How Norv Turner’s nephew earned job coaching UNLV QBs
LAS VEGAS — Tony Sanchez’s corner office sits on the second floor of the Lied Athletic Complex, overlooking the sun-drenched Las Vegas strip.
Behind him, an 18-inch high-definition television with football formations from rival schools awaits him.
"We’ve come a long way," University of Nevada Las Vegas’ first-year head football coach says. "But, man, we have a further way to go."
A few doors down from Sanchez’s office, quarterbacks coach Ron O’Dell works feverishly.
O’Dell understands precisely what Sanchez is referring to.
The duo spent the past six years turning Bishop Gorman High School (Las Vegas) from a perennial state contender into a national powerhouse. Notable alumni include UFC president Dana White, Philadelphia Eagles running back DeMarco Murray, Texas Rangers third baseman Joey Gallo and Minnesota Timberwolves shooting guard Shabazz Muhammad. Star power, indeed.
Sanchez’s decorated resume at the private school included an 85-5 record, a Nevada state title in each season during his tenure and a No. 1 ranking in the country in 2014, according to PrepNation.com.
This past December Sanchez was hired to spearhead UNLV’s football program, where legendary coach John Robinson once stood guard.
The 41-year-old’s newest high-profile task: Infuse enthusiasm and a winning culture into a program that’s had one bowl win since the turn of the millennium.
Building the foundation
Sanchez’s first order of business was letting the players know they were as committed to the seniors as they were about building for the future.
Next was hiring a quality staff.
"I know the type of kid I want to recruit; now how do I go about doing that?" Sanchez said. "That’s why it was really important that we brought in guys that have done it before, who have been on the road, they know the grind and the hours and stuff that’ll it take."
Sanchez hired longtime collegiate coach Barney Cotton, who served as Nebraska’s interim head coach during last year’s bowl game against USC, as his offensive coordinator. Then, he tabbed former Colorado defensive coordinator Kent Baer to fill the same role.
O’Dell, 41, is the only member of the UNLV coaching staff that Sanchez brought from Bishop Gorman. It’s no accident, either.
Sanchez remembers over the past three or four years casually throwing around the idea of coaching at Vegas’ Division I program.
"We had many days with the sun going down on the golf course talking about coaching at UNLV," Sanchez said with a laugh.
O’Dell, however, is no stranger to coaching football at a high level. He comes from a long coaching pedigree, which includes his uncles Norv and Ron Turner.
Norv, who is the Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator, is considered one of the most innovative offensive minds in the NFL. Ron Turner, Florida International’s head coach, has a seasoned 35-year resume that spans major college football and the NFL.
"I played quarterback and I learned the position from my uncles," O’Dell said. "When I was a kid I would always go to their camps. I would just listen when they were coaching. I love the position. Now that I’m coaching it, I stress how important each snap is and to understand the situation of each play."
O’Dell’s road to coaching college football certainly wasn’t paved.
Life without football?
During O’Dell’s high school days, he was always in search of finding a home on the field.
With aspirations to play quarterback, he finally got his opportunity during his senior season.
After a short stint at Los Medanos Community College to play football, O’Dell took a new path.
Along the way, he loaded trucks working the graveyard shift at Miller Genuine Draft. A few years later, he was driving a Coca-Cola truck around the Bay Area. Yearning to get back into football, O’Dell decided to get back on track by going to school and finding a coaching gig.
He was eventually hired as the quarterbacks coach at Pleasant Valley High School (Chico, Calif.) by Sterling Jackson after two years as a student at Chico State. During his time there, he got to know a strong-armed, fiery-eyed quarterback with a relentless work ethic. The player’s name: Aaron Rodgers.
This was several years before Rodgers would eventually become the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers and a Super Bowl champion.
"We didn’t know how good he was," O’Dell said. "I don’t think he knew how good he was. He had a knee brace on and ran a 5.2 40. But he was a competitor, a hard worker and good student."
O’Dell — whose brother Dan O’Dell and uncle Ron served as the quarterbacks and head coaches, respectively, at the University of Illinois — decided to take the 16-year-old Rodgers to the college’s summer camp. Both years, O’Dell took Rodgers.
The three-day camps proved to be good experience, but they were both capped by rejection.
"We went to the same camp two years in a row, but they never offered him," O’Dell said. "At that point, it was down to either UC Davis or Cal Poly."
O’Dell spoke with Rodgers’ parents, while they mulled when and where he should go. The 26-year-old quarterbacks coach suggested that Rodgers attend Butte Community College (Oroville, Calif.) because he would be a considered a qualifier and would be able to leave after one season.
"It was their decision, obviously, but I think Aaron knew he was going to be better than that, too," O’Dell said. "So he went to Butte for a semester. From there, Cal came in and he did great things from there."
Before Rodgers went to play for Jeff Tedford at the University of California, Berkeley, he sent his highlight tape to O’Dell to ask what he thought.
"I put it in the computer and looked at it and knew it was great. I sent it to my brother at Illinois and asked what he thought. He said, ‘We missed on him, he’s awesome.’"
Two years later, O’Dell would join his brother and uncle on Illinois’ staff as a graduate assistant. In 2004, though, the entire staff was relieved following a 3-8 season.
Making the comeback
Struggling to find a job within the first few weeks coupled with having a newborn on the way, O’Dell searched for other avenues of income.
For the next four years, O’Dell sold specialty fruits and vegetables to restaurants at Melissa’s Produce in Las Vegas.
Again, the itch to coach football wouldn’t go away.
In 2009, he combed the city for potential coaching opportunities. Like he had done before, he went around local high school campuses aiming to find a job. Learning a fellow Northern California native landed the job at Bishop Gorman, O’Dell gave him a call. Days later, he was on board. In fact, the two discovered they played youth football together.
Over the course of the next six seasons, the program enjoyed plenty of success.
Throughout his time there, O’Dell notably coached the likes of Arizona starting quarterback Anu Solomon, USC high jump specialist Randall Cunningham Jr. and five-star talent Tate Martell. Martell, who is entering his junior season, has received offers from Alabama, USC, Texas A&M and more.
The experience was irreplaceable. As O’Dell plans for his first season back in college football, he’s reminded where he came from. But at the end of the day, he’s eager to maximize his players’ potential.
"I haven’t really slept really well since I got hired because all I can think about is football and my guys," O’Dell said. "I just really want them to do really well."