Defense Wins Championships

There’s an age-old saying in football: “Defense wins championships.”

It was true for the 1985 Chicago Bears (Super Bowl XX), the 2000 Baltimore Ravens (Super Bowl XXV) and for almost all of Alabama’s 17 national titles. 

That same principle also applies to the back-to-back 7A state champion Bryant Hornets, with a lot of the credit going to third year defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Quad Sanders.

“Quad is everything I believed he could be,” Bryant Head Coach Buck James said. “He came in behind Darrell Burnett, who had done a great job with our players and made a real impression on them. (Burnett) went on to be the head coach in Hot Springs in 2018, and may be one of the best young coaches in Arkansas.”

Burnett’s departure in 2018 left James with a big hole to fill quickly, and if not for a chance meeting years earlier, he and Sanders may have missed one another altogether.

“I was coaching at UAM and recruiting a number of players at Camden-Fairview where Coach James was head coach,” Sanders said. “Between meetings, we started talking about football. It wasn’t serious, but afterward, I saved his phone number.”

James remembered that meeting, too, and when he began his search for a new coordinator, he was happy to see that Sanders applied for the position, which would be his first as a coordinator. “I thought, ‘This may be too good to be true,’” James said.

“During his interview, he had all the answers,” James said. “Speaking with the board, we threw every possible scenario at him, and he was able to provide us the answers we believed fit our program. Our philosophies lined up perfectly, but I was most impressed by his demeanor. I thought he was the ideal fit for our staff, our community and, most importantly, our athletes.”

Like many coaches, Quad Sanders’s path to Bryant was far from a straight line. A native of Grenada, Mississippi, he played at UCA and remained on staff as a graduate assistant when his career ended.

From there, he almost gave up on football in pursuit of a different line of work. “Before my first coaching job, I was on my way to sign up for the police academy,” he said. 

That trip was diverted after a call from McPherson College in Kansas and an offer to join the coaching staff. “The coach called and offered me $15,000 a year to join his staff, and I was thrilled to take it.”

Sanders was later hired at Western Colorado University in Gunnison, an area he remembers fondly as, “the third coldest place in the U.S.” From there, he was hired at UAM, where he coached the defensive line for three years and would later have that chance meeting with James.

“I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of coaches who do things the right way, but I have never worked around someone who runs his team and staff the way Coach James does,” Sanders said. “The discipline and commitment he puts into this program, his belief in doing things the right way and getting his players to do things the right way, that is the real difference. He puts the faith in his coaches to do what they do best, and he trusts us to get the job done.”

Upon joining the Hornets’ staff in 2018, one of the first things that caught Coach James’ eye regarding Sanders was how he connected with the players, something that’s not always easy to do.

“We had been playing seven-on-seven games all summer, and we were preparing for a tournament in North Carolina,” James said. “He really didn’t do much. He mainly watched how our players interacted on and off the field and offered a few suggestions throughout the week.

“He wasn’t in a big hurry to tell us everything he knew and come in guns blazing. He was able to sit with the players and hang up the whistle. He was himself, and the group really came together as they just talked and laughed. He really enjoyed that trip, serving as a coach, mentor and friend of those kids.”

The Hornets went 11-2 in 2018 and claimed the 7A Championship after a 27-7 win over North Little Rock. “What an exciting moment,” Sanders said. “To see that hard work pay off for those players in that first title run was something special.”

Bryant followed that season, going undefeated in 2019 and defending their state crown with another win over North Little Rock. For the year, the Bryant defense shut out three opponents, allowed only one touchdown against three (including in its 21-7 title win over NLR) and never allowed more than 21 points in a game.

That’s a pretty good result for a coach in his very first defensive coordinator role, and Sanders says he’s still growing as a student of the game. 

“I want to learn everything I can from Coach James before trying to move on to be a head coach,” he said. “There are so many coaches here I can learn so much from, I just want to learn everything that I can. I’m living the dream.”