Sanderson legacy cannot be quantified with numbers

Jim Sanderson has retired. That sentence may not mean much to our readership out here in west Alabama, but it means a lot to me.

Most in our area who are familiar with Sanderson know him as the son of former University of Alabama men’s basketball coach Wimp Sanderson. But to those who know Faulkner University, a small private college in Montgomery associated with the churches of Christ, Jim Sanderson was no less than an institution.

Jim Sanderson announced his retirement Wednesday, just before the start of his 25th season as head coach of Faulkner’s men’s basketball team.

The numbers will speak well of Jim Sanderson’s legacy at the head of one of the NAIA’s most consistently competitive programs.

He went 481-297 in his 24 years at the helm and won a national title in 2001. That ring was well-timed as ESPN The Magazine just happened to be doing a feature on the NAIA tournament that season, garnering Faulkner some national exposure it had not previously received. In all, Jim Sanderson made the national tournament eight times during his tenure and his 481 wins currently ranks him 10th on the NAIA’s all-time list.

But the number that stands out the most is 24. In society that is perpetually shifting its values and a collegiate coaching profession where permanence seems as commonplace as a Triple Crown winner in horse racing, Jim Sanderson was a constant at Faulkner University.

Granted, his time there was divided over two stints and he took a stress-induced leave of absence in 2003. Still, more than two decades in one place is an impressive feat, especially when there were plenty of opportunities to bolt for seemingly greener pastures.

During his tenure, Sanderson was nothing if not quirky. He was fiery on the sidelines and we in the student section often found ourselves riled up when he would incur a technical foul or fire his clipboard toward the bench in frustration.

His teams often seemed allergic to big men as he seemed to rarely recruit traditional post players in favor of athletic, versatile bigs more capable of jumping into the press defense that helped win him nearly 500 games. And the sweater vests that he wore during games became something of a trademark on campus.

Many players loved him and, yet, a great deal of those same players considered him cantankerous and nothing less than a perfectionist.

But all of that was part of the brilliance of Jim Sanderson. He never seemed satisfied with, well, anything. In the three years that I called the Faulkner campus home, I interviewed Sanderson more times than I can possibly count. And in every one of those, I found him to consistently expect more from his team regardless of the win-loss record at the time.

At this point in my life, I’ve come to understand that true character knows not circumstance. That is, truly having character means doing the right thing the right way regardless of external factors or potential consequences.

In retrospect, that is how I view Jim Sanderson’s program at Faulkner University. He expected the same level of effort and execution from his players every single practice, every single game.

All that said, why does the retirement of a basketball coach from a small school some two hours away merit a column? Faulkner basketball was my first beat as a reporter.

I covered the games for the school newspaper and the university’s website. As such, I was in Jim Sanderson’s personal space some two to three times per week. And as a budding reporter eager to write something worthy of a portfolio, I often asked the wrong question at the wrong time in the wrong way. But Jim Sanderson continued to open his door to me. He continued to show me patience and compassion as he unwittingly helped me to come to an understanding of how to consider people as just that, people, rather than as sources or opportunities for interesting quotes.

So much of what I have been blessed to do in my journalistic career goes back to the days when I was a journalism student at Faulkner, learning to view Jim Sanderson by his record as a human being rather than by his record as a basketball coach.

And Jim Sanderson the man taught me a lesson in compassion long before I ever picked up a pen and a reporter’s notebook to interview Jim Sanderson the coach.

One of my fondest Christmas memories to this day comes from a Dec. 25 when I worked a 16-hour shift for campus security at Faulkner. There was no family, no music and no relaxation for me on that day. But there was a feast.

Jim Sanderson drove up to the security guard shack and handed me a plate of food from his own Christmas dinner. Some 10 days earlier, I had to unlock a door for him during one of my shifts and he asked why I was still on campus when all other students had long since gone home for the holidays. I told him I’d be working shifts through the break.

He asked what I was doing for Christmas Day and I told him I’d be working a 16-hour shift. He told me then he would bring me Christmas dinner. I had forgotten about the exchange until the afternoon of Christmas when he pulled up with a hot plate of food.

That may mean nothing to many people, but it told me all I needed to know about Jim Sanderson the man.

I have no idea why he walked away from his Faulkner post so suddenly, but I know that I was blessed to cover something that so few in my business get to see. I covered a man who spent 24 seasons in one place and displayed character, commitment and compassion on a regular basis. At the very beginning of my journalism career, I covered a Triple Crown.

Jeremy D. Smith is a managing partner for He has won multiple professional awards as a news and sports reporter and a columnist. He is a proud graduate of Faulkner University.