LAS VEGAS — Tony Sanchez carved out a corner of celebrity in a town full of high rollers and high-wire acts as a high school football coach.
Think about that for a second. A man coaching a high school football team squeezed his name onto the marquee with some of the biggest names in the entertainment world.
No wonder he's been called The Sanchize.
But he is no Vegas veneer. The new UNLV coach has some substance to him.
He knows the game of football, how to build a winning program. He's a communicator, connects with players, coaches, community leaders, boosters, fans — whoever, whenever.
And he knows details. Sanchez filled a book with his philosophies, ideas and quotes gleaned from other coaches, tactical and operational information. He has updated it every year and brought it — complete with aerial photos of campus and future plans — to his interview at UNLV.
If there's a coach who can pull off the difficult double of jumping from high school directly into a head job at a major college and invigorating a moribund program, the 41-year-old Sanchez could be the man to do it.
"He is the right guy for this job," UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said. "We needed somebody who could come into this area and connect immediately. There have been a lot of coaches who have come through Las Vegas who were great people, but we were really irrelevant, I think, in this city and the state of Nevada. Tony has a chance to make us relevant again."
UNLV's football team has been one of the worst in FBS over the past two decades. The Rebels have had a winning record twice since 1994 and won two or fewer games eight times in the past 11 years. The struggles on the field have led to slumping at the gate.
Sanchez also is heading into waters that proved to be too turbulent for other coaches.
Three times in college football's modern era have coaches tried to go directly from high school to the major-college level. None did it successfully. Iowa's Bob Commings [1974-78], Notre Dame's Gerry Faust [1981-85] and North Texas' Todd Dodge [2007-10] went a combined 54-100-1 after making the jump.
Sanchez comes into his chance with a Vegas-show-sized advantage.
He isn't transitioning from some neighborhood high school. He's coming from Bishop Gorman, the football juggernaut across town.
In six seasons under Sanchez, Gorman went 85-5 and won six straight state titles, along with a mythical national title in 2014.
Sanchez ran Gorman like a college program, chartering planes to play games around the country while becoming a regular fixture on national television. Gorman was a big part of a reality TV show with Snoop Dogg and his son, the NFL Network brought its cameras to campus and Sanchez had a weekly radio show.
Gorman became so popular Celine Dion's people asked for tickets. So did Imagine Dragons. The team not only had a pregame hype video, actor Ving Rhames narrated it.
Sanchez already knows the recruiting game. Gorman had 41 players earn college scholarships during his tenure, including 31 to FBS programs.
He also knows fundraising. With Sanchez leading the charge, Gorman built a new $93 million campus and a 41,000-square-foot training facility that's closer to what Oregon has than any high school.
"All the off the field stuff, I'll be honest with you, is probably an exaggerated version of what we were doing before," Sanchez said. "I was in a really unique spot."
Even so, Sanchez knows he doesn't know everything.
To help the transition, he put together a staff of veteran coaches who have worked at some of the biggest programs in the country.
Kent Baer has been a defensive coordinator for 29 years, with stops at Notre Dame, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado. Offensive coordinator Barney Cotton was at Nebraska, which included a stint as interim head coach after Bo Pelini was fired, Iowa State and New Mexico State.
Offensive line coach John Garrison worked at Nebraska, defensive line coach Joe Seumalo at Oregon State and San Jose State, cornerbacks coach J.D. Williams at Utah, Washington and California. Director of football operations Dennis Slutak held the same job under Pete Carroll at Southern California.
"I'm good at what I do, that's why I'm here, but I'm smart enough to realize that this is different," Sanchez said. "There will be certain things that are a little different, so surrounding myself with guys who have been around the game, have a lot of experience, come from successful places, all been involved in turnaround process, I can lean to the left or to the right if there's something I don't understand."
What Sanchez does understand is Las Vegas. While many of UNLV's previous coaches tried to distance themselves from the bright lights of The Strip, Sanchez has fully embraced it.
UNLV's new helmets have stickers of the "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign on the back. The team's white pants have block letters that spell Las Vegas, the red and black pants have the diamond design from the old neon Stardust sign.
The Rebels' new field has the "Welcome" sign in the end zones and the yard markers overlay symbols from the Stardust sign.
In a short time, Sanchez has created a buzz for UNLV sports that hasn't been around maybe since Jerry Tarkanian and the basketball team took the city by fast break.
"He has a charisma and he's really getting people excited about what he's talking about," UNLV basketball coach Dave Rice said. "It takes time to build a program, but I have no doubt that he will do that."