The former professional soccer player who came to Weber State as an immigrant with a budding marketing career is now — at a “spritely 65” years old, he says — coming full circle to the sport and the university that are key to his life.
After last season as an assistant coach in Ogden, Craig Sanders now leads the Weber State women’s soccer team as interim head coach to complete some “unfinished business” with the sport.
“As a player, I was pretty good. I think I’m a better coach, but opportunities weren’t always there and this is the perfect opportunity to pay back this community, the people and the university and use this knowledge I have to put together a team that’s going to do something special,” Sanders said. “This to me is my one focus, it’s all day. I think about everything we do. I use the business acumen to plan, strategize, how do we build the program, how do we recruit.
“It’s really a most rewarding, exciting and challenging position to be in. I believe it to the depths of my soul that we’re going to do something special.”
Sanders said he would walk miles as a child in his native Durban, South Africa, to watch the local pro soccer team train, then go home and tie a ball up to a tree branch and practice the same ball-striking techniques he saw the stars doing.
Then, at the age of 18, Sanders signed with his hometown team and started that season, enjoying nine years of professional soccer before injuries slowed his career and he decided to “get on with a business career post-soccer.”
He helped coached various teams in South Africa while juggling a growing marketing career and, in 1992, emigrated to Utah amid the turmoil in his country over efforts to end apartheid.
He enrolled in a few classes at Weber State while figuring out what to do in the United States. One day in school, he sat on a hill eating his lunch while watching the men’s soccer club team practice.
He declined an invitation to practice with them on the pitch but soon found himself coaching that Wildcats team which included player Tim Crompton.
WSU appeared in the club national championship in all four seasons Sanders was coach, winning three of them (1992, 1994-95) while losing the fourth in a penalty shootout.
In the fourth season, while now working a job in Salt Lake City, the stretch became too much. Sanders groomed a graduated Crompton to take over as coach, then took on fully his “very rewarding marketing career that sent me around the world” while staying connected to the sport of soccer through local youth teams. He also served on the advisory board of Real Salt Lake when the team launched in 2004.
While Crompton coached, eventually taking over WSU’s NCAA-sanctioned women’s program, Sanders became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2006 and eventually joined the Utah Jazz marketing staff. He worked with the Jazz for 10 seasons, finishing as the Chief Marketing Officer.
In May 2019, Crompton’s 15-year tenure as WSU women’s coach ended when he was named interim athletic director. Assistant coach Meagan Thunell worked as interim head coach for the 2019 soccer season and Sanders came aboard to help during the transition.
Crompton was appointed fully as athletic director in December and, in February of this year, named Thunell an associate AD and senior woman administrator.
In between, Sanders retired from the Jazz and his marketing career in January with the desire to work full-time as a soccer coach at Weber State.
Having completed a career in one of what he calls his “two deep passions,” Thunell’s promotion opened the door for Sanders to put his soul back into the other one as the head coach.
“It’s not just a job thing, it’s not looking for something to do. There’s definitely a goal and a deep-seated motivation to do something quite spectacular with this team,” Sanders said. “I really wouldn’t have been in the country if it wasn’t for Weber State, so I’m going to use every ounce of knowledge and energy I’ve got to make them as good as they can be and maybe make a little history on the way.”
With Sanders on the coaching bench, Mike Manning returns for his ninth season as an assistant coach while Kendra Smith, a WSU player from 2011-14, enters her first year as an assistant coach.
2020 into 2021
In 2019, Sanders helped Weber State become one of the best defensive teams in the Big Sky. After taking a tough nonconference schedule on the chin, WSU gave up six goals in nine conference games — one of which was an own-goal and another on what Sanders characterized as a fluke penalty.
Sanders said he’s always employed a pressing, aggressive defensive style focused on winning the ball back as high up the field as possible, even before top pro teams like Barcelona, Man City and Liverpool started doing so.
Statistically proficient in defense and passing, the Wildcats had a problem: they couldn’t finish sets by putting the ball in the net. WSU scored just four goals in the same stretch, winning once, losing three times and finishing with five ties in conference play.
The coronavirus pandemic has postponed the 2020 fall season to the spring of 2021. When the calendar turns to the new year, Weber State women’s soccer will have played exactly one game in 2020: a 2-1 March win over Grand Canyon in what was supposed to be a multi-game offseason tournament in Las Vegas.
The Wildcats return six seniors but welcome nine freshmen onto the roster. It’s a young squad and Sanders was concerned about what that 2020 experience would do to his team’s motivation.
“We have ambitions and we were excited about the fall season, we’ve been working really hard. So to keep that momentum going without games ... it’s hard to assess where you are without games. But they’ve exceeded expectations in terms of commitment and dedication through these kind of dark days of training where there’s no reward,” he said. “We’ve really seen tremendous progress on how we want to play as a team so, despite not playing games, we’re very optimistic about the spring.”
WSU put in fall camp at 20 hours per week starting in early August before dialing back to an offseason schedule of eight hours per week a few weeks ago, which it will maintain through the end of the fall semester before taking December off.
January brings preseason camp as games are slated to start in February and conference matches arrive in March. The Big Sky slate will consist of nine games and the points leader earns the league’s bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Normally the season would have begun in early August, meaning about two days of practice per week, two games, and three days of rest or travel. So to finish his system modifications from last season, Sanders said the prolonged delay is paying off.
“It’s mind-blowing how dedicated they are. There’s been no drop off in tempo or commitment or work rate. I’ve never experienced anything in my soccer life where you go a year and not play games, so to stay at a high level of intensity to develop systems of play ... I really appreciate it,” Sanders said. “Here we have five consecutive days in a normal training period to really focus and work on the details. I think we’ve moved the needle quite dramatically and for us as a young team, that’s been a huge benefit.”
Sanders noted the “very high complement” of in-state players on his roster, which he said was all the more motivation for him as a coach.
Not only are WSU’s players from Utah, they’re hyperlocal.
Of six seniors — Mylee Broad, Jasmine Lotey, Cambrie Lake, Haley Thomas, Grace Youngberg and Kylie Harris, all of whom Sanders says have shown exceptional leadership — Broad (Weber High), Lake (Northridge), Youngberg (Fremont) and Harris (Syracuse) all hail from Northern Utah.
Mekell Moss (Northridge), Kaytlin Bradley (Roy), Yira Yoggerst (Weber), Aubrey VanOrden (Fremont), Taylor Scadlock (Roy), Trinity Kerry (Weber), Hailey Price (Bonneville), Isabella Morrison (Fremont), Olivia Barton (Woods Cross), Kinsley Napoli (Fremont), Grace Nelson (Morgan), Amy Chidester (Bountiful) and Rylee Tatton (Weber) are all from WSU’s part of the state.
In total, 26 of 31 players on WSU’s roster are from Utah.
“Nothing would give me greater joy than to give these local kids ... the platform to achieve greatness and recognition,” Sanders said. “It’s time that Weber State did something special.”
Sanders’ aspirations for WSU are unmistakable and unhidden. With the right top-level players and the right schemes to help punch above their weight, he believes in his plans for the Wildcats:
“Why should we not be a very good team in the region? And why we should not go to the (NCAA Tournament) and beat very good teams around the country?”