Mike Sanford arrived in Bowling Green two years ago tasked with continuing the upward climb of a thriving Western Kentucky football program.
The program instead slid backward under Sanford’s watch. And 16 losses in 25 games led WKU athletic director Todd Stewart to make a change.
Stewart fired Sanford during a 2 p.m. meeting Sunday. Later in the day, the AD conducted a news conference where he explained his decision to dismiss the 36-year-old who had just finished his second season leading the Hilltoppers.
“I just feel like we’ve gotten to a point where to continue down that road wasn’t an answer,” Stewart said. “The answer was having somebody else in here at the top to turn this around and get it going in the right direction.”
Sanford finished his WKU tenure with a 9-16 record. His .360 winning percentage is the worst for any non-interim Hilltopper coach since L.T. Smith went 2-5-1 (.313) from 1920-21.
After winning the 2015 and 2016 Conference USA championships under Jeff Brohm, the Toppers started Sanford’s tenure 5-2.
WKU then went on to lose 14 of its next 16 games.
The 2017 Hilltoppers dropped five of their final six outings to finish 6-7, and the 2018 squad started the year 1-9.
Sanford’s squad rallied the past two weeks for back-to-back wins against Texas-El Paso (40-14 at home Nov. 17) and Louisiana Tech (30-15 on the road Saturday).
Sources had told the Daily News on Nov. 11 that winning those two games would go a long way toward Sanford keeping his job for a third season.
WKU did just that, but those two victories weren’t enough to outweigh the negative results the program suffered under Sanford’s leadership.
“The best evaluations are the ones that encompass the most information,” Stewart said. “You can’t let three hours on the final Saturday of the season overshadow everything else.”
Sanford declined comment Sunday afternoon when reached by the Daily News. He was hired to replace Jeff Brohm in December 2016 after a two-year stint as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator.
A former Boise State quarterback, Sanford came to WKU with an offensive background. But that side of the ball struggled both seasons under his watch.
Sanford’s 2017 team ranked No. 87 across the FBS in points per game (25.5) and No. 96 in yards per play (5.32). Those numbers both represented a major drop from the previous season, when Brohm’s 2016 team led the nation in ppg (45.5) and ypp (7.65).
The running game improved in 2018 behind a better offensive line, but quarterback inconsistencies plagued the offense. Three QBs – Steven Duncan, Drew Eckels and Davis Shanley – started at least three games each for a 3-9 WKU squad.
After play Saturday, the Tops rank No. 119 across FBS in ppg (21.1) and No. 115 in ypp (5.02).
“I think Mike’s a great coach,” Stewart said. “I really do. It didn’t work out here. That’s clear. But I feel like he has a bright future. I think there’ll be a day when he’s a head coach again and he’s successful.”
Stewart brought up WKU’s ranking last week across a composite of computer indices used in the former Bowl Championship Series system. That average of six metrics – Anderson & Hester, Billingsley, Colley Matrix, Massey BCS, Sagarin-Elo and Wolfe – placed the Hilltoppers 129th in the FBS ahead of only UTEP.
WKU’s records of 3-9 overall and 2-6 in conference play were its worst since the 2010 team went 2-10 overall and 2-6 in its league schedule. That was the last Topper football team not to reach bowl eligibility until this one.
“That’s just where we were from an overall body-of-work standpoint,” Stewart said. “That’s obviously not where we can stay.”
Sanford is owed a $1.2 million buyout, according to the terms of his contract. That money will come from a pool of buyouts paid to WKU in recent years by other schools to hire football coaches Bobby Petrino (Louisville) and Brohm (Purdue) and women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard (Cincinnati).
The search is already underway for Sanford’s replacement. Whoever Stewart hires will become WKU’s sixth full-time head coach in its FBS era, which dates only to 2009.
The other five were David Elson (2003-09), Willie Taggart (2010-12), Bobby Petrino (2013), Brohm (2014-16) and Sanford (2017-18).
Stewart was an athletics administrator when Taggart was hired and has conducted the past three coaching searches as AD.
Returning WKU players weren’t made available for comment, but the Daily News spoke with two outgoing seniors, D’Andre Ferby and Mik’Quan Deane, about Sunday’s news.
Ferby, a running back who came to WKU back in 2014, expressed faith in Stewart to hire a capable replacement.
“Sanford was a unique person who indeed cared about the players and their individual development,” Ferby said. “However, at the end of the day this is a business and I have the ultimate faith in Todd that he will find the best fit for Western to get back to the success that we are used to.”
The tight end Deane inked with WKU in February 2017 as a junior-college prospect in Sanford’s first signing class.
Deane said there was some surprise among players because they weren’t sure the school had enough money to pay Sanford’s buyout.
Deane noted that the coaching industry is “a business” but praised Sanford’s staff as “a great group of guys” who “were always staying positive.”
“Coach had two seasons to get the team going,” Deane said, “and unfortunately, that didn’t happen the way we all planned it to.”
– Follow Daily News sports reporter Brad Stephens on Twitter @BradBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.