Les Sanders has never played or coached at Geneva before this year, but the former Auburn High assistant knew the Panther football program well enough to want to lead it.
The Geneva City Board of Education granted the Opp native and former Luverne head football coach his wish Tuesday night, officially naming him the Panthers’ head coach during a meeting.
Sanders takes over for the legendary Donnie Chesteen, who resigned last fall because a new state law prevents legislators from being employed in other state government capacities. Chesteen represents District 87 in the Alabama House of Representatives.
Sanders, linebackers coach/special teams coordinator for Auburn High the past two seasons, said Geneva had the three major criteria he desires when considering a job: a good administration, community support and a good staff.
“I know they have a great tradition. I grew up in Opp and played against them,” he said. “When I was at Luverne, we were in the same region. I really admired the way the kids played. They were gritty and hard-nosed kids.”
Coaching at Luverne – where Sanders went 40-20 from 2008-2012 and led the Tigers to the 3A semifinals in 2009 – also gave the Geneva administration a chance to observe their future head coach.
“We had an opportunity to watch coach Sanders since we were in the same area with Luverne,” Geneva principal Mickey Bennett said. “We liked the qualities we saw. He is a high-quality, high-character man.”
Sanders takes over a program that began to trend upward under Chesteen – best known for leading Geneva to the third round of the playoffs each year from 1985-87.
Chesteen took over a Panther program that won just eight games from 2009-11. He went 14-18 the past three years, but the Panthers were 6-6 last season and reached the second round of the playoffs after stunning Aliceville in the opening round.
“Coach Chesteen had sort of revamped our system, improved our facilities and sort of got the train in motion,” Bennett said. “We just needed someone to climb aboard and take control of the locomotive. Coach Sanders and coach Chesteen are very similar. Both believe in discipline and doing things the right way.”
Sanders said Chesteen’s success made the Geneva job attractive.
“That was one of the big positives. It was a great job by coach Chesteen,” he said. “Most times when you take over, there was a problem or wasn’t much success. That was not a problem here.”
Sanders’ career has included jobs at big schools like Stanhope Elmore (defensive coordinator 2000-03), Auburn and North Jackson (linebackers, 2004-05). His stint at Auburn taught him that success comes through the same characteristics, no matter the level on which you compete.
“I learned the same things win no matter the level. Hard work and discipline … having accountability, the same things win,” he said.
Sanders said he has no preference in offensive and defensive styles, opting to utilize the talents around him the best way possible.
Sanders’ career has involved mostly defensive jobs – serving as defensive coordinator at Luverne for two seasons (2006-07) before ascending to the head coach’s role. Only one Sanders team since 2000 has failed to make the playoffs – the 2001 Stanhope Elmore campaign.
Sanders will coach the Panthers during spring training and has a few goals in mind for the two-week session.
“I want to get to know the kids, build trust with the kids,” he said. “Spring training is late in May, so we may treat it as an early fall (session). I want to learn the kids and their abilities. I don’t want to rush it.”
Retaining an experienced staff, which Sanders hopes to do, will help with those goals.
“They know how the kids need to be worked. It’s a big plus,” Sanders said.