When I arrived in Abilene in June 2007, less than a month after graduating from Baylor, my experience with the city was confined to my two-day interview with the Reporter-News.
The only things I knew about the Wylie football program I’d soon be covering for the newspaper were those I’d been told — that the Bulldogs were really good and that coach Hugh Sandifer was an icon in the south Abilene community.
It was only after being here a little while that I realized why those things were — and that those two seemingly interconnected facts stood largely independent of each other.
Sandifer, who announced Friday that he’ll be ending his 41-year tenure at Wylie when he retires at the end of this school year, is and will be remembered as a great coach. But it’s not his 285 career wins (the 17th highest total in Texas high school football history), four state championship game appearances or 2004 title run with current Redskins quarterback Case Keenum that will define his legendary career.
It is, instead, the integrity with which he operated and the way he treated and impacted people from his role as a mentor — characteristics widely celebrated in the social media response to Friday’s news and qualities to which I, personally, can attest.
I never played for or coached against Hugh Sandifer, obviously, but having covered his program in various capacities for the past 12½ years, I’ve dealt with a whole lot of folks who have. And the picture they paint of the man is the same one I’ve seen with my own eyes in working with him over that span.
So when Wylie Superintendent Joey Light called Sandifer’s integrity “above reproach” in our phone conversation Friday afternoon, I didn’t need any convincing. I’ve seen that integrity in action — and the influence it’s had on others.
I’ve seen the way Coach handled winning — the Bulldogs made it to the state semifinals or deeper in each of my first three years in Abilene. And I’ve seen how he handled losing — his final two seasons produced a 2-18 record, including a well-publicized winless campaign in 2018.
And to his great credit, he was the exact same person through both extremes.
He gave every team during his 34 years as head football coach the same level of dedication and attention, and worked hard to maximize the talents of each, whether the Bulldogs had a state championship ceiling or would be fighting just to break into the win column.
And regardless of their potential, you could always count on a Hugh Sandifer-coached team to show up well prepared, play hard and, perhaps most importantly, respect the game and their opponent.
It’s for those reasons, and many others, that he’s so well respected now.
At his program’s peak, he proved that it’s possible to win big with class, and that developing your own team doesn’t require embarrassing the one across the field. And during leaner years, he showed why wins and losses are such poor judges of a coach’s value and a team’s make-up.
And through it all, he modeled the dignity and respect he expected from each of his players.
This, to my great fortune, is another fact to which I can attest.
Arriving in Abilene as a wide-eyed sports journalist straight out of college, Coach played a more significant role than he probably realizes in helping me learn the ropes of my profession. Whether it was gracefully answering hundreds of questions — some of those better presented than others — or providing guidance without trying to influence coverage decisions, Sandifer’s thoughtful contributions made my stories about his teams better.
But it’s the personal relationship built outside of an interview setting that I’ll remember and value the most.
It’s the conversations we’d have about Baylor and Big 12 football while shooting the breeze in his office.
It’s the laughs we’d share each time he’d spin a yarn from some event in his past.
It’s the stories we’d tell down the right-field line during baseball and softball games in the spring.
It’s the kindness he’d show in allowing my kids to tag along at scheduled meetings on rare occasions when I was short on childcare options. (My 4-year-old daughter still talks about ‘Toach’ and the suckers he gave her during two-a-days).
It’s just all of the collective memories made through the years with a great coach and even better man.
Like most who had dealings with Sandifer during his four-decade tenure at Wylie, I count myself blessed to have gotten to know him and now call him a friend.
And while the Wylie sidelines won’t be the same without him, the impact he made from them will be felt for many years to come.
The man has earned his place as a true coaching legend. And I wish him and his wife, Brenda, the best in the next chapter of their lives.