Sin City
By Rick Weber

There is a plot: Mike Sanford, in his second season as head football coach at UNLV, is working long hours in an attempt to stop a streak  four straight losing seasons and transform the program into a Mountain West Conference power.

And there is a subplot: He will do it his way. He will do it the only way that will mesh with his beliefs. He will do it by offering his players a pipeline to God.

Earlier this year, he asked Dean McQuillan, FCA’s Nevada director, to be the team’s character/spiritual coach – a fancy term for team chaplain. Then he gave McQuillan complete access to the team. McQuillan is on the sideline during practice and games, travels on all road trips and prays regularly with 40 players – almost half of the team.

In the offices at UNLV they call it “The Ministry of Just Hangin’ Around.” McQuillan has full authority to impact the program for Christ. Sanford says he hasn’t seen this kind of access granted at any program he’s been around. And he’s been at USC, Notre Dame, Purdue, Utah, Long Beach State, Army and Virginia Military Institute.

“It’s probably a bit unusual for a Division I team,” he says. “That’s on purpose. On one hand, I didn’t want to shove it down the players’ throats. On the other, my faith is the most important priority in my life. The Christian faith can have a real, positive impact on young men’s lives to become the kind of men they can be, the kind of husbands and fathers they can be.

“Obviously, I’m hired to win football games. I understand that and have a very realistic view of it. But there are a lot of great things going on spiritually here. I’m very much in support of that.”

And the administration? Sanford says it is behind his move because McQuillan is “a very positive person who develops relationships with players and is not forceful or overbearing in any way.”

UNLV football is the key component to FCA’s Las Vegas ministry, which officially started July 1, 2005.

McQuillan says it was divine timing that brought he and Sanford together. Sanford was hired Dec. 6, 2004, right around the time McQuillan – who was co-pastor at Paradise Church in Las Vegas – started to think about leaving to take the FCA position.

[McQuillan] says the previous failed attempts to establish a ministry in Las Vegas had nothing to do with its reputation as “Sin City” – he says he actually likes that label because it illustrates the need for the ministry.
In March 2005, he was at a breakfast where Sanford was the guest speaker. He approached Sanford and expressed his intentions. “If that ever happens,” Sanford said, “I want you to come to my office immediately.”

The very first day on the job, McQuillan was in the football office visiting defensive coordinator Vic Shealy, son of former FCA president Dal Shealy. Sanford saw McQuillan in the hallway and greeted him. They went into Sanford’s office, and during a 45-minute meeting, Sanford asked him to be an accountability partner and to pray with him.

When Sanford asked him to be chaplain, McQuillan immediately desired the opportunity because he believed it could be an example to the high school and middle school ministries. He knew many high school coaches attended UNLV practices because they respected Sanford’s spread-option offense, which he used to turn quarterback Alex Smith into the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick in 2005.

“It’s starting to catch fire in the high school ranks,” McQuillan says. “It’s spreading from one school to the next. Instead of just going from school to school and finding committed Christians, I’m now finding coaches saying, ‘It’s one thing to be a coach who’s a Christian. It’s another thing to be a Christian coach.’

“Now the coaches are coming to me and asking, ‘When can we start a Huddle?’ – instead of me saying, ‘I’d like you to start a Huddle.’ My perception of what FCA has done in the past is based on what I’ve learned. You try to go out and get as many kids as you can and hope they stick. The attitude I have toward Las Vegas is not building a ministry that is a mile wide and an inch deep, but a ministry that’s a mile deep and maybe an inch wide. In the beginning, you build some neat relationships and strong foundations.”

One of them is with J.D. Johnson, head coach at Shadow Ridge High, which has made the state playoffs in two out of its three years in existence. McQuillan says he usually doesn’t reveal his emotional side, but that changed in early August when Johnson called him into his office and presented him with a coach’s shirt.

“They want me to take the same lead I take with UNLV football,” he says. “He’s given me carte blanche with his football team. I see this as starting a domino effect.”

He says the previous failed attempts to establish a ministry in Las Vegas had nothing to do with its reputation as “Sin City” – he says he actually likes that label because it illustrates the need for the ministry. He says that if you peel back the layers of the aura of the Strip, Las Vegas is really just another city.

“It’s not any different than Kansas City – it just happens to have the Strip,” he says. “Outside the Strip, you have a city where people have real lives, real jobs, love God, go to church and have a desire to see their kids go to Christian schools. For the visitor in Las Vegas, all they think is it’s a party town. But I’ve lived here over four years, and I absolutely love it.

“We’re still struggling to get a financial base,” he continues. “But I will say this: the ministry of FCA is very strong.”

McQuillan says God has directed everything, bringing forth the fruit. All McQuillan has tried to do is be faithful, planting the seeds and watering them, and Sanford has noticed the care and love with which McQuillan has done it.

“I love what Dean’s doing,” he says. “I love having him around. I really want him to have an influence for Christ on our team and coaching staff. I’ve talked about being a more mentally and physically tough team. Then he invited the players to meet at the 50-yard line to pray for toughness. I thought that was a great example of him supporting what we’re doing.”

McQuillan has noticed the love Sanford has for FCA – starting when he was a student at USC and continuing at every stop along the way.

“He’s very passionate for souls,” says McQuillan, who attends Hope Baptist Church along with Sanford. “Whenever we’ve had one of our players come to know Christ – and I’ve had the opportunity to lead several to the Lord – I’ll call him, and it brings great joy to his heart. He follows up to let them know he’s heard and is there to encourage them. He’s very disciplined in his walk with the Lord and his responsibilities as a coach. That disciplined attitude rolls off on the other coaches and players. They all know he loves the Lord. He has a great legacy in football, but he has an even greater legacy, I believe, in his walk with the Lord.”

The Ministry of Just Hangin’ Around is working. McQuillan has integrated the ministry into UNLV basketball with head coach Lon Kruger.

“He called me one day and asked if he could go to church with Mike and me,” McQuillan says. “I thought that was pretty cool. I said, ‘Coach, I’ll save you a seat.’”

Photos courtesy of UNLV