Can UNLV Football Be Saved?

The surprising answer is ‘Yes’—provided Rebel brass follows our survival plan

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Sports have always been defined and validated by numbers, the most important of which fall under the win-loss column. As such, Bobby Hauck’s two-year tenure as UNLV’s head football coach can only be categorized as disastrous: He’s won four games. He’s lost 21. He’s 0-for-14 on the road, losing those games by an average of 34 points.

But some numbers suggest Hauck deserves more than to simply be judged by his first two seasons with a program that, when he took over, was in much worse shape than anyone could have imagined. This is the same coach who went 80-17 in seven seasons at Montana—a powerhouse in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA, where the Rebels dominated back in the program’s infancy). Hauck also took the Grizzlies to the FCS title game three times.

The question is whether all the promise Hauck brought to Las Vegas ever stood a chance against the structural flaws that have made UNLV football an exercise in futility for most of the past quarter-century. Dating to 1986, the last six men (including Hauck) to guide the Rebel football program have a 97-202 record. Not one of Hauck’s predecessors departed his office on Maryland Parkway with a winning record. In fact, over those 26 seasons, UNLV has posted just four winning seasons—and only one since 1995.

That’s the horrific news. Now here’s the positive spin: Winning at UNLV is not impossible, as Bill Ireland, Ron Meyer, Tony Knap and Harvey Hyde all proved from 1968-1985. The Rebels’ first four coaches went a combined 126-70, and each finished with a winning record.

Can Hauck return the program to those long-lost winning ways, and in the process leave a legacy similar to the one he established at Montana? We believe so, and here’s our seven-step road map for getting there:

1. Keep Kids at Home

Hauck barely had a month to put together his first recruiting class after arriving at UNLV in late December 2010. And in that short window, he signed a school-record eight local high school seniors. In the two recruiting classes since, UNLV has signed a combined four local kids. “I found that recruiting guys from out of the area is easier than I thought, and keeping guys at home, to a degree, has been a little more difficult,” Hauck says.

Last season, some local recruits were turned off when UNLV suffered an unsightly 41-16 home loss to little Southern Utah, just one week after blasting Hawaii 40-20 as a 17-point underdog. For Hauck to reclaim his home turf in the recruiting wars, it’s imperative that he minimize inexcusable losses and sprinkle in a few more upset victories—and the sooner the better, as the 2013 high school senior class is as deep a group as Southern Nevada has offered in years. This class could be to Hauck what the 2012 recruiting class was to UNLV men’s basketball coach Dave Rice, who in that haul landed McDonald’s All-American Anthony Bennett and potential future stars in Katin Reinhardt and Savon Goodman.

So far, the only known local kid to commit to UNLV is Liberty High School running back Niko Kapeli. If Hauck is able to add the likes of Basic High receiver Devonte Boyd and Desert Pines defensive tackle Michael Cisneros, Hauck will have himself a solid foundation. He can make his best sales pitch over the next month, as UNLV starts the season with four home games (Minnesota, Northern Arizona, Washington State, Air Force) before closing out September at Utah State.

Enter October with a 3-2 record—not entirely unrealistic—and the program will have some strong traction for the first time in Hauck’s tenure.

2. Build UNLV Now Now!

Will UNLV’s campus makeover ever become reality? Opinions vary from week to week. But it’s not just the potential 50,000-seat domed stadium—the crown jewel of the UNLV Now project—that could bolster the football program. It’s the promise of on-campus housing, shopping and restaurants around the venue that would transform a commuter campus into a more traditional college setting. Not only do traditional college students enjoy traditional college settings, but an on-campus venue—compared with a stadium situated in the middle of, well, nowhere—makes for a much more exciting game-day atmosphere. Need to fact-check that statement? Just poll college kids from Boise, Idaho, to Gainesville, Fla.

Of course, even if the first ton of dirt was excavated tomorrow, UNLV Now is still years away from reality. So until then …

3. It’s Game Day

Hauck is old school to the bone, and included is a firm belief that college football is meant for Saturday afternoons. He says he loved the home afternoon kickoff at Sam Boyd Stadium late last season against Colorado State—a game UNLV won, by the way, 38-35 in front of 21,289 fans (only the game against Boise State, which brought a Top 5 program and a large contingent to Sam Boyd, drew a bigger crowd in 2011).

This season, Hauck will get more of what he likes, as the Rebels’ final three home games—Oct. 13 vs. Nevada-Reno, Nov. 3 vs. New Mexico and Nov. 17 vs. Wyoming—are scheduled to kick off at either noon or 1 p.m. Here’s why that’s important: Day games attract bigger crowds (in case you weren’t aware, Las Vegas offers a lot to do after the sun goes down). Bigger crowds lead to a greater home-field advantage. Greater home-field advantage leads to a better chance to win. Wins lead to better recruits.

Of course, the devil’s advocate would point out that it’s more important for UNLV to get on national television as frequently as possible. And that means agreeing to more weeknight games like the season opener against Minnesota (a Thursday-night contest to be shown on the CBS Sports Network) and the Sept. 14 showdown against Washington State (which ESPN will air on a Friday night, the only college football game on the docket that day). Our response: Such exposure is indeed vital, which is why we’d make one annual exception to the day-game rule—and (like this year) we’d schedule that weeknight TV game early in the season when late-summer temperatures can make early-afternoon kickoffs miserable for both players and fans.

Which brings us to another benefit to day games as summer winds down: Warm early-autumn conditions should, theoretically, favor the home team. For example, on Oct. 13, 2011, the high temperature in Las Vegas was 89 degrees. If that’s the case on Oct. 13, 2012—when UNR, which UNLV hasn’t defeated since 2004, comes to town—the Rebels would figure to have the stamina edge.

4. Schedule for Success

Hauck can’t run and hide from that 4-21 record. But if he wanted to, he could pin responsibility for at least a few of those defeats on the previous administration that put together a schedule that included two games against Wisconsin and one against West Virginia (the Rebels lost all three, by a combined score of 141-48). Former athletics director Mike Hamrick and former coach Mike Sanford scheduled those schools early in Sanford’s tenure because they (foolishly) believed the program would have reached a point where the Rebels could compete against such powerhouses. Don’t expect to see opponents of that ilk on UNLV’s schedule anytime soon.

“We play a team from the Big Ten and Pac-12 [this season], so that hasn’t changed,” Hauck says, “but they’re not top-5, top-10 teams.” Indeed, Minnesota (Big Ten) and Washington State (Pac-10) went a combined 7-17 a year ago. Although the Rebels got pummeled at Washington State last year (59-7), these are the types of low-level power-conference opponents against whom Hauck’s squad can (and should be) competitive.

UNLV’s non-conference schedule this year also includes Northern Arizona at home and Utah State and Louisiana Tech on the road. The latter two were bowl teams a year ago and should be solid again this season, but not long ago both programs were trying to climb out of a hole similar to the one UNLV finds itself in. Of course, as the Southern Utah fiasco proved last year, no game should be considered a gimme right now for the Rebels. However, it should be noted that several long-suffering Division I-A football programs in recent years—Kansas State, Rutgers and Temple come to mind—revamped their reputations by scheduling weaker foes. And if Hauck dials back its non-conference schedule even more in the coming years, it will be hard to blame him. Again, it’s all about the win-loss column.

5. A League of Their Own

Two years ago, BYU and Utah—two of the league’s premier schools—left the Mountain West. This year, TCU bolted. Next year, Boise State and San Diego State will flee. Without question, the defections have irreparably damaged the league’s profile, but somewhere in a dark corner of his office, Hauck has to be doing backflips. You mean I get to replace BYU, TCU and Boise State with San Jose State, Utah State and Hawaii? Where do I sign!

In other words, college football’s game of conference musical chairs has made UNLV’s path to league respectability—and, dare we say, a league title, something that hasn’t happened since 1994—a lot easier. Of course, critics would argue that playing in a weaker conference with little television exposure makes UNLV less attractive to recruits. To which we’d respond: Any less attractive than one winning season in the last 17?

6. Pass It On

Call it the curse of Randall Cunningham, but since Rebel football’s most famous alum took his final snap against Toledo in the California Bowl on Dec. 15, 1984—a 30-13 victory that capped an 11-2 season—UNLV has struggled mightily to create stability at football’s most important position. Oh, there have been brief flashes—such as Jason Thomas (before injuries) and local product Jon Denton (before off-field issues)—but essentially the Rebels have not been able to recruit and nurture that superstar quarterback who can serve as the face of the program for four years before handing the pigskin to the next guy.

Although Hauck’s offensive approach is more ground-and-pound than chuck-and-duck, it’s still crucial for him to bring in a capable signal-caller, not only to make big plays (last year, the Rebels’ longest completion was 33 yards), but to lead the team and—perhaps more importantly—rally the community.

Which brings us to Nick Sherry. A redshirt freshman from Petaluma, Calif., Sherry originally signed with Colorado then transferred after the Buffaloes fired their coach. At 6-foot-5, Sherry definitely looks the part of a prototypical drop-back college quarterback. And if his high school stats (5,200 passing yards, 53 touchdown passes as a junior and senior) and collegiate academic record (he made the dean’s honor list in his first two semesters at UNLV) are any indication, he’s got the arm—and the brain, too.

7. When All Else Fails … Punt!

As noted above, the Rebels once had a lot of success at the Division I-AA level. So, too, did Hauck at Montana, whose home games attracted standing-room-only crowds. So if the double-digit losing seasons persist, perhaps it’s time to call an audible and return to the past.

We can see Jim Livengood shaking his head vigorously as he reads this, muttering “Not on my watch!” UNLV’s athletics director has publicly stated on multiple occasions that he’s determined to make UNLV football relevant at the highest level. He’s also determined to balance his budget, something that can’t be accomplished when you’re investing millions in a program that yields next-to-nothing in return.