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Nov. 21, 2011
By Rob Daniels, Special to theACC.com
Independence sounds like a great concept. A hunger for it created this country.
In the modern world of college football, however, it's often scary and impractical. Lucius Sanford figured this out decades ago, which is why his office door is always open these days.
Georgia Tech's ACC Legend for 2011 is among those who played at his institution before it joined the conference, but he foresaw membership up close, and he helps current Yellow Jackets navigate their various responsibilities as Tech's director of student life.
"It's about helping them understand there's light at the end of the tunnel," Sanford said. "Sometimes, the demands of the daily life of an athlete can get you bogged down. Sometimes, you need someone to be there."
If you go it alone, do so at your own peril.
Sanford has been a presence in and around Georgia Tech since he arrived as a linebacker for coach Pepper Rodgers in 1974. He made an immediate impact in his first preseason practices but didn't really know if he'd be a fixture in the Jacket defense from the start. The Jackets were opening with defending national champion Notre Dame, the No. 2 team in the land at the start of 1974.
Rodgers started a senior that day but quickly went to his impressive freshman, telling him simply to trust himself. Sanford went in as a reserve and left 14 tackles later.
"The thing I got from that one game was that once you get the first hit, you have a little success and you read your keys, football is football," he said. "In playing against the national championship team from the year before, I knew I could play."
Sanford proved it over that and the next three seasons, leading the Yellow Jackets in tackles in 1975, '76 and '77. His record of 124 stops as a freshman remains a Tech record. His four-year figure of 433 is still fourth in the program's history.
As a result, he was named a team captain as a senior. And because of that, he was one of only three students selected for an athletics department advisory panel. This was 1977-78, and the institute was trying to plan its long-term future. Once a member of the SEC, Tech left that league for football independence after the 1963 season and could see the landscape changing.
"I got to be a part of the meetings when they were talking about what conferences they should consider," Sanford said. "Should it be the ACC? Should it be the SEC? The answer was the ACC because of its academic standards. That's one of those things Georgia Tech does not want to lose: its mystique as an institution. It's not a football school. It's not a basketball school. It's an academic institution."
In its first decade of football membership, Tech won a national title in football and made a Final Four in men's basketball. It's fair to say that everything has worked out quite nicely.
Sanford became a fourth-round NFL draft pick who enjoyed a 10-year career marked by consistency of effort and performance. From 1978-81, he started 63 straight games for the Buffalo Bills. He remains fourth in games played by a Bills linebacker.
He made an early impact in the NFL, just as he had done at Tech, blocking two field goals in the same game in his rookie season.
Upon retirement from football, Sanford spent nine years in the financial services industry before feeling a call to return to his alma mater. In 1998, he accepted a position helping student-athletes in life skills; career planning and job interviewing; and community service.
On any given afternoon, dozens of Tech athletes will pop into Sanford's office in search of a sounding board or professional counselor. Only the start of practice stops the flow.
"It's not a free ride," he said. "That's a misnomer. There's no such thing as a free ride. When coaches recruit you, the expectation of performance is imminent. And in terms of going out and succeeding, that's what it's all about. You work for every penny of your scholarship."
And it's OK to form a partnership or two along the way.