Game Face

Can anybody turn around UNLV football? Perennial winner Bobby Hauck gets the chance to find out.

Photo by Anthony Mair

Photo by Anthony Mair

As the crowd files into the UNLV football auditorium, Bobby Hauck assumes his position at the front of the room. Some 24 hours from now, when he officially kicks off his first fall camp as the Rebels’ 10th head coach, Hauck’s audience in this building will consist of college football players squeezed into the seats to hear the marching orders from their new general. On this hot morning in early August, though, Hauck is addressing a group of 9- and 10-year-old boys who are among 500 participants in a free football camp at Rebel Park. As the youngsters squirm in their seats, Hauck shuffles his feet waiting for the chatter to die down so he can launch into a brief lecture that he’s already given to two other groups.

“Football,” he begins, pausing for effect, “is the world’s greatest game. It’s not like golf or tennis. It is the ultimate team sport.”

He continues for another minute or two—about the importance of getting good grades and staying out of trouble—but it’s clear from the start that if this were a Speech 101 class, Hauck would be lucky to receive a passing grade. Knute Rockne he is not.

But Bobby Hauck wasn’t brought to Las Vegas to deliver awe-inspiring speeches. This is a town that’s heard enough talk; he was brought here to win football games. It’s something he did in abundance at his last coaching stop—and something UNLV football fans have come to expect with the same frequency as snowfall on the Strip.


When the then-38-year-old Hauck took over at the University of Montana in 2003, he had been a head coach for exactly zero games. At any level. Yet all he did over the ensuing seven years was lead his alma mater to an 80-17 record and three appearances in the Division I-AA national championship game. Even more impressive, over his final four seasons in Missoula, Hauck compiled a 51-6 record.

To place those numbers into perspective, consider that from 1990-2009—a stretch of 20 seasons—UNLV won a grand total of 74 games and lost 156 under four different head coaches. While Hauck had a winning record every season at Montana, with at least eight wins per year, the Rebels have had just five winning seasons since 1981, and only once during this 29-year span (in 2000) did they win as many as eight games.

So, it’s easy to understand why Jim Livengood, just days after being hired as UNLV’s athletic director, picked Hauck to replace Mike Sanford, who was fired after going 16-43 in five seasons. What’s not so easy to understand is why Hauck agreed to leave his hometown state, alma mater and a program he built into a Division I-AA national power to take over one of the country’s most futile college football programs in recent years.

The Hauck File

  • Birth date: June 14, 1964.
  • The home team:
    He and wife Stacey have three daughters (Sydney, Alexandra and Elise) and a son (Robby).
  • The work team:
    UNLV has 15 returning starters (eight offensive, seven defensive). Roster by class: 20 seniors, 19 juniors, 16 sophomores,
    46 freshmen.
  • Contract: Three years, $350,000 annually, with some pay deferred and incentives tied to victories, bowl appearances and student-athlete graduation rates.
  • Right into the fire:
    The Sept. 4 Wisconsin game will test the Rebels’ ability to play on the big stage. The aftermath of the Wisconsin game will test the Rebels’ ability
    to persevere.
  • The big one: The Rebels host the University of Nevada, Reno on Oct. 2.
  • The tough spot: The next week, they travel to West Virginia.
  • Chalk talk: The UNLV Rebels Football Foundation and Hauck host breakfast at Big Dog’s Café (6390
    W. Sahara Ave.) at 7:30 a.m. Thursdays before all home games. Free for members, $15 door.
  • New recruiting
    “Why go
    to Florida to get a kid that you can get right down the street here
    in Nevada?”
  • Hobbies: Fishing, fishing and more fishing in his home state of Montana.
  • Something to think about while fishing: Of UNLV’s nine head coaches, only one (Ron Meyer) got a head-coaching gig after leaving UNLV.

“Sometimes you get to a crossroads and you have to choose a direction. And this was the right time, right place,” Hauck says. “It was time for a new challenge; it was a place to come to and make an impact. You also have to sometimes go with your gut instinct, and this felt right.”

As is the case with most coaches, Hauck grew up in a football family. His father, Robert Hauck Sr., was a high school coach in Montana for more than 30 years, while brother Tim played defensive back in the NFL for 13 seasons and now serves as an assistant with the Tennessee Titans.

By his own admission, Bobby was “not much” of a football player himself; his career ended when he graduated from Sweet Grass High School in Big Timber, Mont., in the mid-1980s. After departing the University of Montana with degrees in business and physical education in 1988, he pondered such paths as law school, business school and the Marine Corps, where his father and grandfather had served.

In the end and despite his mother’s protests—“She was adamant that [coaching was] not what we were going to get into,” he says—he returned to his former high school as an assistant, launching a coaching career that has taken him from Montana to UCLA to Northern Arizona to Colorado to Washington and back to Montana. Along the way, Hauck developed a reputation as a no-nonsense, passionate, ultra-competitive coach who surrounds himself with players and assistants who share similar traits. Above all else, though, Hauck is known as someone who loves winning as much as breathing, be it on the football field or the recruiting trail.

“He is who he says he is,” says UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, who helped bring Hauck to UCLA as a graduate assistant in 1990 and later hired him as an assistant at Colorado (1995-97) and Washington (1999-2002). “He loves kids, he loves football, he loves recruiting, he’s fun to be around. Players gravitate toward him, and he just has a natural way about him that is sincere. And when the time came for him to go be the captain of his own ship, he was ready.”

Of course, Montana’s ship was sailing smoothly when Hauck returned there in 2003. The Grizzlies had followed up a 2001 Division I-AA national championship with an 11-3 record in 2002, when Hauck was summoned from Washington (where he was coaching defensive backs under Neuheisel) to take over after Montana coach Joe Glenn left for Wyoming.

Now Hauck is at the helm of a vessel that’s been taking on water for years.

Thing is, UNLV was hardly the first Division I-A school to offer Hauck the opportunity to run with college football’s big boys. He admits there were inquiries from other outposts—San Diego State and San Jose State are known to have expressed interest in recent years—but up until last fall, he chose to remain at Montana.

“I talked to Bobby on a number of occasions where he’d call me and say he was interested in looking at a Division I job,” says Terry Donahue, the legendary UCLA coach who gave Hauck his first big break in 1990 and has remained a mentor. “And I spent a lot of time telling him he had a better job [at Montana] than the job he was thinking about looking at.”

Donahue says Hauck elicited his opinion on the UNLV job, and while Donahue classified those discussions as private, he offered that “I certainly didn’t dissuade him or discourage him.”

“I think Bobby was at a point where he thought it was important for him to grow and continue to improve himself and he needed a new challenge,” Donahue says. “So UNLV was a really good opportunity for him. Even though it’s been a very difficult job over the years, I think Bobby feels he possesses the characteristics and the qualities to go in there and make it successful.”

As for Neuheisel’s expectations for his protégé: “Huge—and I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t meet them.”


Count Jeff Horton among those who concur that UNLV got the right man. “I think Bobby’s an outstanding choice—a great coach. His record is second to none. He couldn’t have done any better than he did at Montana. I think he brings a lot of excitement and personality to the job, and it’s going to be fun to watch him develop.”

Horton knows of what he speaks when the discussion turns to Rebel football. In 1994, he made headlines up and down the Silver State when he resigned after one season as head coach at the University of Nevada, Reno and flew south to lead UNLV. In his first season, the Rebels went 7-5, capped by a 52-24 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Central Michigan. However, that proved to be the pinnacle for Horton. Over the next four years, his teams went just 6-39, including an 0-11 campaign in 1998 that cost him his job.

“I’m in a long line of people who have come through there and had a tough time succeeding,” says Horton, now the offensive coordinator at the University of Minnesota.

Right behind him in that line is John Robinson, who came to UNLV in the twilight of his legendary career. By the end of his second year, the 2000 season when the Rebels went 8-5 and won the Las Vegas Bowl, it looked as though the program was finally gaining traction. However, Robinson would resign three years later after failing to net another winning season.

“I’ve always said that UNLV, San Diego State, Arizona and Arizona State—those are four schools that you would really think would be successful [in football],” Horton says. “But for whatever reason, they’ve all struggled over the last 10 or 15 years. They’ve had moments, but not consistently. That’s the million-dollar question.”

To many, the million-dollar answer is money. UNLV’s football budget in 2009 was $6.4 million, which ranked sixth in the nine-team Mountain West Conference. By comparison, Texas Christian University’s budget—tops in the league—trumped UNLV’s by more than $10 million. Not so coincidentally, UNLV finished sixth in the conference standings last year while TCU won the league title, played in the lucrative Fiesta Bowl and finished as the sixth-ranked team in the country.

Placing two spots higher in the final Top 25 poll last year was Boise State, which defeated TCU in the Fiesta Bowl and whose football program has been a national power for the last half-decade despite its rural outpost (western Idaho) and its weak affiliation (the Broncos have been in the Western Athletic Conference since 2001 but will move to the Mountain West in July).

Asked what qualities from Boise State’s model of success could be applied to UNLV, Hauck suggested there isn’t a comparison to be made. “They’ve had a series of great coaches who have done it a variety of different ways. But they’ve had great support both locally and institutionally, and it takes everyone to be on board to get it done.”

Donahue echoes the sentiment, saying that the next Boise State will need multiple ingredients: “You need a real commitment by your administration, you need outstanding support from the athletic administration, you need outstanding coaching and you need some great recruiting years. Boise State has won for a long, long time, but they wouldn’t be winning at Boise State if people weren’t committed to winning.”


What’s one thing people outside Bobby Hauck’s circle don’t know about him? “That I actually do smile,” he says.

Don’t expect to see much of that this fall, though. Not only did he inherit someone else’s players who are used to running different schemes, he also inherited one of the most difficult schedules in UNLV history. The Rebels open the season Sept. 4 at home against 12th-ranked Wisconsin, one of four games against opponents ranked in the preseason Top 30 and one of nine games against squads that went to a bowl last year.

“I don’t think anyone in the country is going to play that type of schedule,” Hauck says. “The key for us is to become disciplined, tough, fiercely competitive, and if we get to that point where we hate to lose, we’re going to have a chance to win some games. If we can become all those things, then we can turn this around—there’s no doubt in my mind.”

But can he turn around a disenchanted fan base that has witnessed just three bowl games in the program’s 41-year history?

Like his predecessors, Hauck promised in his first news conference to rally the community and put a product on the field that people will come to see. And certainly Hauck was used to packed houses at Montana, where the Grizzlies routinely sold out 25,200-seat Washington-Grizzly Stadium and had a season-ticket base of nearly 18,000. Now he’s in charge of a team that’s had only six sellouts at 36,800-seat Sam Boyd Stadium since 1994—all against opponents (Hawaii, BYU, UNR and Wisconsin three times) whose fans traveled to Las Vegas in droves. Take away those visitors, and UNLV has rarely drawn crowds in excess of 25,000. The attendance was 13,730 for last season’s finale.

Hauck is fully aware of the apathy, but believes winning will eventually take care of that problem. “I know we’re going to be worth watching. We’re going to play good football. We’re going to get the job done, because that’s what we do.

“You can be cynical and skeptical about anything, but where’s the fun in that? That’s the bitter-old-man syndrome. The fun is buying in and being hopeful that we can get things done here.”

To fully grasp how confident Hauck is in his abilities, just look at his contract. Whereas most college football head coaches won’t settle for anything less than a five-year contract when taking a new job (the theory being that it takes five years to get a program turned around), Hauck agreed to a three-year deal. And at $350,000 per year, Hauck is probably making less than he could have elsewhere, but he preferred to see some of UNLV’s resources redirected to his assistant coaches, four of whom followed Hauck from Montana.

“I really respect the job he does and how he coaches,” says defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson, whose relationship with Hauck dates to when the two faced each other in the Montana state final as high school seniors. “At the end of the day we get along really well, too. He runs a great ship, and I’m happy to be part of it.”

Even though the staff got a late recruiting start last winter (Hauck was hired Dec. 23, just six weeks before signing day), all accounts confirm that the initial recruiting class is strong. And it includes eight Southern Nevada players, the most in the program’s history. That signals a shift from previous UNLV coaches, who struggled to keep local talent at home. “Our recruiting philosophy can be summed up in one sentence: We want to recruit every Nevada kid that we think can help us win a Mountain West championship, and we’ll go elsewhere to get the rest,” Hauck says. “Why go to Florida to get a kid that you can get right down the street here in Nevada?”

Time will tell if those initial recruits will be able to look back 20 years from now and say they helped launch UNLV football’s first sustained winning era in three decades. One thing is for sure, though: Their new coach is game for the challenge.

“How can you not get enthused about having a chance to put your own stamp on some place?” Hauck says. “For our coaching staff to be able to come here and do something that hasn’t been done in a long time would be pretty cool.

“Coaches around the country, we look at other programs and kind of gauge what goes on there. And one of the questions that a lot of guys in my profession always asked was, ‘Why can’t you win at UNLV?’ And I’m one of those who asked the same question. Now I’m going to get a chance to find out.”

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