Henry Russell Sanders

Henry Russell "Red" Sanders (May 7, 1905 – August 14, 1958) was an American football player and coach. He was head coach at Vanderbilt University (1940–1942, 1946–1948) and the University of California at Los Angeles (1949–1957), compiling a career college football record of 102–41–3 (.709). Sanders' 1954 UCLA team was named national champions by the Coaches Poll and the Football Writers Association of America. Sanders was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1996.

Henry Russell Sanders
Henry Russell Sanders.jpg
Sanders, circa 1955
Biographical details
Born(1905-05-07)May 7, 1905
Asheville, North Carolina
DiedAugust 14, 1958(1958-08-14) (aged 53)
Los Angeles
Playing career
Coaching career (HC unless noted)
1927–1930Clemson (assistant)
1934–1937Riverside Military Academy
1938Florida (assistant)
1939LSU (assistant)
Administrative career (AD unless noted)
Head coaching record
Accomplishments and honors
1 National (1954)
3 PCC (1953–1955)
AFCA Coach of the Year (1954)
College Football Hall of Fame
Inducted in 1996 (profile)

Known for being witty and hard driving, Sanders used the single-wing formation at Vanderbilt and UCLA. He is widely credited with coining the saying, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing".[1] When asked about the UCLA–USC rivalry, Sanders said "it's not a matter of life and death, it's more important than that!" He was the first "Wizard of Westwood" before that title was attributed to UCLA Basketball coach John Wooden.[2]


Born in Asheville, North Carolina, Sanders spent most of his youth in Nashville, Tennessee. One of his best boyhood friends and classmates at Duncan was renowned sports writer Fred Russell, with whom he would remain close friends his entire life.

Vanderbilt playerEdit

Sanders attended college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He was a four-year letterman both in football and baseball. Sanders was captain of the baseball team in his senior year and a substitute quarterback on the football team. His football coach, Dan McGugin, said of him, "Red Sanders has one of the best football minds I have ever known."

Early coaching careerEdit

Josh Cody first hired Sanders as the backfield coach of the Clemson Tigers. Sanders got his first head coaching position at Riverside Military Academy, leading its 1936 team to an undefeated season.[3] The father of Bucky Curtis hired Sanders for the job. Sanders then assisted the 1938 Florida Gators, again with Cody, and the 1939 LSU Tigers.

Vanderbilt coachEdit

He also had a successful stint as head coach at Vanderbilt, compiling a 36–22–2 (.617) record, the best mark by a coach while the school has been a member of the Southeastern Conference. Highlights included

  • A stunning upset of #7 ranked Alabama on November 22, 1941, in a driving rainstorm in Nashville;[4] up to that time, only the second time in Commodore history where they defeated a ranked team.
  • The first top-20 ranking in the school history in 1947, where the team was ranked #10 after opening the season with two wins. The team defended its ranking with a defeat of #18 Mississippi, the first time Vanderbilt played a ranked school while ranked.
  • An eight-game winning string to end the 1948 season, including a ranking in the final poll and a defeat of archrival Tennessee. This still stands as the second longest single-season win streak in Vanderbilt football history.


Sanders coached the UCLA Bruins from 1949 through 1957. He was indisputably the best football coach in school history, elevating a rarely distinguished program to an elite national power with an overall record of 66–19–1 (.773) at UCLA and earning the school its only national championship in football in 1954. As head coach of the Bruins, Sanders led them to four Top 10 National Rankngs, three Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) titles, two Rose Bowls (1953 and 1955 seasons) and to a 6–3 record over arch-rival USC.

Technically, UCLA should have played in three straight Rose Bowls from 1953 to 1955, but the Rose Bowl "no-repeat" rule denied UCLA's best team, and one of the finest in college football history (leading the country in both offense and defense) from confronting an undefeated Ohio State in the Rose Bowl to unify the National Championship on the field.[5] The 1954 Bruins were the only team ever impacted by the rule.

Sanders instituted the distinctive football uniforms worn by the Bruins when he replaced the navy blue jerseys with "powderkeg blue", added the shoulder stripe to give the impression of motion, and changed the number style from block to clarendon. Sanders said these changes also made it harder for opponents to scout his Bruins on the grainy black and white game films of the time.

The 1954 Bruins compiled a 9–0 record and climbed to the top of the Coaches Poll, sharing the national championship with Ohio State, winner of the AP Poll's title. Due to the PCC's early "no repeat" rule, the undefeated Bruins were unable to compete in the Rose Bowl that season despite being the PCC champion. Second-place USC, which the Bruins defeated 34–0, played in the 1955 Rose Bowl instead and lost to Big Ten Conference champion and eventual co-national champion Ohio State, 20–7.

Television appearancesEdit

Sanders appeared as a contestant on the November 18, 1954 episode of the television quiz program You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx.[6] and also subsequently on The Jack Benny Program "New Years Day" 1956 episode (Season 6, episode 7. Original air date: 1 January 1956).


Shortly before the 1958 season, Sanders died suddenly of a heart attack in a Los Angeles hotel room on August 14. His companion was a convicted prostitute, Ernestine Drake, described as a "blonde woman."[7][8][9][10] The room was registered in the name of his friend, W. T. Grimes, who had a record of arrests for pandering and had served prison time in San Quentin State Prison.[11] Red had complained of the heat, and asked Grimes to fetch some soft drinks. He then began gasping for breath and clutching his chest.[8] He died on the floor. His last words to Drake were, "Football is a great game. You should come out this fall and see a few games."[12] Los Angeles coroner Theodore Curphey said Sanders' heart weighed 500 grams, whereas the normal size for an inactive male is 300–400 grams, meaning that Sanders suffered from an enlarged heart.[9]

Sanders' assistant George W. Dickerson succeeded him on interim basis to for first three games of the Bruins' 1958 season, before suffering a nervous breakdown. He was replaced by William F. Barnes, who led UCLA to a record of 31–34–3 over seasons prior to his firing in 1964.


Winning isn't every thing, it's the only thingEdit

Sanders actually spoke two different versions of the quote. In 1950, at a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo physical education workshop, Sanders told his group: "Men, I'll be honest. Winning isn't everything. (Long pause.) Men, it's the only thing!"[13] In 1955, in a Sports Illustrated article preceding the 1956 Rose Bowl, he was quoted as saying "Sure, winning isn't every thing, It's the only thing."[1] The quote has since been erroneously attributed to Vince Lombardi as the originator.

Beating 'SC is not a matter of life or death, It's more important than thatEdit

While at UCLA, another famous quote was attributed to Sanders regarding the UCLA–USC rivalry, "Beating 'SC is not a matter of life or death, it's more important than that."[14][15]

Personal awardsEdit

  • 1946 Blue-Gray Game, Montgomery, Alabama, Coach
  • 1951 East–West Shrine Game, San Francisco, Coach
  • 1952 College All-Star Game, Chicago, Coach
  • 1952 North–South Shrine Game, Miami, Coach
  • 1953, 1954, and 1957 Football Coach of the Year – Los Angeles Times National Sports Awards Dinner
  • 1954 Coach of the Year – National Collegiate Football Coaches' Association and the Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C.
  • 1984 UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame (Charter Member)
  • 1996 College Football Hall of Fame

Head coaching recordEdit

Year Team Overall Conference Standing Bowl/playoffs Coaches# AP°
Vanderbilt Commodores (Southeastern Conference) (1940–1942)
1940 Vanderbilt 3–6–1 0–5–1 11th
1941 Vanderbilt 8–2 3–2 6th
1942 Vanderbilt 6–4 2–4 8th
Vanderbilt Commodores (Southeastern Conference) (1946–1948)
1946 Vanderbilt 5–4 3–4 7th
1947 Vanderbilt 6–4 3–3 5th
1948 Vanderbilt 8–2–1 4–2–1 4th 12
Vanderbilt: 36–22–2 15–20–2
UCLA Bruins (Pacific Coast Conference) (1949–1957)
1949 UCLA 6–3 5–2 2nd
1950 UCLA 6–3 5–2 3rd
1951 UCLA 5–3–1 4–1–1 2nd 17 17
1952 UCLA 8–1 5–1 2nd 6 6
1953 UCLA 8–2 6–1 1st L Rose 4 5
1954 UCLA 9–0 6–0 1st 1 2
1955 UCLA 9–2 6–0 1st L Rose 4 4
1956 UCLA 7–3 5–2 T–2nd
1957 UCLA 8–2 5–2 3rd 18
UCLA: 66–19–1 47–11–1
Total: 102–41–3
      National championship         Conference title         Conference division title or championship game berth


  1. ^ a b Sayre, Joe (December 26, 1955). "He flies on one wing". Sports Illustrated. p. 29.
  2. ^ Sanders Death Shocks Grid World Westwood Football Wizard Succumbs After Heart Attack. Desert Sun, August 15, 1958
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2015-02-19. Retrieved 2015-02-19.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ Alabama Crimson Tide 1941 Season Summary (PDF copy at www.rolltide.com)
  5. ^ Bonk, Thomas - Missing Memories : '54 Bruins Might Have Been Best Ever, but They Didn't Reach the Rose Bowl. Los Angeles Times,November 14, 1994
  6. ^ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xlyesk5c02o&index=8&list=PLHaioNpr_GDbvsTj_taM-jO6C1658N1PC
  7. ^ "'Athlete's heart' killed Sanders". Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press. August 16, 1958. p. 12.
  8. ^ a b Murray, James (August 25, 1958). "Red Sanders". Sports Illustrated. p. 26. Archived from the original on February 2, 2014.
  9. ^ a b Red Sanders Ruled Victim of Athlete's Heart Express and News from San Antonio, Texas, August 16, 1958 · Page 19
  10. ^ Andy Furillo (31 May 2016). The Steamer: Bud Furillo and the Golden Age of L.A. Sports. Santa Monica Press. pp. 223–. ISBN 978-1-59580-807-3.
  11. ^ http://www.scout.com/college/ucla/story/986553-red-sanders-and-a-paradise-lost
  12. ^ UCLA Grid Coach Dies Suddenly. Bennington Banner/LOS ANGELES (AP), August 15, 1958
  13. ^ Rosenbaum, Art "INDIANS FAR FROM BASHFUL AT CHOW", Los Angeles Times: Oct 18, 1950. p. C3 (1 page)
  14. ^ The Start of Something Big: USC vs. UCLA Archived 2007-08-28 at the Wayback Machine by Lonnie White, marking 75 years of the UCLA–USC rivalry
  15. ^ Burke, Anne (Editor) – Summer 2004 Bruin Walk: Rah-rah Boo-hiss. UCLA Magazine, summer 2004


External linksEdit