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USU football: Ex-Ute coach Sanford is keeping it low key in Logan

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LOGAN — Early last month, with fall camp in force, I asked Utah State assistant coach Mike Sanford about facing Utah this year.

It wasn't his preferred subject.

His favorite subject is the here and now, not there and then.

"First thing I'll say — and be sure to quote me on this — the No. 1 thing is our opening game against Southern Utah. We look at that game first," he said.

So what was I expecting? He's a coach, which means has to take them one at a time. It's in their DNA, and maybe even their contracts.

At any rate, now the Utah game is here. Sanford's reunion with the Utes arrives this Friday at Romney Stadium. Utah is where Sanford finally captured the attention that led to his first — and only — head coaching gig. Utah is also where they made history by thumbing their noses at the BCS.

The thing you should know about Sanford is that, despite a full coaching resume, the man is as unassuming as a minivan. You barely notice he's there. It's true he was the head coach at UNLV for five years, where he had a 16-43 record, finally going bust after the 2009 season. But the rest of his career he was an assistant coach, quietly secure in doing what he does.

"I think the big thing is that I'm at a point in my career where I just love coaching," he said, "and the thing I love about this situation is I've gone back to the roots of how I got into coaching and that's coaching a position."

Sanford heads up the running backs and tight ends in his first year in Logan.

"I really enjoy it," he said. "Great staff; working for Gary (Andersen) is tremendous. We have a good group of guys and I think we have enough diversity of opinion, but also synergy would be the next word. We work well together."

Let's see, did he leave anything out? He mentioned one-game-at-a-time. He praised his coaching colleagues. And he used the words "great," "tremendous" and even "synergy."

Yup, a veteran coach all the way.

But with Sanford, he uses the terms with such sincerity that you buy it. This really is a guy who didn't change when he was a head coach. I was on the field with him after the Rebels lost 45-23 at Utah in 2006. Yet Sanford was as accommodating as a concierge. Same in 2009 when Utah won 35-15 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

So last month I asked if he ever felt under-appreciated. He had coached with Urban Meyer, who was widely praised as the genius behind Utah's rise. But it was Sanford directing the offense.

"Honestly, I don't worry about that," Sanford said, sounding completely sincere. "I love coaching. I'm not coaching for personal glory or success. I'm in coaching because I love coaching and working with kids and having a positive influence on them and I love seeing them be successful."

It's just that now he's coaching in Logan instead of Salt Lake. Ask him if Utah can compete in the Pac-12 and he'll politely say, "Oh, I think so, absolutely."

But that's about all he'll say because, you know, he's not at Utah.

That doesn't mean he isn't of Utah. "I love the state of Utah," he said.

He has a house in Park City and kept a home there even while he was at UNLV. Born in Los Altos, Calif., his career has taken him to Notre Dame, Purdue, Louisville, VMI and Army, but he has always viewed himself as a western coach.

He has also coached at Southern Cal and for the San Diego Chargers.

But ask him if it will be strange to coach against his former team, the Utes, and that's when he goes into his prevent defense.

"Obviously it's a tremendous thing to have Utah come here. And obviously there's been a lot of crossover through the years," he said. "So it's going to be an exciting game."

Then he carefully added: "And there are other games on our schedule that I'm looking forward to."

"So it's a game, but I shouldn't overstate it, is that what you're saying?" I said, as we stood on the Romney Stadium floor.

"Right," said Sanford.

"I guess we've both been doing this long enough, you're not going to bite on a question like that, are you?" I said.

"No," he said.

His coaching radar was working perfectly.