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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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Henry Russell (Red) Sanders, who died suddenly and shockingly in a downtown Los Angeles hotel room last week, was one of the few men in football coaching who genuinely merited the accolade "wizard." Whatever special talents of psychology and acumen coaching took, Red Sanders had them in abundance. His death leaves a gaping hole not only at UCLA but in all Pacific Coast football. The West Coast never held its head as high in the Rose Bowl as when a Sanders eleven took the field to represent it.

UCLA teams under Sanders so unmistakably bore the stamp of good coaching that you were always aware it was the team that was good, not the players. Sanders got good football players. All successful coaches have to. But just as often, Sanders made standout stars out of boys other recruiters overlooked.

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

Sanders was a master technician, particularly at defense. It was his firm belief that defense wins football games and championships. To prove his point, he stuck with the archaic single-wing offense, the Model T Ford of football offenses, in which the opponents were never surprised, merely overpowered. Sanders' real offense was the mistakes his iron-gang defensive line could force the opponents to make.

He picked his players for resoluteness of purpose rather than ingrained skill. He was fond of saying, "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 high and holy art. Red had private moments of cynicism, but not about football. He kept all-state halfbacks on the bench throughout their college careers whenever he thought he detected an attitude of scorn on their part, and he once admitted he delved into the disciplinary history of athletes before allowing his recruiters to approach them.

He encouraged absolute autonomy on the part of his players on game day but demanded complete subservience from them on the practice field. He drove himself and his players ferociously to build his football empire, but once he had the production line functioning—circa 1952, or four years after he had signed on at UCLA—he was able to relax and run his operation much like a chairman of the board. The Pacific Coast Conference penalties two years ago brought him tumbling down from his chairmanship and back into shop foremanship once again. Red's life may very well have been shortened by the necessity for him to get back to grass roots coaching to reassemble the remnants of his squads. (His best players were restricted to a half season of play in the last two seasons.)


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

It would be futile and unworthy to pretend Red Sanders didn't play as hard as he worked. He loved good music and good whisky. The music was Dixieland, the whisky Jack Daniel's.

Red was a Southerner by birth and predilection. He had some of the prejudices of the South when he first arrived in southern California because he didn't realize they were prejudices. They were, if such a thing is possible, innocently acquired. The crime, if any, was heredity. But Sanders used the epithet for Negroes, for instance, so innocently in his early career that he once used it addressing a mixed audience. It had never occurred to him it would be offensive because he had not intended it as such. As it turned out, it was the white persons in the audience who raised a public protest. The Negroes accepted it in the 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 was necessary to put on a special set of manners.

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