UNLV Football is the Nation’s Most Fascinating (Re)Building Project
Are the Rebels finally on the path to success?
The UNLV football program has been a constant of rebuilding.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas would like it all, thank you very much.
UNLV wants multimillion dollar NSF grants and major bowl bids. It’s going after Fulbright Scholars and Heisman candidates. And yes, the 27,000 student institution will take both budding medical students and promising defensive ends.
As UNLV President Len Jessup explained: “We want to be a Carnegie research institution at the highest level academically, and we want to be competing athletically at a level that makes us attractive to Power 5 conferences.” OK then.
Take this naked ambition, mix in a dismal football past, a hint of a mascot controversy, a penchant for truly innovative hires, and a dramatically changing city and you’ve got it—UNLV is the most interesting rebuild in college football.
8 Yards Passing
We could argue over exactly when UNLV football hit rock bottom. But for the sake of brevity, let’s agree that October 9, 2011 is at least part of that story. On that date, UNLV lost to its rival Nevada, 37-0. It was the Wolf Pack’s seventh straight win versus the Rebels. It marked the first shutout in the history of the series. Nevada rolled up 699 yards of offense. UNLV, on the other hand, barely moved the ball at all.
UNLV QB Caleb Herring, who would develop into a solid starter as a senior, went 1-14 in the game, for 8 yards passing, with an interception. He ran the ball 12 times for 4 total yards.
The game was, sadly, indicative of the Bobby “2 and …” Hauck era. In his five seasons as head coach of UNLV, Hauck went 2-11, 2-10, 2-11, 7-6, and 2-11.
The previous tenures of Mike Sanford (13-38 from 2005-2009) and legend John Robinson (28-42 from 1999-2004) had not been much better. UNLV’s football membership in the Mountain West Conference, in fact, has been rough going. The school does not have a winning record against any other Mountain West school (although a victory in Albuquerque on November 17th would make the Rebels 12-11 all-time versus New Mexico).
Change, Change, Change
UNLV football is not all that interesting because of its past, but rather due to the manner in which it is approaching the future.
In 2015, UNLV replaced Bobby Hauck with a new head coach: Tony Sanchez. It was an inspired, innovative, and dangerous hire. Sanchez came straight from the high school ranks. Most newspapers at the time of the Sanchez hire struggled for historical context. Gerry Faust had been a high school coach when he was hired by Notre Dame in 1981, right? Sanchez was a local and winner. His Las Vegas Bishop Gorman Catholic High School teams were perennial champions. Sanchez is now one of only three Hispanic head coaches in Division I NCAA football.
In September 2016, the Sanchez hire paid off—literally. Due in large part to connections fostered at Bishop Gorman, the Fertitta family (former owners of the UFC, among other business interests) announced a $10 million gift for a new UNLV football facility.
In March 2017, the National Football League announced that the Oakland Raiders would relocate to Las Vegas. Most importantly for UNLV, the Raiders move meant a new $2 billion football stadium. While a deal between the Raiders and UNLV has yet to be finalized (worried anyone?), the arrival of an NFL franchise in Sin City was almost certainly the only way UNLV could have moved into a new stadium so quickly.
A month later, in April 2017, UNLV hired Desiree Reed-Francois as its new Athletic Director. The move was widely hailed both because of Reed-Francois’ resume (“It’s a great resume, right?” President Jessup crowed at the introductory press conference) and the fact that she became the first Hispanic female AD at the Division I level. Again, UNLV chose differently than most of its counterparts.
As if all this wasn’t enough, during the summer of 2017 UNLV unveiled a “Spirit Mark Refresh” for athletics. Translation: the university changed its Hey Reb! mascot and logo to a, ahem, more modern look. The move came, in part, as UNLV, like all schools, considered any possible Confederate memorialization in its midst. The new logo immediately drew online criticism. You can’t win ‘em all I guess.
College Athletics in a Professionalizing Town
UNLV has had Las Vegas to itself until just recently. Well sort of. The city, of course, boasts a unique sporting landscape. The city constantly hosts major sports events, especially in boxing and UFC bouts. It has also hosted an NBA All Star game (2007), and the National Final Rodeo since 1986.
But there had never been a major professional sports franchise located in Las Vegas before 2017.
That era is over. On October 10, 2017, the NHL Vegas Golden Knights played their inaugural home game at the new T-Mobile Arena. NFL football, as mentioned previously, is coming. So too is the WNBA, in 2018.
So where does this leave UNLV and its eager, if feeble football program? Make no mistake (as Barack Obama would say), UNLV football stands at a watershed moment. With increasing competition from professional sports franchises anchored in Las Vegas, UNLV football seems to be on the precipice of receding so far into the background of the city’s sports landscape that it might never recover. Or, just maybe if you believe the likes of Jessup and Reed-Francois, the program might catapult itself, with its new facilities and mindset, into a position of football dominance. Maybe even a Power 5 invite. Stay tuned; it’s should be a fascinating story.