As recently as a month ago, many around here were writing your UNLV obituary. Now that the Rebels are on a 4-1 run, including the school’s first four-game winning streak in more than a decade, don’t you feel like telling all your critics, “I told you so!”?
Really, I don’t acknowledge that stuff, because frankly it’s not productive. We’ve coached a lot of football a lot of years in a lot of places, [so] there’s not a lot of self-doubt on our coaching staff, starting with me. I didn’t all of a sudden forget how to coach.
You had a spectacular 80-17 record in seven seasons at the University of Montana, but in your first three years at UNLV you went just 6-32. What did you underestimate about the job, and what’s been most challenging?
Coming in the door—and you don’t really know this until you walk on the practice field—[I underestimated] how far away we were just in terms of being competitive talent-wise with the teams we were going to play. It wasn’t close. And at that point, you realize it’s going to take growing guys up, recruiting freshmen and redshirting them, and just going to battle without enough weapons to win.
The most challenging thing is sometimes we’re playing the who’s who of college football, programs that have tremendous resources that we don’t necessarily have. We just have to accept the fact we’re going to [have to] do more with less, and we’re going to succeed doing it.
UNLV hasn’t possessed the Fremont Cannon since 2004, losing eight in a row to UNR. Does that make the upcoming October 26 game in Reno the biggest of your coaching career?
Well, I’ve coached in a lot of big games. But certainly the rivalry game is the most important every year. We’re sick that we had control of that game last year and let it slip out of our fingers (UNLV led UNR 31-14 at halftime and lost 42-37).
It’ll be a real challenge to go up to Reno and win, but that’s the one game that’s circled on our schedule; it’s the most important game of our season, and we treat it as such.
Do you ever look at the betting line and use it for motivation?
I don’t. It’s kind of unproductive, and I don’t think it’s appropriate. Everybody’s aware of who’s favored and who isn’t, but … the betting component is such a major point of emphasis with the NCAA and something that’s supposed to be avoided at all costs, [so] we don’t even discuss it. … But listen, I’ve got friends who love to bet on sports, so, I mean, one of these days I’ll be retired and I’ll join in, because it seems to be an obsession in this country! [Laughs.]
What do you do on Sundays to recover from Saturdays?
We go to work. I go to Mass on Sunday morning with my family, then I come in the office. Sunday for college football coaches is a pretty long day. I mean, it’s our shortest day of the week, but we’re here probably from 10 in the morning till 8 in the evening. Once the season starts, there’s not a day off until Christmas Eve—that’s just how it is.
That’s why we all like day games [on Saturdays]—you get a little detox time after the game. When you have an 8 o’clock game at night, there is none. You get up in the morning and go to work.
What’s your one wish for UNLV?
I’ve got numerous. For the guys on our team, they’ve worked awfully hard, and I want them to be able to have some fun with college football and enjoy what it’s like to win games and maybe someday win a championship.
And then, frankly, it’s the same thing with the people here [in the community]. There’s been like three winning seasons in 30 years [at UNLV], and for people who have hung with this football program, they deserve to have fun and enjoy college football. It’s supposed to be a fun game.
You turn 50 next June. Made any big plans yet?
Nobody’s supposed to know that! I’m 40. Or 38. Nah, I’m kind of an introvert. I’ll eat dessert with the family—I’m really a low-key dude! [Laughs.]