room on Beverly Boulevard. The roomwas registered in the name of an acquaintance of Sanders, W. T. Grimes. Alsopresent was a young woman named Ernestine Drake, who, she told police, did noteven know that Sanders was a football coach.

Red, they said,had complained of the heat and humidity when he arrived in the unfashionablehotel room. He had removed his shirt and tie and dispatched Grimes for somerefreshment—soft drinks, Grimes pointedly told police. While he was gone,Sanders suddenly began gasping for breath and clutching his chest. He fell tothe floor. He was still there, dead, when the police ambulance arrived at thehotel one hour later.

No one knew RedSanders had a bad heart—unless it was Red Sanders and some cardiologist swornto secrecy. But anyone with a stethoscope and a degree would have been able totell it. His heart was enlarged nearly twice normal. Scar tissue indicatedlong-standing coronary heart disease, an advanced case.

Death is neverfortunate, but this was a particularly unfortunate way to die. For Red Sandersmoved, most often, in a level of society a great deal more proper than the onein which death overtook him.

The plain factabout Red Sanders as a coach and as a human being was that he had always beengood at what he did, but never lucky. The nadir of his professional careerprobably came, not with the PCC penalties, but in the 1956 Rose Bowl Game.Sanders took on one of the best football squads ever put together, the 1955Michigan State Spartans. His outmanned athletes played brilliant chess footballfor almost four quarters, gave Michigan State ground in the middle of the fieldin order to stall them near the goal line.

With two minutesto play, UCLA had wrung a 14-14 tie, had just stopped Michigan State on their20-yard line when a field goal, rushed by their line, had missed. They had theball and two minutes to win, the passer to do it in Ronnie Knox.

What could havebeen Red's finest moment turned to dross. Assistant Coach Jim Myersunnecessarily signaled for the quarterback to pass. A visiting Big Ten officialspotted him and called an unusual, and seldom invoked, penalty. A comedy oferrors ensued and finally Sanders' team had to punt. The high punt soared toohigh and the UCLA captain ran into the receiver. Michigan State again had theball near the 20. This time the field goal was good. What was to have been amonumental triumph was just another Pacific Coast defeat.

In the dressingroom afterward, Red Sanders' face was a mask of tragedy. But he sought nosympathy. "Sometimes," he said, "no matter what you do, you'rebound to lose. And when you do, you just have to face it."

And that may beas apt an epitaph as any.

PHOTOON THE DAY BEFORE HE DIED: SANDERS WITH RAFER JOHNSON

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)