A Team for the Ages

In 1984, a multitalented quarterback and a fiery head coach helped guide UNLV to an 11-2 record and the program’s first bowl victory. Three decades later, that squad remains the standard-bearer for Rebels football.

Led by star QB Randall Cunningham, UNLV blasted Toledo 30-13 in the 1984 California  Bowl. | Photo  courtesy UNLV Athletics

Led by star QB Randall Cunningham, UNLV blasted Toledo 30-13 in the 1984 California
Bowl. | Photo courtesy UNLV Athletics

Standing in the UNLV locker room at the Silver Bowl just moments after a stunning last-second home loss denied his team a conference championship and a trip to the school’s first bowl game, coach Harvey Hyde made his players a promise. He had just watched Long Beach State drive 91 yards in 71 seconds, with no timeouts, to score the winning touchdown with seven seconds left in a 24-21 final. The crushing defeat in the 1983 season finale kept UNLV out of the California Bowl, and a heartbroken Hyde vowed to his players that the following season would end much differently.

“We made a pact that never again would we allow that to happen to us,” Hyde says. “We were going to take charge and prove we were the best team and dominate. That was our slogan: We’re going to dominate. We played to the beat of that drum.”

Hyde’s words proved to be more than hopeful chatter, as the ’84 Rebels—led by senior quarterback and All-American punter Randall Cunningham—finished 11-2 and won the school’s first bowl game. Some 30 years later, that squad remains the most accomplished in the program’s history, its team and individual achievements still resonating in the UNLV record books.

“It was the culmination of the last of [previous coach] Tony Knap’s players, who melded with all the recruits Harv had. It really was the perfect storm,” says Steve Stallworth, who, as a sophomore in 1984, was the backup quarterback behind Cunningham. “We had great players, great coaches, great speed. That team was fast—at every position. The other thing that team had was passion and personality. That team had characters on it. Of course, some of those characters were the reason Harv wasn’t there too much longer. We had a few too many characters at the end of the day. But it was definitely a fun year.”

That UNLV was even playing football in 1984, let alone succeeding, was in doubt just 18 months earlier. In 1982, the Rebels joined the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, and Hyde replaced the retiring Knap, a gentlemanly sort whose high-flying offense excited UNLV fans and lit up scoreboards, culminating in the Rebels’ 45-41 road win over No. 8-ranked BYU in 1981, still the biggest upset in school history. Knap went 47-20-2 in his six seasons and ushered UNLV from NCAA Division II independent status to the top-level Division I-A. But in their first season under the brash, mop-topped Hyde, the ’82 Rebels went 3-8, their first losing campaign in 10 years. Many fans were turned off by Hyde’s boisterous claims, and the Board of Regents considered dropping football that spring to remedy a deficit in the athletic budget. Only after assurances that the program would stay within its budget did the Regents vote to keep football.

Despite the devastating end to the 1983 season, the Rebels’ 7-4 performance that year produced plenty of optimism, thanks to the exciting play of Cunningham. The lanky 6-foot-4 phenom was voted the PCAA Player of the Year after passing for 2,545 yards and 18 touchdowns, possessing the ability to both unleash a pass 70 yards downfield to a streaking receiver, or scramble around and past defenders. However, it was Cunningham’s punting that gained him the most acclaim. The junior was named first-team All-American, the first UNLV player to earn the distinction, after averaging 43.5 yards on 56 punts, twice hitting for 73 yards that season.

“Randall just had that ability to make plays,” Stallworth says. “It was funny because we had no designed [quarterback] runs. There was no quarterback run-read stuff like they have now. We didn’t have any of that. But Randall would just take off and make plays if [a throw] wasn’t there. He was pretty amazing.”

UNLV entered 1984 as the preseason favorite to win the PCAA title, and Hyde made no bones about telling his team, the media and anyone else who would listen that the Rebels were going to do just that. In addition to Cunningham, the offense was loaded with talented skill players. Sophomore running back Kirk Jones—the highest-rated high school recruit UNLV had ever signed, who chose the Rebels over such schools as UCLA and Texas—shared the backfield with junior fullback Tony Lewis. Senior Michael McDade and sophomore Tony Gladney were Cunningham’s top receiving targets, along with senior tight end Reggie LaFrance.

“We called ourselves the Bomb Squad—the quarterbacks and the receivers—and we used to take socks and cut the toes out, and use them as wristbands. Randall called those ‘wings,’ and if someone didn’t have a good practice, Randall would take their wings for the next day,” Stallworth says. “And that was a major motivator, because you didn’t want your wings taken. There would be fights over it.”

“Even though we were picked as the favorite from the first day of camp,” Gladney says, “Coach Hyde and the coaching staff didn’t let us take anything for granted.”

Despite Cunningham’s cannon arm, it was the ground attack that powered UNLV to its first 3-0 start since 1976. Lewis and Jones swapped 100-yard rushing performances, respectively, in wins over San Jose State and New Mexico State, while both players topped 100 yards against Wichita State at the newly renamed Sam Boyd Silver Bowl. Cunningham modestly passed for 519 yards with no interceptions in the three wins.

Although UNLV’s record was perfect through three games, their play on the field was far from it. The Rebels were piling up penalties, averaging more than 100 yards in infractions per game, but their talent allowed them to overcome those mistakes against weaker opponents. In the next game at Hawaii, the penalties finally caught up with UNLV, which was flagged 14 times for 125 yards. But it was one particular call that ultimately sunk the Rebels and raised Hyde’s ire: Cunningham hit Lewis with a screen pass that seemingly gave the Rebels a first-and-goal with less than two minutes left, but the officials negated the play, calling what Hyde and then-UNLV athletic director Brad Rothermel still refer to as the “phantom clip.” The penalty left the Rebels facing third-and-21 from the Hawaii 36, and Cunningham’s desperation throw resulted in his third interception of the game, giving Hawaii a 16-12 victory. After watching the game film, Hyde said he had no idea where an infraction occurred on the play. Three decades later, he still doesn’t.

“It was ridiculous. They called a penalty on a number that was standing next to me on the sideline,” Hyde says. “It was hard for me to understand that one; I told the referee that.”

With Randall Cunningham (No. 12) under center and coach Harvey Hyde on the sidelines, UNLV started 10-1 in 1984 before falling to No. 10 SMU in the regular-season finale. | Photo courtesy UNLV Athletics

With Randall Cunningham (No. 12) under center and coach Harvey Hyde on the sidelines, UNLV started 10-1 in 1984 before falling to No. 10 SMU in the regular-season finale. | Photo courtesy UNLV Athletics

Shaking off the nonconference loss, UNLV hit its stride, scoring at least 30 points in winning each of the next four games, outscoring its opponents—Long Beach State, Idaho State, Pacific and San Diego State—by a total of 139-78. At 7-1, and 4-0 in conference play, the Rebels were set up for one of the biggest home games in school history. Defending PCAA champion Cal State-Fullerton, led by senior quarterback and eventual Canadian Football League Hall of Famer Damon Allen, came into Las Vegas as college football’s winningest team at 10-0, and was flirting with the national rankings. The winner would have the inside track toward the PCAA crown and a trip to the California Bowl in Fresno.

Before a homecoming crowd of 25,678, UNLV’s largest at the Silver Bowl since the 1982 season opener, the Rebels were hanging onto a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter when Cunningham made the biggest play of the game—with his right foot. His booming 70-yard punt stopped just inches from the goal line. The Titans failed to get out of the shadow of their own end zone, and not long after a short punt gave UNLV possession on Fullerton’s side of the field, Cunningham hit LaFrance with a 9-yard touchdown pass. The Titans rallied late, but the Rebels held on 26-20 when Allen’s fourth-down pass with 20 seconds left fell untouched in the end zone.

“That punt won the game,” Fullerton coach Gene Murphy said afterward.

Says Hyde: “We were not going to allow them to come into our stadium as Long Beach State had done the year before and beat us and knock us out of the California Bowl. But it was a great battle.”

Needing just one win in its last two PCAA games to secure the conference championship and the bowl berth that came with it, the Rebels were practically getting sized for rings by halftime the following Saturday. After Utah State took a 7-0 lead on a wet, chilly day in Logan, Utah, UNLV scored 36 unanswered points—33 in the first half—en route to a 36-20 victory. Cunningham passed for three touchdowns and ran for another, while Ed Saignes and David Hollis intercepted passes to spark the defense. The Rebels concluded the first-ever 7-0 conference season in the expanded PCAA with a 27-13 home win over Fresno State, behind a school record-tying four field goals from junior kicker Joey DiGiovanna. Cunningham also further etched his name into the record books, becoming the PCAA’s career touchdown pass leader while simultaneously breaking UNLV’s single-season mark with his 23rd TD of the year, an 18-yard throw to Lewis.

Immediately following the game, chants of “SMU, SMU!” started in the Rebels’ locker room as the players anticipated the regular-season finale, a non-league home game against Southwest Conference power Southern Methodist, which finished that season ranked No. 8 in the country, and went 49-9-1 from 1980-84, the highest winning percentage (.839) in Division I-A during that stretch. “Their program was one of the elite in college football, and we were chasing after them,” Hyde says. “That was our goal, and we wanted to make a statement. It was like a heavyweight championship fight.”

It was the Rebels, though, who got punched first—and long before kickoff. In the days leading up to the game, anonymous letters were sent to the NCAA, the PCAA, the conference’s eight athletic directors and a Fresno television station questioning the academic eligibility of four UNLV players, including three defensive starters: senior middle linebacker Tom Polley, the team’s leading tackler; senior safety Dalton Reed, who tied for the team lead with four interceptions; and junior end Damon Perry, who was second among linemen in tackles. In the wake of the allegations a committee was formed that included first-year UNLV President Robert Maxson, Rothermel and Hyde. The decision was made to sit the players in question against SMU.

The Rebels still managed to hold their own in the first half against the Mustangs, while a Silver Bowl crowd of 23,369 looked on. Cunningham, whose No. 12 was being retired at halftime, appeared to pull UNLV within 17-14 of SMU with seconds to play in the second quarter on a quarterback sneak on first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. The officials, however, ruled Cunningham did not break the plane of the goal line despite TV replays to the contrary. The Rebels, confused by the call and out of timeouts, were unable to get off another play, and instead went into the locker room visibly dejected and trailing 17-7. They were unable to draw closer in the third quarter, and eventually wore down against the physically dominant Mustangs, who rushed for 451 yards in a 38-21 triumph.

“Had we been able to play our ineligible players, I think it’s impossible to say we could have beaten them,” Rothermel says. “But we certainly would have given them a much tougher game, and the game itself was pretty tough.”

“There was one thing that happened that made me go, ‘Damn, this is going to be a tough one,’” says Stallworth, now the general manager of the South Point Arena. “We had some of the greatest skill players in the country; that wasn’t our issue. But if we had injuries on either one of our lines, we were going to be in trouble. And I remember [SMU] on one play, subbing a whole new offensive line in. It was like, ‘Holy shit, they just sent five new guys in!’ They were deep. It wasn’t their skill guys [that beat us]; it was their size and depth.”

UNLV gained nearly 500 yards against the Mustangs, but lost three fumbles, and Cunningham was sacked six times. Hyde had tears in his eyes when he addressed the media after the loss.

“He was a special coach because he brought the best out of his players,” says Gladney, now a vice president with MGM Resorts International. “Sometimes he would be more amped up than his players were. He would be so fired up that you didn’t want to let yourself down, you didn’t want to let your teammates down, but you didn’t want to let him down, either.

“He really put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into where the program was going. He was a dynamic coach, but he was also a compassionate person. He really made you feel like you were part of a family.”

Two days before the California Bowl, the NCAA ruled that the four UNLV players who missed the SMU game were ineligible to play because they took the GED test while already enrolled in junior college. Despite the adversity, the Rebels throttled Mid-American Conference champion Toledo, 30-13. Cunningham, named the bowl’s MVP, passed for 270 yards and two touchdowns, and ran 12 yards for the game’s final score; and a little-used freshman running back named Elbert “Ickey” Woods led UNLV in rushing with 53 yards, including a 16-yard TD.

“[Toledo’s coach] came up to me after the game,” Rothermel says, “and he thanked me for not running up the score on them. He said, ‘Quite honestly, we had no idea what you guys were doing.’”

The Rebels were balanced on offense that season, averaging 219 yards passing and 187.3 rushing per game. Kirk Jones became UNLV’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Mike Thomas in 1974, while McDade, Gladney and LaFrance all had more than 40 catches. More notably, Cunningham reached 2,500 yards in total offense for the third straight year, joining Heisman Trophy winners John Elway and Doug Flutie as the only players to accomplish that feat. He also averaged a school-record 47.5 yards per punt to earn second-team All-American recognition.

Cunningham once again was named PCAA Player of the Year, while senior defensive end Aaron Moog was the co-Defensive Player of the Year. Those players were among five Rebels named first-team PCAA, joining Jones, LaFrance and senior guard Doug Eisher, while seven others were named to the second team. “We had talent all over the field,” says Hyde, who was honored as PCAA Coach of the Year.

Harvey Hyde | Photo courtesy UNLV Athletics

Harvey Hyde | Photo courtesy UNLV Athletics

Although the Rebels had just completed the most glorious year in the program’s history, the team’s period of postseason bliss was short-lived. In March 1985, the PCAA ordered UNLV to forfeit all 11 of its victories, including the Cal Bowl win, for having seven ineligible players, although determining that the university hadn’t intentionally violated any rules. NCAA records, however, still recognize the ’84 Rebels’ accomplishments.

“People tried to have it distract us, but all it did was bring us closer together,” Hyde says of the late-season suspensions. “It’s funny that when all the smoke cleared and everything was sorted out, the NCAA kept our official record at 11-2. I feel there was a lot of jealousy that we came into the conference and won so quickly. [Jerry] Tarkanian was dominating in basketball, and we came into the conference and starting dominating. I think people felt, ‘We’ve got to slow these guys down or they’re going to own the PCAA.’”

Says Gladney: “It impacted our program; it impacted our success. It had an impact on our future. It was a turning point for our program.”

Without Cunningham, the Rebels slipped to 5-5-1 the following year as attendance dwindled, and Hyde found himself in hot water with Maxson as a string of player arrests attracted heavy media attention. The coach’s longtime association with Tarkanian, whom he had known since their days together at Pasadena City College, also didn’t earn him any favor with Maxson, who wasn’t a Tarkanian fan. On April 23, 1986, just 16 months after the Rebels’ bowl victory, Maxson fired Hyde.

“It was so disappointing, that I had other coaching jobs offered to me, and I turned them down,” says Hyde, who would coach just once more, as associate head coach under Hall of Famer George Allen at Long Beach State in 1990. “I felt so sorry for the community; I felt so sorry for the kids who believed in and came to UNLV. I was crushed.”

Says Rothermel: “We had a new president come into our institution in 1984, and he said he was going to take athletics to a new level. Most of us assumed he meant up. Unfortunately, that was not the direction it went. I gladly attribute the collapse of UNLV football to Robert Maxson. He felt that he needed to make a change for no particular reason and fired Harvey, and we’ve never quite [returned to] that same level since, and I don’t know that we ever will.”

Since that 1984 season, UNLV is 111-224-1 and has played in just three more bowl games, the most recent being last season’s 36-14 loss to North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Meanwhile, not one of the six head coaches to succeed Hyde has left UNLV with a winning record.

“Here’s a stat for you: We’ve had two football teams in the history of [UNLV] that generated net revenue—Randall’s junior and senior year,” says Rothermel, who resigned as athletic director in 1990, and rejoined UNLV 10 years ago as special advisor to the AD. “That was one way to indicate the strength of our program at that point.”

Here’s another: Five players from that 1984 team ended up being drafted by the NFL (Cunningham, who was the first QB selected in the 1985 draft; Polley; Woods; cornerback Charles Dimry; and receiver George Thomas), while another dozen or so either played in the league (some as replacement players during the 1987 NFL strike) or went to training camp. In 2012, the squad was inducted into the UNLV Athletic Hall of Fame, cementing its legacy.

For those who witnessed the success, it appeared the ’84 Rebels would serve as the launching pad for a new age of UNLV football. Instead, that season remains a rare beacon of light, shining the way for future Rebels teams to follow.

1984 UNLV Football Results

Sept. 8 vs. San Jose State W 30-15
Sept. 15 at New Mexico State W 28-21
Sept. 22 vs. Wichita State W 38-21
Sept. 29 at Hawaii L 12-16
Oct. 6 at Long Beach State W 41-23
Oct. 13 vs. Idaho State W 33-20
Oct. 20 at Pacific W 35-21
Nov. 3 at San Diego State W 30-14
Nov. 10 vs. Cal State-Fullerton W 26-20
Nov. 17 at Utah State W 36-20
Nov. 24 vs. Fresno State W 27-13
Dec. 1 vs. Southern Methodist L 21-38
Dec. 15 vs. Toledo (in Fresno, Calif.) W 30-13

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