It’s a scorching summer morning in 2010, and I’m sitting in a coffeehouse on Maryland Parkway, waiting for Bobby Hauck to walk through the door. I’m scheduled to interview UNLV’s new head football coach for a cover story for this magazine, and despite all that I learned two decades earlier in journalism school—about how reporters should never have preconceived opinions about a story or a subject—I’m bracing for the worst. That’s because Hauck arrived to the desert from Missoula, Montana, with a two-pronged reputation: He knew how to win football games (80 out of 97 over a seven-year stretch at the University of Montana), and he despised the media.
If he distrusted reporters he knew and interacted with daily, how defensive is he going to be with me?
About a half-hour into the hour-plus interview, I come to the realization that either Hauck’s disdain for the media was contrived, or he’s one helluva an actor. Turns out he’s engaging and affable, witty and self-deprecating—a genuinely nice guy.
Which is why, after we shake hands and he makes his way for the door, I actually feel a bit guilty—guilty that I failed to ask him one crucial question: Do you have ANY freakin’ clue what you’ve gotten yourself into?
By now you’re aware that Bobby Hauck is the 10th former head coach in Rebels history, having “resigned”—let’s call it a mutual parting of the ways—on November 28 after five seasons on the job. That four of those five seasons ended with exactly two victories doesn’t at all speak to Hauck’s ability to diagram Xs and Os—again, the man went 80-17 at Division I-AA Montana. Rather, it speaks to a football program that has been cursed—cursed by an apathetic fan base, by an uncommitted university and by unreasonable expectations.
Consider: Hauck is the sixth consecutive coach to depart UNLV with a losing record. The last one to walk out with more wins than losses on his résumé? Harvey Hyde … back in 1985. The coaching records of the men who followed Hyde: 19-25 (Wayne Nunnely), 17-27 (Jim Strong), 13-44 (Jeff Horton), 28-42 (the legendary John Robinson), 16-43 (Mike Sanford) and 15-49 (Hauck). Not counting Hauck, not one of those guys ever got another Division I-A head-coaching gig.
And if you think that’s disturbing, get a load of this: In their last 19 seasons dating to 1995, the Rebels have finished with three wins or fewer 13 times.
That’s not a coaching problem; that’s an institution problem.
Don’t misunderstand: Like the men who preceded him, Hauck must shoulder a good chunk of blame for his failure. In five seasons, he failed to develop a quality quarterback in a pass-happy era of college football; he failed to recruit a single player whom the NFL deemed draftable (although senior wide receiver Devante Davis should break that streak in the spring); his assistant coaches at times seemed in over their heads; and not only did he fail to win a single non-conference game of consequence, he lost twice to I-AA schools … at home! That’s as inexcusable as it is incomprehensible.
No, in hindsight, Bobby Hauck wasn’t “The Winner” we so boldly proclaimed him to be on the cover of that 2010 issue in which my profile of Hauck appeared. But given UNLV’s three decades of football futility, the question has to be asked: Can anyone be a winner here?
If you believe the buzz around town, Tony Sanchez will likely be the next one to get the opportunity to find out. According to widespread reports, Bishop Gorman’s coach is at the top of the wish list of UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy and interim president Don Synder. But their interest in Sanchez has nothing to do with his 84-6 record and six state championships in six seasons at Gorman (assuming the sun rises December 6, Sanchez that day will get that 84th win and sixth title with a victory over Reed High School in Reno). It also has nothing to do with the fact that, prior to Sanchez’s arrival, Gorman had claimed just one state title since 1983 (clearly, the man can coach).
No, Kunzer-Murphy and Snyder see dollar signs—30 million of them, to be exact. That’s the amount of money Lorenzo Fertitta (Station Casinos, UFC, etc.) is reportedly willing to withdraw from his $1.5 billion checking account and hand over to the Rebel football program if it hires Sanchez, who is close with Fertitta after coaching his two sons at Gorman.
Far be it for me to suggest a cash-strapped athletic department turn down a $30 million gift. That said, there’s something unseemly about a Division I-A football program being auctioned to the highest bidder under a quid-pro-quo deal. I mean, if Fertitta is opening his wallet because he truly wants to see Rebel football succeed—as he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week—well, why not do it three years ago? It’s not like Fertitta just hit the jackpot.
More importantly, crazy as it sounds, $30 million doesn’t buy you much in today’s world of college football (hell, that would barely cover four years of Nick Saban’s base salary at Alabama). But let’s say it’s enough for the program to upgrade its weight room and training facilities, redo the antiquated locker room at Sam Boyd Stadium and maybe even fund an indoor practice facility—all things that are important to this generation’s players, and all things that worked against Hauck and his predecessors. Does that mean Sanchez knows how to attract the caliber of big-time recruits who have landed at his doorstep at Gorman? Does it mean he’ll be able to assemble a competent staff? Does it mean he’ll be able to rally a student population and community at-large that, frankly, just doesn’t care about Rebel football?
Which brings me to this: Back in November 1998, I was finishing my third and final season covering UNLV football for the R-J when Horton was fired after an 0-11 campaign. At the time, there were a vocal few who called for the disbanding of the program, claiming the only thing it would ever be successful at is bleeding money. I thought it was an asinine suggestion then, and held firm to that belief for the last 16 years. Now? I’m not so sure. If the university is to the point of allowing the program to be hijacked—with absolutely zero guarantee that the on-field results are going to be any different—why not pull the plug?
That won’t happen, of course. Whether it’s Sanchez or a hotshot college assistant or a retread with name recognition, the Rebels will soon hire Hauck’s replacement. Whoever gets the gig, you can be assured of two things: 1) He will be a huge underdog to halt the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of losing that has come to define UNLV football for 30 years, and 2) he’ll most certainly share the optimism Hauck displayed to me at that coffeehouse in 2010: “Coaches around the country, we look at other programs and kind of gauge what goes on there,” he said that summer morning. “And one of the questions that a lot of guys in my profession always asked was, ‘Why can’t you win at UNLV.’ And I’m one of those guys who asked the same question. Now I’m going to get the chance to find out.”