During a press conference held inside William B. Greene, Jr. Stadium on Monday, East Tennessee State University football head coach Randy Sanders announced his retirement.
Sanders enjoyed an illustrious 33-year coaching career – the last four as the leader of the Buccaneer program – where he led ETSU to a pair of Southern Conference Championships and two Football Championship Subdivision Playoff appearances.
“I want to thank Dr. Brian Noland and Scott Carter for giving me the opportunity to lead the ETSU football program,” said Sanders. “This wasn’t an easy decision. I have been fortunate to coach football for over 30 years, and I’ve really enjoyed my time at ETSU, but I am ready for the next chapter. I am looking forward to spending time with my family and being around my grandchildren. I will forever be a Buccaneer and I am grateful for all the friendships I have made during my time at ETSU.”
The 2021 season was historic as the Bucs set a program record for wins (11), while claiming their first-ever outright SoCon title and reaching the quarterfinals of the FCS Playoffs for only the second time in school history. ETSU also set single-season school records for most points scored (425), points per game (32.7), total offense (5,319), rushing touchdowns (32) and total touchdowns (53). The Bucs opened the season with a dominating 23-3 win at Vanderbilt for their second-ever win over Power-5 program, defeated three nationally ranked teams and garnered their highest ranking since the return of football at No. 8 in the AFCA Top 25 Poll. The Blue and Gold earned the No. 7 seed in the FCS Playoffs and recorded their first postseason win in 25 years by knocking off Kennesaw State in the second round, 32-31.
“It has been an honor and privilege to work with Coach Sanders these past four years,” said ETSU Athletic Director Scott Carter. “The championship culture and expectation of excellence he established for our football program was remarkable. Thank you for your friendship and tireless commitment to being our head football coach. You will forever be remembered as one of the all-time great ETSU Buccaneers who has taught us all to call our own play… I love you Coach, thank you!”
In his four years with the Blue and Gold, Sanders compiled a .605 win percentage (26-17), while the Bucs totaled 32 all-SoCon selections and 16 All-Americans under his watch, including Quay Holmes being named a Walter Payton Award Finalist, 2021 SoCon Player of the Year, 2018 SoCon Freshman of the Year, Jared Folks being tabbed 2020 SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and Matt Pyke earning the 2018 Jacobs Blocking Award. Sanders was also a two-time finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award, given to the top FCS Coach in the country. In the classroom, the Bucs had 18 SoCon Commissioner’s Medals, 25 placed on the SoCon All-Academic Team and 136 land on the SoCon Honor Roll.
Sanders’ .605 win percentage is the second-highest among all-time Buccaneer coaches, trailing only Hall of Famer Gene McMurray. His 26 victories are the sixth-most all-time among the previous 17 ETSU head coaches.
“Four years ago, I left our fall commencement ceremony and flew to Florida to convince Coach Sanders to accept the head coaching job for what was then still a fledgling football team,” said ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland. “This weekend, as we celebrated commencement, we also were celebrating our team’s run for the national FCS championship. Our team and our football program have grown exponentially under the leadership of Coach Sanders. He has taught us what it means to persevere, how to move past our inevitable mistakes, and how to avoid resting on our laurels and instead pursue ever-higher levels of excellence. Always a humble man, Coach Sanders will likely advise us to move on from his departure by following his simple but eloquent mantra of “So what? Now what?”
“But I cannot let it rest at that. So, I will note that Coach Sanders is leaving a legacy that I have no doubt will carry ETSU forward for decades to come. He will go down in history as one of ETSU’s most admired and celebrated coaches. His skill as a football coach has led to our team breaking record after record on the field, while his ability to inspire the community has led to record-breaking attendance at games. Coach Sanders is departing this university with our most profound respect, admiration, and gratitude. During this period of unprecedented global difficulties and stress, he, his team, and his fellow coaches brought joy and celebration to our community. For that, we will forever be grateful. On behalf of the entire ETSU community, I wish Coach Sanders a long and happy retirement.”
Prior to arriving at ETSU, Sanders held stints at Florida State, Kentucky and his alma mater Tennessee.
Sanders enjoyed one of the most successful five-year stretches in Florida State history. From 2013-17, Florida State totaled 53 wins, two ACC titles, won the 2013 National Championship and he coached a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. In his first year at Florida State, Sanders led Jameis Winston to become the youngest players to win a Heisman Trophy in 2013, the same season he also led the Seminoles to a 14-0 record and a national championship. In 2013, Florida State set the national record for points in a season with 723, led the nation with a passing efficiency mark of 174.69, and set both school and ACC marks with 7,267 yards of total offense, 51.6 points per game, 94 touchdowns, and 7.67 yards per play. Winston set the national record for touchdown passes by a freshman with 40, had seven 300-yard games and 11 consecutive games scoring 40-plus points.
After the 2014 season, where Florida State started the year 13-0 and earned a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, Winston became the first Seminole player to be taken No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft. Despite losing nearly all of their offensive production to the NFL draft in 2015, Sanders’ offense remained atop the ACC in offense the next year as Dalvin Cook set school records in rushing (1,691) and all-purpose yards (1,935) on his way to earning All-American honors. In 2017, Cook was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.
Sanders coached in the SEC prior to his stint in the ACC as he served as the Quarterbacks Coach at Kentucky before taking over as offensive coordinator from 2009-12. In Lexington, Sanders developed Andre’ Woodson into one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Woodson led the SEC in passing yards, total offense and touchdown passes, including a SEC record 40 in 2007. Woodson went on to be drafted by the New York Giants. During Sanders’ tenure, Kentucky won three straight bowl games for the first time in school history.
Sanders, who played collegiately at Tennessee from 1984-88, began his coaching career at Tennessee in 1989, and during the 17 years at his alma mater, the Vols compiled a record of 162-46-2 (.776). Over his run in Knoxville, Tennessee won four SEC championships and six Eastern Division crowns in addition to its national title. The Vols played in bowl games his first 16 seasons, including four Citrus Bowls, three Fiesta Bowls, three Cotton Bowls, two Peach Bowls, and one each in the Sugar, Orange, Hall of Fame and Gator bowls.
Sanders started his coaching career as the Vols’ quarterbacks coach in 1989 and 1990 under head coach Johnny Majors. The Morristown, Tenn. native became a full-time assistant coach in 1991, where he worked with the wide receivers, while Phillip Fulmer named Sanders the recruiting coordinator and running backs coach in 1993. Sanders remained in that role until 1998 when he took over as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
Sanders, a Morristown, Tenn. was the offensive coordinator when Tennessee won the 1998 BCS National Title. Sanders played a part in either coaching or recruiting a pair of No. 1 overall picks in the NFL Draft – Peyton Manning (1998) and Jameis Winston (2015).
In his 33 years of coaching, Sanders has coached in 26 bowl games, two FCS Playoffs and his teams held a combined record of 284-122-2.
Sanders and his wife, Cathy, have two daughters, Kelly and Kari, and two grandchildren.