Charlotte 49ers coach Ron Sanchez: It is about ‘us’
It was a gut wrenching moment for Bennett, whose team had just become the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in tournament history.
Bennett knew Sanchez had been talking to Charlotte 49ers athletics director Mike Hill that weekend about their opening for a head coach, a conversation that had Bennett’s blessing.
As the entire college basketball world waited for Bennett to emerge from the locker room to explain what had just happened on the Spectrum Center floor against UMBC, Bennett first sought out Sanchez.
“I hope this didn’t cost you (the 49ers) job,” Bennett said to Sanchez.
A few days later, Hill hired Sanchez, charging him with what might be one of college basketball’s toughest tasks: resurrecting the 49ers’ once-proud program, mired in a 13-year stretch during which it has fumbled along through mediocrity and, most recently, futility.
A career assistant, Sanchez, 43, takes over a program that has 11 NCAA tournament appearances, but none since 2005. Last season’s 6-23 record included a 15-game losing streak – longest in school history – and the 49ers failed to qualify for the Conference USA tournament. Attendance at Halton Arena (a 4,009 average last season) has slipped to an all-time low.
When interim coach Houston Fancher was let go, Hill turned to Sanchez, who was at Bennett’s side during rebuilding projects at Washington State and Virginia.
Before, Sanchez was able to quietly do his work in the background, with Bennett taking the credit or shouldering the blame.
“Tony was taking the hits; I had the shelter,” Sanchez said.
Now it’s Sanchez’s turn.
“When those waves are slapping against the boat, you have to understand there are things you have to hold on to and to be steady in your resolve,” Bennett said. “Charlotte’s found a guy in Ron who’s able to do that.”
‘Kindhearted, good man’
Sanchez wasn’t surprised when Bennett told him he was concerned for his chances at landing the 49ers job.
“There was Tony, not letting the moment get bigger,” Sanchez said. “That’s the number one thing I learned from him. Even at that moment, when the entire world of college basketball was focusing on him – and not in a very good way – he wasn’t thinking about what he was going to say about that. He was more concerned with somebody else.”
Bennett said Sanchez has that way about him, as well.
“He would drive a player to his grandmother’s house, even though it was a really inconvenient time,” Bennett said. “He’d take our senior players, after they were done, to get them fitted for suits, so they’d be ready for the ‘real world’ after college.”
Sanchez dropped by the Cavaliers women’s basketball team’s get-together to watch its NCAA tournament selection television show “just so he could congratulate the girls,” Bennett said.
Perhaps most telling for Bennett: Sanchez once drove an hour to watch Bennett’s daughter Anna compete in a track meet.
“He didn’t need to do that,” Bennett said. “He’s always thinking about the little things. Not everyone is like that. I wish I was. But that’s his nature. He’s a kindhearted, good man.”
But Sanchez won’t let kindness get in the way of toughness. Akil Mitchell, a former Charlotte Christian star who was recruited to Virginia by Sanchez, said they clashed quite often.
“Hey, he’s kind of a fiery guy,” said Mitchell, who’s now with the Brooklyn Nets’ organization. “I’m sure we bumped heads 10 or 15 times, at least. He’d be on me about changing my shot or something that (ticked) me off that I didn’t agree with. We wouldn’t talk to each other for a day or two. But every time, he’d grab me and take me aside for lunch or dinner or invite me to his house.
“I don’t know that we’d make up, but I knew he was showing me much love.”
Sanchez doesn’t see those two personality traits as being mutually exclusive.
“Kindness isn’t soft or a weakness,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s really easier not to be kind. It’s harder to be kind. You have to react certain ways with these young people. When times are hard, it’s OK to be kind. I don’t think that has to have an impact on the outcome, on how you speak to someone. I would hope that’s how somebody would react to me when I make a mistake (at Charlotte). Because I’m going to make some.”
Loved the salt water
“It was warm and I loved salt water,” Sanchez said, smiling at the memory. “I spent a lot of time in the ocean when I was a kid.”
San Pedro de Macoris is a baseball hotbed, producing players like Sammy Sosa, Julio Franco and Robinson Cano. And although Sanchez’s father and brothers all played baseball and were huge fans of the game, Ron never quite caught the bug.
“I was the black sheep of the family,” Sanchez said. “I couldn’t stand the heat, standing out there in center field. I never really had a talent for the sport.”
When Sanchez was 7, his family moved to the Bronx in New York City, finding a home near Yankee Stadium. Sanchez soon found another athletic outlet that suited him better: basketball.
“It was easier to find a blacktop basketball court than it was nine guys and a baseball diamond,” Sanchez said. “Basketball became my positive addiction. We had midnight gym runs. And there were a lot of really good people who wanted to help young kids and take them off the streets."
Sanchez, whose parents have since passed away, played in local rec leagues in middle school, then made the varsity at James Monroe High. He was a decent enough player, nothing great. But he caught the eye of Oneonta (N.Y.) State coach Jeri Mirabito at a basketball camp at Fordham one summer.
Sanchez went to Oneonta, where he blossomed on the court. As a junior, he was named player of the year in the State University of New York Athletic Conference and most valuable player of the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament.
Sanchez wanted to somehow make basketball his career. He saw how the coaches he played under in New York’s Police Athletic League had influenced him and others. He wanted to become a coach.
“You grow up in the city, and you see sports as a positive thing, it kind of becomes your identity,” Sanchez said. “I felt it was a way for youth to have something they can own. I wanted to be a part of that.
“I felt that basketball is such a gift, and I used it to move on and get a college education. I wanted to use that to help other kids to see that they could do the same. That was my true purpose in this. That’s the reason I’ve been placed here. I want to have the same type of impact at this level.”
Sanchez landed an assistant’s job at Oneonta after he graduated.
“He was like Superman and Clark Kent,” said Paul Clune, Oneonta’s head coach at the time. “He was very mild-mannered off the court, but he was a tough city kid who took no crap as a player or when he was out on the floor coaching.”
After coaching one season at Oneonta, Sanchez went to Delhi (N.Y.), where he was associate head coach for two seasons. Sanchez then landed as a volunteer on coach Mike Davis’ staff while attending graduate school at Indiana.
To Washington State, then Virginia
His time in Bloomington was meaningful. First, it’s where he met his wife, Tara, a player on Indiana’s women’s team. He also was introduced to the Bennett family, first through former Hoosiers women’s coach Kathi Bennett, who in turn introduced Sanchez to her dad, Dick, who was retired at the time after a successful coaching career, most recently at Wisconsin.
With Dick Bennett serving as a mentor, Sanchez was a sponge around the Hoosiers men’s program, helping any way he could. He did a bit of everything for Davis: cutting film, rebounding for players late at night in Assembly Hall, driving Davis’ son to school if Davis knew he couldn’t get there to do it. He sat with Davis’ son in the stands during the Hoosiers’ loss to Maryland in the 2002 national championship game in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
Dick Bennett came out of retirement in 2003 to take the job at Washington State, which had won four Pac-12 games in three seasons. Dick Bennett brought along Sanchez as director of basketball operations and also hired son Tony as an assistant.
Tony replaced Dick at Washington State in 2006 and promoted Sanchez to assistant coach. The Cougars went to the NCAA tournament twice in three seasons, with Sanchez playing a key role in recruiting players such as Klay Thompson (now with the Golden State Warriors) to Pullman.
In 2009, Tony Bennett took the job at Virginia, which had slipped to the lower rungs of the ACC ladder. Bennett brought Sanchez with him to Charlottesville.
As the Cavaliers returned to national prominence, Bennett saw a transformation in Sanchez, whom he promoted to associate head coach in 2015. It wasn’t a matter of if Sanchez would find the right offer to be a head coach, but when.
“I thought he was moving in that direction, the last two years specifically,” Tony Bennett said. “I remember commenting to people that I really think Ron is ready. I saw him take another step forward, with the way he thought through the game, his maturity level. He had it earlier in his career, but I think this was his time.
“He would make suggestions about adjustments, things in the game. He was seeing things on another level. That made me think he’s really ready for this. It makes sense. He should pursue it hard.”
Said Sanchez: “I was really comfortable at Virginia. But I felt called to get uncomfortable.”
3 coaches, 3 years
At Charlotte, Sanchez could have as many as four starters back next season (if senior guards Jon Davis and Andrien White withdraw from the NBA draft and return). The rest of the roster appears to be firm, with no players transferring out of the program due to the coaching change.
Two of the three high school recruits signed last fall by former coach Mark Price have indicated they will stay with the 49ers. (Greensboro’s Isaiah Bigelow received his release from Charlotte and signed with Wofford.) Forward Brandon Younger of Marietta, Ga., became Sanchez’s first signee earlier this week.
It appears to be a relatively stable roster, yes, but also one that produced all of six victories last season. So, for now, Sanchez preaches patience in what he sees as potentially a lengthy rebuilding effort.
“You have to brace yourself,” Sanchez said. “You can’t take a shortcut in the process. You have to go through it. You can’t avoid what’s coming. You can’t work your way around it.”
During his introductory news conference at Charlotte, Sanchez acknowledged how difficult a time it has been for the team. Price was fired in November after Charlotte got off to a 3-6 start. Fancher replaced Price for the rest of the season.
“They didn’t sign up to have three coaches in three years,” Sanchez said. “That’s not what any athlete signs up for.”
Slowly, Sanchez is getting a feel for his players.
“I feel like we’re dating, just getting to know them a little at a time,” he said. “I don’t want to fool them and I don’t want them to fool me. Whether it’s a guy who’s here for just one more season or one that’s got two to four more, I want to feel like we’re going to have a long-term relationship.
“You want to get to know your guys, then everything else will take care of itself at the right time. Right now there’s a wall between us. I didn’t recruit them. I don’t have relationships that I built with them starting when they were 15. It’s just been a few weeks. We don’t know each other yet, but eventually we will.”
There are early signs of that wall cracking.
“The first two weeks, I didn’t get it; but now I do,” senior center Jailan Haslem said. “But now guys are talking in the locker room, saying they like where the program is headed. I think we’re buying in. We’ve signed in for a whole new culture – as long as we work hard.”
Bringing Cavs’ style
Sanchez has said he will incorporate the methodical style of basketball he learned from Tony and Dick Bennett, including the Cavaliers’ “Pack” defense (Sanchez said the term “Pack Line” used in the media over the years is a misnomer).
“You’d better have your hands up (on defense), let’s put it that way,” said sophomore guard Ryan Murphy, who is recovering from a broken foot. “That’s what he preaches. I’ve got that stuck in my head.”
And if that style of basketball produces victories, that’s good enough for the players.
“I watched a few Virginia games, but they were always so slow,” said Haslem. “I’d turn the channel because I like watching a fast pace. But I’m excited about playing this brand of basketball. There’s an emphasis on the fundamentals, the small things.”
After the first practice this spring, Sanchez took the team to a pizza restaurant near campus. Sanchez and the players sat outside, ate and talked. The conversation consisted mainly of everyday topics such as family and college life, “nothing staged, no script,” Sanchez said.
“He’s made it clear he cares about us, on and off the court,” said Murphy. “So far, I’ve got nothing bad to say about this guy. He’s fully invested in with us. I feel the same way about him.”
Sanchez will continue to work at knocking down that wall – whether that comes through simple kindness or tough love.
“You’ve got to know why you do this,” he said. “It’s not just about winning games. There will be times we struggle – we all struggle – when you might not know why you chose this work. There’s more to it. That will get you through the tough times.
“But this is all I ever wanted to do. It’s been my goal, my dream, to coach. I’ll be very happy with this. Life has been kind.”
David Scott: @davidscott14