SI Vault
Joel Sayre
December 26, 1955
Red Sanders, whose Bruins meet Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, not only is the country's leading exponent of single-wing football, but he once topped Bob Hope in a Most Valuable Citizen contest
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December 26, 1955

He Flies On One Wing

Red Sanders, whose Bruins meet Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, not only is the country's leading exponent of single-wing football, but he once topped Bob Hope in a Most Valuable Citizen contest

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Coach Henry (Red) Sanders, whose UCLA Bruins meet Michigan State in the Rose Bowl next Monday, is a man of enormous self-control. In his next-to-last game this fall, against Washington, it seemed to every UCLA rooter watching or listening that a horrible disaster had befallen: with 18 seconds of the last quarter left to play, Washington, a four-touchdown underdog, was leading 17-16. A Washington victory would belt UCLA out of the Rose Bowl. UCLA had one last forlorn hope—a field goal attempt by Wingback Jim Decker. Taut on the sidelines, the UCLA subs clenched their fists and gritted their teeth; the UCLA fans were dying of fright. As Decker waited for the center's snap, Sanders on the bench returned the spotter's phone to its cradle, crossed his legs and folded his arms. Decker's 25-yard kick was good. Uclans at the game gave indications of taking the Los Angeles Coliseum apart nut by bolt. Sanders didn't even get to his feet. "Hell, now, isn't that nice?" was all he said.

If having a firm grip on his emotions sets Red Sanders somewhat apart from his confederates in the agonizing profession of football, there are other facets to this interesting man that make him almost a curiosity. In the matter of predictions, for instance, Red Sanders is a boon to all the fans who have become sick of the Gloomy Gus type of coach who bleats that his kids will be lucky to make a first down. If prospects look bright, Sanders will say, "Well, yes. I think we'll have a good team this year." He made such a declaration before the 1954 season started, and UCLA ended in a tie with Ohio State for the mythical National Championship. Although only two members of the 1954 starting team—Decker and the great fullback, Bob Davenport—were returning this year, UCLA's prospects for another dazzling season looked good. "I think," he predicted, "we have an excellent chance of playing in the Rose Bowl."

Then there is training. Jess Hill of Southern California fired a star end off the squad this fall for training infringements. Coaches have been known to roll the iron ball over a player caught sneaking a fast cigaret. Sanders regards such "disciplinary" action as downright silly. Although single-wing football with its emphasis on speed and blocking demands superb condition, there are no antismoking regulations on Sanders' squads. In fact, there are no hard and fast training rules at all. If a player needs the afternoon off for any good reason, he doesn't have to ask permission to skip practice. Sanders strives for perfection, admits he never attains it, and conducts his practices on a high-speed basis, with no horsing around. His players are enthusiastic, and the hard workers are excused early. This fall he abruptly called off practice on the Thursday before the Southern California game. The team started slowly, but eventually defeated Southern Cal 17-7, playing its strongest game of the year.

Decisive victories have been a pretty regular occurrence in the life of Red Sanders ever since he was named head football coach at UCLA early in 1949. Sanders had compiled an admirable record in six previous seasons at Vanderbilt, but to skeptical southern California sportswriters—who hadn't correctly assayed the quality of play in the Southeast—he still had to prove himself. This he did, and promptly. In his first year, UCLA finished second in the Pacific Coast Conference, which is just six places above where the team had finished the preceding season. Since then, Red Sanders' UCLA teams have won three championships in succession, finished second twice and third once. For the performance of the 1954 team, Sanders was voted Coach of the Year by 173 of his fellow coaches.

In the past four seasons, UCLA has won 34 games, lost 4 and tied none. At the end of the 1950 season, although third in the conference, UCLA knocked the living whey out of Southern Cal (39-0), and overnight Greater Los Angeles drafted Red as a community pillar. When the Los Angeles Mirror ran a contest to determine the city's Most Valuable Citizen, it was a Sanders landslide, with staggering pluralities over Bob Hope, Harold Lloyd and the current chief of police. At the conclusion of the 1954 season, UCLA's Associated Students organization presented a certificate of merit: "We express our humble appreciation to Coach Sanders, the finest, most beloved and respected coach in the nation."

From almost the beginning there was always something unusual about Red Sanders. Even his nickname doesn't really fit him. His hair, which is now iron-gray, curly and still fairly copious, has never been red. He has brown eyes and his complexion, which is dark, never turns choleric even when he is in choler, which is every now and then. In Nashville, Tenn., his home town, he took up football in grammar school and became quarterback, captain and coach of a hot sandlot team. When it rained on game days, Red would bawl inconsolably. A favorite uncle used to say: "You look and sound more like a scrub red Jersey bull than a boy," and from this pronouncement the nickname evolved. Even Sanders' wife—the former Ann Daniel, a gracious Floridian lady who serves as his secretary and receptionist when his teams travel, invariably addresses him as Red.

Sanders has a large scar on his right cheek. He got that at the age of 3 when he pulled over on himself a heavy, glass-doored cabinet containing guns and fishing rods. The scar probably should make him look tough but actually it doesn't. He just doesn't look Californian. He has a large nose and a sort of bee-stung upper lip; you see a lot of men with that general facial pattern in the South. Sanders' expression in repose might be described as moderately wry; but when he is amused, which is often, his face has a way of lighting up that is good to see. He likes clothes and is a conservative and neat dresser. He is 5 feet 8 inches tall and in better shape than an old quarterback has a right to be at 50.

It is probably Sanders' mental attitude that enables him to keep in trim. Everybody who follows football knows that during the fall months most coaches—from the junior high school level up—undergo strains and agonies, tortured by cruel and unreasonable demands from the fans or their own psyches. On Friday nights Lou Little of Columbia can never sleep. On Saturday mornings Bud Wilkinson rises at dawn and scrubs out his wife's kitchen, although it never needs it. A gastric disorder forced Notre Dame's Frank Leahy out of coaching.

Red Sanders is plagued by no such torments. Twelve months out of the 12, his appetite and digestion are excellent; his slumbers season-long are unruffled. His wife asserts that his disposition is better during football season than at any other period of the year. Not that he is philosophical about losing. "Sure, winning isn't every thing," he once declared. "It's the only thing."

In his first interview with the Los Angeles press, somebody asked Sanders a gag question about character building. Sanders replied in the cadence of Nashville: "I'm for character all right, but first we've got to get a number of big, strong, phenomenal animals that can run fast." Sanders has been immensely popular ever since. In 1949, it was rumored Sanders would accept a dazzling offer from the University of Florida. One night thousands of students, carrying torches and placards of protest milled around in front of his apartment house. Sanders first looked out of the window and then cracked to his wife: "Which one of 'em's got the rope?" A few days later a streamer in a local sports section proclaimed: RELAX! SANDERS WILL STAY. Everybody did relax; Sanders stayed.

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