In a little more than two years on the job as UNLV’s athletic director, Jim Livengood has had to hire coaches to lead his two major programs—one has been a resounding hit, while the jury is still out on the other—and execute a bevy of budget cuts for a department that has struggled to be in the black.
At the moment, the men’s basketball program’s return to national prominence has made for happy times on campus. Yet there remain plenty of lingering issues that require Livengood’s attention, most notably how to fix a football program that hasn’t registered a winning season in more than a decade, and where UNLV stands in the recent wave of conference realignment.
The good news: Livengood, 66, has a résumé that suggests he’s the right man for the job, having successfully captained the University of Arizona’s athletics department for more than 15 years, maintaining a budget that continually remained solvent.
How much are you enjoying the basketball season, knowing that you made the right hire in Dave Rice?
A lot of people have asked that, and I’ve kind of shied away from it. I’m going to be a little more candid right here. I feel really good about [it]. I felt from Day One that David was the right choice. Not because of our record, but because of the kind of person he is, the kind of coach he is. … But I feel better about it because of what it means to Dave, his family, our coaching staff, and what it means to Las Vegas, to Southern Nevada, that pride, as you move up in the polls and as people start talking about the Rebels. … This is what those great days back in the early 1990s must have been like, when Monday morning was really special because of the polls, and game day was special. Earlier in your career, you probably get more into the “Yeah, wow, I hope people really know what a good job I did.” I’m not so much caught up in that.
You got Rice on kind of a bargain contract. When do you start looking at raises or contract extensions when a coach comes in and is a big success?
Almost immediately. My feeling is if you have good coaches—and they’re not always going to be successful in a year or two—you want to do everything you can to keep them and make sure they’re happy. Never take it for granted. … Dave came in having never been a head coach, so the salary structure tends to be commensurate with those kinds ofthings. Because Dave Rice is a Rebel, because Dave and [wife] Mindy Rice love UNLV, and are both graduates from here and love Las Vegas, that should never, ever be in any of our minds that “Well, we don’t need to worry so much [about him leaving].” If anything, it should be the other way around, and that is, “I need to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make this a great job for David.”
We’ll talk about it as soon as the season’s over, absolutely.
The opening of the Mendenhall Center keeps UNLV up to speed in the arms race that is major college basketball. What’s next in terms of continuing to build the program?
I don’t want to say it’s in the planning stages, because that would be a bit too premature, but I think the next step is to really take a serious look at the Thomas & Mack Center. It’s such a tremendous facility, and not just for the memories, but it’s a great college basketball venue. But there are some things that need to be done to bring it up to date. We’re in the process of that.
On the topic of football, the second year under coach Bobby Hauck, did you expect more in terms of wins and losses?
I didn’t expect any more than Bobby did. Bobby would probably be the first, and has been, to tell you it was frustrating, but let me couch “frustrating.” Frustrated doesn’t mean in any way that I’m disappointed with the direction or with what Bobby’s doing. I just think he’s that good of a coach. But it’s going to take some time. Year Two for me, the telltale is had we won four games—if we had beat Southern Utah and New Mexico—all of a sudden we’re at 4-8. Nobody’s going to say, “Wow, those guys are ready for a BCS Championship Game.” But they would have seen improvement.
The two things that matter most in football, and of course you have to have a [quarterback], but you have to have some experienced guys on the offensive and defensive lines. We’ll be bigger, we’ll be better, [but] will we be good enough? Who knows? Just having people being in the program for two years, I’ll be shocked if we’re not a lot better in every area.
Can the football program meet your expectations without the on-campus stadium deal getting done?
I think the stadium is crucial. I’d probably stop short that we can’t ever be successful without the stadium. That’s probably unfair. What it does is it changes the outside view for recruits and everybody else with how serious UNLV is about football. It also changes the whole campus environment. … Our chances for having a successful football program go up immeasurably with an on-campus stadium.
San Diego State, one of UNLV’s rivals in the Mountain West Conference, is moving to the Big East for football, while shifting to the Big West for all of its other sports. Could you ever see that happening with UNLV?
Never. Capital “N.” Never. Jim Sterk [San Diego State’s athletic director] is a longtime friend, and I’m not trying to be critical of Jim and the power-[brokers] there. But I could never, ever put myself there in terms of doing that to our other teams. I think you need to be in one conference. I’m old-fashioned that way.
On the flip side, could you see UNLV moving its entire program to a bigger conference, a BCS conference?
Yes. I don’t know if I would say bigger or BCS or better. I think our first challenge right now is what can happen with Conference USA [combining with the] Mountain West. It’s just like hiring coaches: If you don’t have at least a pocket list of people you’re thinking about, anybody who doesn’t think about trying to grow their program probably isn’t being fair.
When you were the A.D. at Arizona, your football program was struggling while you had a basketball program that was rolling. Do you see any parallels between the two jobs?
I guess the irony for me is that not too many people in the country, in a two-year period, had to make two hires [at different schools]that were as major to their universities. Arizona’s been a basketball school, UNLV has been a basketball school. The replacement for [legendary former Arizona basketball coach] Lute Olson was going to be critical. Sean Miller has beenoutstanding for them. [The Rice hire] was important because of how important Rebel basketball is to this community, but there very much is a parallel. Ihope it doesn’t take us as long to kind of see the fruits of the labor in football. I don’t think it will.
I will feel really good at the end of my tenure here if we can say “You know what? We’ve gotten better at everything.” Right now, we’re getting really close.
What did you learn from hiring Sean Miller, who took over for a legend, that you applied here when you had to find a replacement for Lon Kruger? Dave wasn’t an unpopular hire, but it was kind of 50-50 in the community.
It’s like the first coach after Joe Paterno or the first coach after Bobby Bowden—it’s such a big thing. Lute was and is a legend. I guess what I learned more than anything, and I would say this absolutely directly, is that you have to believe that what you are doing is theright thing, and not what other people tell you is the right thing. … When you make what is perceived as a good or great hire, everyone in the world will take credit for it. You make a bad hire that doesn’t work out, those same people, you can’t find them. That’s just part of what we deal with.
Back in [my] Washington State days, Dennis Erickson went to Miami to coach football, and I hired Mike Price. That was a really good learning situation: Make sure you do your homework, make sure you’re not getting caught up in things that aren’t important. There’s a whole bunch of criteria, but the last criteria—which is not the least, but it’s the last—is: “Would I want that coach coaching my son or daughter?” If I don’t want them coaching my son or daughter, why would I hire them? I don’t know if 10 or 15 years ago that I would have looked at that at all.
Rice’s signature moment so far was obviously that North Carolina win. What was the first thing going through your head as far as what that victory did for the program?
The absolute first thing was “I just wish that we could have this moment last for two or three weeks.” It wasn’t going to, because we had to go to [UC] Santa Barbara the next week. I just wished that because those moments are so rare, and the absolute joy on the court after that game, in the locker room after that game. In this profession, because of football being played on Saturdays, Sunday mornings become a really special time when goodthings happen. You can’t wait to get up and see the paper or go online; you can’t wait to read more and more about what a great night or special moment it was. Also, just the amount of joy, of pride, with Rebels everywhere, and [even though] I know that it wasn’t true, but of the people who were so infatuated with “We’re back! We’re relevant again!” Now, do I think that can happen? Yeah, I do. It wasn’t true on the 26th of November, necessarily.
Even though you extended Hauck’s deal before last season through 2014, if there aren’t improvements this fall, is that a situation you’ll have to address?
It’s definitely a fair question, but I never try to get into hypothetical and what-ifs. At this point, I haven’t thought about that at all. The next major thing for us is signing day, then spring ball, then the summer, then fall camp, then we kick off and play. At some point down the line, that needs to be addressed, but not now.
Can you ever envision an athletic department without football?
No. There are obviously some good schools across the country that don’t have football. [But] I think not having football changes your university so drastically in everything. I know there are some who believe, “Well, if we’re not that successful, and we’re not going to win games, then why spend the money on it?’ … Without Division I-A football, it’s a different university.