To Run With the Pac

UNLV should dream big and do everything it can to get into the Pac-12 Conference. Here’s why.

In the hallowed tradition of unrealistic New Year’s resolutions, I am proposing the following gem for UNLV: Win admission into the Pac-12 Conference.

In fact, take a friend, or even an enemy along with you—say, that biggest-little-city school up north that calls itself simply “Nevada,” or that freshly minted beast of the Big East, San Diego State. Call it the Pac-14.

The obvious sad-sack Vegas retort is, “Why would the Pac-12 want us?”

I have answers:

Strange days. If the Big East accepted San Diego State’s football program, then all things are possible.

Geography. Yes, old-school directional logic is out of style (see above), but check out the Pac-12 promos next time you watch a game on Prime Ticket. They feature a map of the American West, stretching from Washington to Arizona and California to Colorado. There is one big hole. That hole is called Nevada. The Pac-12 should evaluate the emptiness at its cartographic heart and send Commissioner Larry Scott to UNLV with a simple message: You complete us.

Market size. Las Vegas is the 30th largest metropolitan area in the United States. That would put us seventh among current Pac-12 towns. Oh, and 36 million people visit here every year. Not a bad place for a conference tournament.

Basketball attendance. Pac-10 average for 2011 conference play: 7,800. UNLV home average last season: 13,253 (No. 23 in the nation).

There are also a few reasons the Pac-12 would not want the Rebels:

Basketball recruiting. Accepting UNLV would mean Pac-12 basketball coaches could no longer tell recruits that playing for the Rebels means entering the Mountain West Witness Protection Program (also known as Cox Channel 334, or wherever The Mtn. is hiding out these days). They could no longer pretend, as UCLA always has, that UNLV simply does not exist. Of course, now that UCLA is UNLV’s farm team, it’s already a little harder to ignore the Rebels.

Football. Pigskin drives conference realignment. UNLV has had one winning season this millennium. And some people say 2000 was actually last millennium.

Academic prestige. Conference identity goes beyond sports. Pac-12 professors describe their schools as Pac-12 schools. Membership carries the connotation that one’s school is a top-flight research institution—the highest rung of the academic career ladder. Eight of the conference’s 12 schools belong to the 61-member Association of American Universities, an invitation-only organization that supports high-level research and scholarship. UNLV is not a member of the Association of American Universities. On its current budget-slashing trajectory, it is unlikely to be on the AAU’s radar anytime soon.

This last item—not the future of the school’s football or basketball or swimming program—is why UNLV should begin today to act like a school that wants to join the Pac-12. New Year’s resolutions are about aspirations. Who would we like to become? What do we want to achieve? What kind of company would we like to keep? Nobody ever made it big by dreaming small.

The healthiest side effect of last year’s bout of Vegas Zapposmania was that Tony Hsieh taught the city’s downtown core to dream big, to picture itself as a budding Bay Area—an incubator for smart new thinking. Somehow, though, UNLV has been left out of the joyful progressive chatter. But just as there would be no Silicon Valley without the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, there will be no Neon Valley without a fiercely ambitious and vibrant UNLV that draws (and retains) creative minds to serve on its faculty and study in undergraduate and graduate programs.

UNLV’s administration has been making “Harvard of the West” noises since the mid-1980s, when Robert Maxson rode in from Houston and tried to tell Jerry Tarkanian that he wasn’t the sheriff anymore. But the reputations of most top-flight universities have a direct correlation to the company they keep. In the public mind, UNLV keeps company with the University of Wyoming.

“Harvard of the West” was always an absurdity, but “Arizona of the Mojave” is most certainly not. Here’s a zinger from the Department of Circumstantial Evidence: The University of Arizona joined the Pac-8 in 1978; by 1985 it had built an $18.5 million science building and a $6.5 million pharmacy school, and had been invited into the AAU. When you start hanging out with the big kids like UCLA (a school, by the way, that is only 38 years older than UNLV), you start acting, feeling and getting treated like a big kid.

But how do you get a chance to hang out with the big kids? By acting like one in the first place. UNLV must begin to conduct itself like a Pac-12 school, a dreamer of Pac-12-size dreams. The university must look at the way Arizona and Utah and Colorado have built themselves not only as athletic programs, but as institutions. Then it should look in the mirror and ask, “What will it take for me to get there?”

This much is for sure: It will take time, patience and resolve. It will also take money. And here’s the final, devastating justification for the university to make Pac-12 membership a overriding goal: Las Vegans—from donors to the all-important state senators and assemblymen—live their lives in the aspirational straitjacket of thirsting for the Big Time while resisting the kind of public funding and corporate largesse that underwrite a Big Time university, which in turn fosters a Big Time creative class and fuels the diverse economy of a Big Time city.

But, even in the nanny-state-and-pinhead-professor-hating Deep South, there is one subject that trumps ideology and gets everyone to support the ol’ school, from the skybox all the way to the ivory tower: Sports, like the stomach, are the gateway to a man’s heart.

So, if UNLV’s in the mood to dream, here’s a starter script: Tell Nevada’s power brokers that you’re hell-bent for the Pac-12. Let them know just what it will take to get there. Then step back and watch them line up to make it happen.

Yes, the university might buff up and still get spurned. But resolutions have a way of rewarding the resolute. Sometimes you prepare for the impossible so that you’re in the shape of your life when the improbable comes along.

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