When Robert Sanders took the job of boys basketball coach at his alma mater, Vidalia High in 1991, he never envisioned spending the next 28 years sitting at the same bottom row at the Viking gym.
That streak will end this fall after Sanders turned in his retirement papers last week.
“It was a pretty tough decision, I was going back and forth on it,” Sanders said. “I had mentioned it during last year. But the fact everything is so uncertain because of the coronavirus I figured this would be the best time to do it. But I certainly did not envision coaching this long.”
Sanders, 65, compiled a 476-336 at Vidalia, advancing to the state championship game in 2010 before leading the Vikings to the Class 3A state championship in 2010.
Sanders said besides the state championship games, advancing to the playoffs in his fourth year of coaching was a big highlight.
In 1995, Vidalia defeated Rayville 126-120 in triple overtime in Rayville as David Hueing scored 48 points to beat out Ferriday High for second place and qualify for the Class 3A playoffs.
Vidaila upset St. Thomas More 59-51 in the first round before falling to Bossier 76-65 in the second round.
The Vikings finished 21-8 that season.
“The first three years were rocky,” Sanders said. “We would always have a different team the second semester than we did the first semester for various reasons. It was great to finally make the playoffs and win a playoff game. I’m really going to miss the interaction with the kids and with my co-workers at all the schools.”
Sanders began driving the bus for the basketball teams at Vidalia High in 1991, his first year as coach.
Sanders also drives the bus for the Special Olympics local team, something he began doing in in the 1980s. In the early 2000s, Sanders began driving the football team to out of town games.
“About a thousand,” Sanders said when asked how many road trips he has made in a school bus.”
In 2007, Sanders added the duty of filming games for the Vidalia High football team, replacing Coye Pace. He also drove a fan bus to Vidalia High’s playoff game at Episcopal High.
Sanders will also miss helping out with Special Olympics in the parish.
“We had a 4x100 team that was always strong and one year was undefeated, but around the time of State the third part of a relay team was having trouble with the exchange,” he said. “One was taking off too soon and they were dropping the baton. We worked and worked on that before the event and everything went like clockwork and we won it again. Our volleyball team went to the International Special Olympics in Minnesota and finished in third place.”
Sanders, who graduated from Vidalia High in, spent 40 years teaching at Vidalia.
Sanders has seen a lot of changes through the years.
“One of the biggest is when they went from going to where you finished in district to power rankings in 2007,” Sanders said. “And we have gone from triple A to double A to triple A and back to double A.”
Sanders was assisted by Damus Smith throughout his coaching career.
“Damus was an assistant the previous three years, so he really helped me out,” Sanders said. “We became inseparatable, going all over the state. You usually did not see one without the other.”
Sanders graduated from Vidalia in 1972 and attended Southern Illinois, where he performed the long jump and high jump, earning a scholarship while he was there.
“I never envisioned being back here,” he said. “About my sophomore year I realized I wanted to get into coaching.”
In 2003, Vidalia went 26-6, falling to Red River in the 2A semifinals.
In 2004, Sanders team advanced to the quarterfinals, falling to defending state champion Lakeview.
The 2003 Vidalia football team advanced to the semifinals, while the 2003 baseball team lost to St. Frederick in the semifinals.
“That was a special group,” Sanders said. “I got the football players late, but the thing about it is they wanted to do just as well in basketball as they did in football. Or to go even further.”
The 2009 team lost to Richwood in the semifinals before coming back the next year in 2010 to defeat Carroll 82-59 in the Class 2A state championship game in Lafayette.
The 2010 team cruised past George Washington Carver 102-38 in the first round before disposing of BogAlusa 90-50 in the second round.
No. 8 Rayville defeated No. 9 Crowley 106-102, giving the Vikings a home game against the Hornets.
Vidalia defeated Rayville 98-87 before a raucous home crowd.
“That was our toughest game of the playoffs,” Sanders said.
The Vikings advanced to the finals with a 62-48 win over Abbeville in the Cajundome.
Vidalia was hitting on all cylinders in an 82-59 win over Carroll for its second-ever state title and first in 3A.
“I was really surprised how well we played against a team like Carroll,” Sanders said.
The Vikings lost to Redemptorist in the first round the following year.
“I really thought that team would have gone farther, but it didn’t work out,” Sanders said. “Redemptorist had a really good team.”
Sanders said he will not miss the long hours, but will still be around to assist at the school.
“I will still drive the bus some and videotape football,” he said. “And if this school year goes the way I am thinking, I will be teaching my grandson every other day at home.”
Sanders’ retirement also ends a tradition of eating a lollipop at each game.
“I got that from Coach (Robert) Cade at Ferriday,” Sanders said. “At some point I ended up throwing one and it broke. One of our fans started bringing me on from then on. I guess he will be bringing it to somebody else now.”