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Red Sanders
James Murray
August 25, 1958
A searching essay appraising the man and the football wizard whose sudden death shocked the sports world
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August 25, 1958

Red Sanders

A searching essay appraising the man and the football wizard whose sudden death shocked the sports world

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With a largely southern coaching staff brought to Los Angeles with him from Vanderbilt in Tennessee, Sanders played more Negroes than almost any university in the entire country, certainly more than his principal coast rivals. It has been claimed that this was because UCLA, a state university, enrolled more, but this argument is invalid. Football players are not selected from the student body at large in this day and age of big-time college football. They are selected as carefully as members of the Union League Club, and it is perfectly possible to find 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 of Sanders' record are evidence enough of his prowess as a coach. His career totals were 102 wins, 41 losses, 3 ties. His UCLA totals were 66 wins, 19 losses, 1 tie. His 1954 team was generally (but not universally) recognized as the national champion—at least co-national champion. Sanders was Coach of the Year, an achievement in which he took great pride.

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

He would drive recalcitrant players with sarcasm, but a sarcasm which sometimes even drew a laugh from the victim. "O'Farro," he would yell from his practice-field tower, "you ran up to that man like you were trying to borrow money from him."

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

Unfailingly polite, 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. It is probable he had fewer close friends than any celebrated man in America. He seemed always to be nursing some private disillusionment for which he bore no grudge but which precluded his ever leading with his heart with anyone.

To those who didn't know him, he could seem sometimes selfish and grasping. He was actually generous. He had many admirers but he inspired awe along with affection. The personality was so electric, one hesitated to touch it. Impatient with amenities, 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 than anyone," one sportswriter confesses. "But at the end of that time I don't think I knew him a lot better than the first time I met him."

WELCOMED RAFER JOHNSON

This had been a busy week for Red Sanders. Fall practice was to open on September first and Red welcomed the invigoration a new football season always brought. On Wednesday night, he journeyed with a gay group of hundreds of students and sports fans out to the International Airport to welcome home one of UCLA's greatest athletes, Rafer Johnson, who, along with Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson—and Red Sanders—has insured that UCLA's athletic reputation will endure as long as games are played anywhere.

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

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