Lacrosse has an extremely closely knit community. There’s a certain brotherhood that separates it from larger sports. Everybody knows everybody.
Whether connected by friendly coaching rivalries, working camps together or playing each other years ago, the so-called lacrosse lifer comes to meet hundreds of close acquaintances through the years.
In some instances, you may only see that person not but a half dozen weekends each year. You get together on a sideline or the barstool next to you and it’s as if they’re one of your closest and most loyal friends.
For many, Colby head coach Jack Sandler could be filed under that category.
Last Thursday night, Jack tragically passed away at 35 from a heart attack while working out on a hotel treadmill. At the time, Sandler was on the road recruiting for the Mules, among the many things that he was passionate about.
A gregarious Long Islander by birth, Jack cast an incredibly wide net during his way too short time in the world.
He had to meet everyone. He had to work every event from coast to coast.
Conventions, long phone calls with coaching mentors and a role on the executive board of the USILA depict an enthusiastic man who was always looking to polish his craft and be involved in the game anyway that he could. He loved lacrosse more than I can even begin to put into words.
Once he finished his playing career at Bates as the second leading point-getter in program history, Sandler immediately found his calling in coaching. He spent two years at his alma mater under Peter Lasagna, moved on to become Dickinson’s top assistant for a year and then at the ripe age of 25, was hired by Skidmore to be their next coach.
A head coaching job up the street from one of the world’s most renowned horse tracks? To Jack, that was as good as it gets.
Towards the tail end of every summer, he was a mainstay at the famous Saratoga race track watching his horses and socializing with longtime friends. Once the track opened in late July, he’d wrap up recruiting to begin a much deserved vacation before reporting back to campus.
Close companions of Sandler’s frequently say that he was ‘ahead of the curve’, which he absolutely was in terms of how quickly he rose in the coaching world. At Skidmore, he exceeded expectations despite his youth, twice given the Liberty League Coach of the Year honor award and reaching the conference title game in 2007 and 2011.
A confidant of Sandler’s for 12 years, Beloit (Wis.) head coach Rashad Devoe recalls one of Jack’s most important recruiting wins to date.
Sandler had targeted Devoe, then an assistant at Southwestern University in Texas, to fill a role on his staff at Skidmore. Expressing a high level of interest, Devoe and his wife went up to Jack’s house in Saratoga to check everything out in order to move forward.
“We’re sitting there and Jack pulls me aside and says that he wanted to talk about something important before I heard any rumors,” Devoe says of that summer evening. “I’d canceled our house payments and had movers lined up and all of a sudden Jack lets me know that he was close to getting the job at Colby, saying he wants to take me with him. I’m thinking about what I’m gonna tell my wife and Jack confidently remarks that he’s only bringing me if I want to play for championships. That was all he needed to say to convince me… He had me at ‘NESCAC’.”
As a coach, Sandler utilized a fast, free-wheeling style of play. He didn’t want his players to be afraid to make mistakes or play remotely timid. Jack just wanted you to go out there and compete towards a win. If you shot sidearm or scooped a groundball with one hand, that was fine, just have fun and play to your ability.
“If Jack taught me anything, it’s how much more important relationships are than X’s and O’s,” said Devoe. “He’d have weekly meetings with kids whether on an individual basis or in small groups and it would never be about lacrosse – it’d be about how they were doing in classes or their social life or families. Jack cared so deeply about each of his players and those kids absolutely loved him.”
That kind of charisma allowed Colby to thrive on the recruiting trail.
Under Sandler, Colby not only frequently beat out Maine rivals Bowdoin and Bates for talent but often secured commitments from players heavily recruited by NESCAC powerhouses Tufts, Middlebury and Amherst.
He had a recruiting plan in place and executed it from the get go. Colby went from having a roster dominated by New England players to having five players from California and standouts from heralded Maryland programs like Georgetown Prep and Boys’ Latin.
Jack spent so much time building relationships with recruits during the process that once kids arrived on campus, it was as if they’d already been part of the Colby program for months.
Beyond just his players, Jack had a tremendous footprint in the coaching community. There may not have been a Division III coach as known and well liked across all divisions like Sandler was. He was dependable in every sense, which made him a go-to when it came to running camps and tournaments.
In addition to serving as program director for dozens of Adrenaline’s events, Sandler had teamed up to run Texas Top 99 alongside Navy’s Ryan Wellner and Notre Dame’s Gerry Byrne for over a decade.
Byrne fondly recalls memories of Sandler, including an instance in which Jack showed his selflessness before the two had even met, giving up his hotel bed and opting for the floor years ago at the coaches’ convention. Sure enough, that started a long friendship, one of dozens of close friends that Sandler kept up with regularly.
“There are a lot of characters in our sport but not enough people with character [like he had],” Byrne said of his longtime friend. “Jack had both the wit and charm of a character but he also had deep integrity and loyalty. He was just a guy that you could count on with certainty, professional and with an incredible attention to detail. Jack was as solid a man as you’ll find; a rare mixture.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a buddy of Jack’s who didn’t have the same type of glowing review. In a sport full to the brim with incredible people, Sandler stood tall above the rest. He’ll be sorely missed.
With Thanksgiving this week, it’s a time to feel grateful for the people around us that we love the most. Be thankful for every single day you’re given with them.
I’m thankful for the time that I had with Jack.