BOZICH | Brohm set Western Kentucky football bar high for Sanford
Over the last six seasons, Willie Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Jeff Brohm raised the expectations at new football coach Mike Sanford will face at Western Kentucky.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Willie Taggart was recruited by Oregon to make America fear the Ducks again.
Purdue settled on Jeff Brohm to make the Big Ten West pay attention to the Boilermakers again.
Those jobs come with great expectations but also time to tune the guitar. Taggart and Brohm must play the part of Mr. Fix It by 2020 (or maybe 2019 if the Nike muscle gets impatient in Eugene).
Nobody has asked Mike Sanford to fix anything at Western Kentucky. There's no three-year plan, no discussion of what the Hilltoppers can achieve by 2019, no request to paint the walls.
Because of the work by Taggart, Bobby Petrino and Brohm, the Hilltoppers have delivered six consecutive winning seasons, climbing to eight wins or more the last four years.
They've been good. They've been entertaining. They've been consistent. They've seen three consecutive coaches win -- then leave to get paid.
If Brohm wins six games this season, they'll schedule a parade in West Lafayette. How many must Sanford win before they're tossing confetti in Bowling Green?
I stuck my nose in Phil Steele's College Football Yearbook when Sanford and two WKU players (cornerback Joe Brown and offensive tackle Matt Nord) visited WDRB Thursday.
Not only did Steele predict the Hilltoppers as the Conference USA East champs, he wrote that two of his nine sets of computer power rankings show that WKU would win 12-0 (winning road games with Illinois and Vanderbilt).
I shared the news with Sanford.
"The exact role model for me was Bryan Harsin taking over at Boise State," Sanford said.
"In 2014, I came in as the (Boise) offensive coordinator on that staff. Taking over for Chris Petersen. That was eight years of two Fiesta Bowl victories. That's on a completely different level of really unseen success on the Group of Five level.
"You want to talk about pressure. That's legitimate pressure. We tried to take a good product and make it even better. That's really what we're trying to do this year. There's a precedent set and we look forward to working toward that goal."
(Boise followed Petersen's farewell 8-5 season by going 12-2, winning the Mountain West before defeating Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl.)
Like Brohm and Taggart, Sanford is a first-time head coach. Like Brohm and Taggart, Sanford prepared for his moment with the game's most demanding names.
For Taggart, that was Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. For Brohm, it was Howard Schnellenberger and Petrino.
For Sanford, it was Brian Kelly, who empowered Sanford to run the Notre Dame offense in 2015-16. His coaching DNA also reflects David Shaw (Stanford), Petersen (Boise) and Sanford's father, Mike, who'll run WKU's special teams and coach the running backs.
At Notre Dame, Sanford, 35, was applauded for putting 38 points on Texas and 41 on USC -- and second-guessed for scoring 10 against Stanford and 27 against Navy. At Notre Dame, there is little middle ground. You're great or you're terrible.
"There is no greater stage in football than Notre Dame," Sanford said. "Period. End of story.
"What you really learned through that is it comes back to the same stuff. Regardless of the pomp and circumstance and the bright lights and NBC contract, 24-carat gold helmets, it comes back to the players and the relationships you build with those players.
"You take all the other stuff away and you make it about the players and preparing them to play the game of football. And that's really what I learned from that experience -- the purity of just getting your players ready to play and letting them cut it loose and have fun."
If the WKU players are as prepared as their coach, the Hilltoppers will be fine. Sports Illustrated ranked his hire as a B-plus, one of the five best of the off-season. Athlon put Sanford seventh on a list of 21 new coaches, ahead of Lane Kiffin at FAU and Ed Orgeron at LSU.
The vital signs are encouraging because Sanford inherited an offense with the central nervous system intact. Among returning quarterbacks, Mike White ranks second in yards per attempt and passing rating.
Sanford ran the offense for Kelly at Notre Dame the last two seasons. He believes White can make all the throws.
"He's not only the glue, he's the oar that's steering the ship," Sanford said. "He's the anchor that's kept things calm through some rough waters with transition.
"I can't speak highly enough about Mike White and just his demeanor, his poise. But also his talent. He's an incredibly talented quarterback. Terrific arm talent. Great touch on his deep passes. For a guy of his size and stature, a very, very accurate quarterback."
The offensive line must replace tackle Forrest Lamp, a second-round NFL pick. Sanford said the group has four guys who have played starter's minutes. He said he liked his three veteran running backs but must develop receivers.
"Defensively how quickly can we establish ourselves in a new scheme," Sanford said. "I feel very, very good about defense."
The pre-season magazines are saying nice things about the Hilltoppers. WKU earned 20 of 28 first-place votes to win the East Division at CUSA Media Day. I believe I mentioned that Steele said two of his computer formulas have WKU finishing 12-0.
"The game of football, it's a strange ball," Sanford said. "You throw it up in the air and you have no idea which way it's going to bounce.
"That's really going to be how depth holds up at certain positions. Certainly the jelling of the passing game with new receivers … hopefully one commonality is that we're a double-digit win team."
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