UNLV Hires Tony Sanchez to Take Over its Long-Suffering Football Program

tony_sanchez_by_jon_estrada_02After weeks of speculation, UNLV officially introduced Tony Sanchez as its new head football coach on Thursday with hopes that he can resurrect the Rebels’ program much the same way he transformed Bishop Gorman into a national power.

The Sanchez hire—which won’t become official until approved next week by the Board of Regents—had been telegraphed since Bobby Hauck resigned November 28 after five years on the job. Delaying the announcement allowed Sanchez to finish the season by leading Gorman to its sixth consecutive state championship December 6, giving him a record of 85-5 over his six years there.

The move is a gamble for UNLV, as few head coaches have made the jump from high school to Division I-A—and even fewer have done so successfully. But Sanchez’s winning pedigree and recruiting potential—not to mention a likely windfall of cash from Lorenzo Fertitta—convinced UNLV athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy and interim president Donald Snyder that he was the right choice.

The good news for Sanchez: The bar couldn’t possibly be set any lower. The Rebels posted a dismal 15-49 record under Hauck, and the program’s woes extend back decades further—in fact, UNLV has finished with three victories or fewer 13 times in the last 16 years. So it was no surprise that one of the themes of Sanchez’s introductory new conference was changing the culture of UNLV football.

Another theme centered on Fertitta. It’s long been rumored that the UFC and Station Casinos owner—whose sons Sanchez coached at Bishop Gorman—would cut a check to UNLV for at least $30 million if the school hired Sanchez. Both Sanchez and Kunzer-Murphy denied such an agreement was in place.

For the most part, the news conference was celebratory, with a packed room of boosters and supporters applauding Sanchez’s introduction and opening statement. And true to UNLV football, the proceedings even got a little weird at times.

Some of the highlights:

Sanchez Embracing Challenge

After six dominant years at Bishop Gorman, Sanchez said he’s ready for the challenge of running a Division I-A program. One of his first challenges will be building his coaching staff, and Sanchez said he’s already made progress there, with official news possibly coming within a week.

“I think you’ll get excited about the staff we bring in,” Sanchez said. “It’s going to shock a lot of people.”

Sanchez also said he’s willing to put in the energy needed to rally the fan base, one that’s been largely apathetic (the residual effect of 20 years of losing). Sanchez believes he can change that attitude.  “I have strong ties in this community,” he said. “We’re going to dig in, and we’re going to be a part of this community. We’re going to recruit this community. We’re going to get to know this community, and they’re going to get to know us. We can’t do it alone, but if we get this entire community, past and present and future, all on the same page and driving in the right direction, I know that we will win here.”

AD Gets Defensive About Money

The biggest behind-the-scenes storyline surrounding Sanchez’s hiring revolved around Fertitta, a big-money donor to Bishop Gorman and UNLV. During the news conference—where Fertitta wasn’t spotted—Kunzer-Murphy got awkwardly defensive when a television reporter asked about the rumored donation and she responded with a rambling soliloquy: “I love this process … but the most disappointing part of it is this conversation about that. [The Fertittas] are wonderful people that have been benefactors to so many organizations in Las Vegas, and that part of this has been really disappointing. So the answer to your question is absolutely no. And I’m disappointed in how it’s been perceived and reported [by] the media, if I could say that. My guys over here tell me that’s probably not the right thing [to say], but that’s absolutely just been inconsiderate to the family, and it’s been inconsiderate to us.”

Clearly, Kunzer-Murphy knew that she’d be the object of questions about Fertitta’s involvement in the hiring process, and appeared to have a planned response that she wanted to fit it in at some point during the proceedings. Regardless, her response did nothing to quell the rumors or questions.

Recruiting Becomes Top Priority

Sanchez was able to dominate at the high school level by utilizing a Bishop Gorman talent base that far outstripped any of the local competition (and even most of the national competition). But the disparity at UNLV is tilted in the opposite direction, with the Rebels consistently fielding one of the least talented teams in the Mountain West year after year under Hauck.

Can Sanchez recruit the kind of Division I-A athletes needed to win on a consistent basis? He pointed to his experience dealing with hordes of college recruiters from across the country who flocked to Bishop Gorman over the past six years to inquire about his players, as well as his work coaching in national all-star games as evidence that he could relate to—and sign—star players.

He also said he plans to recruit Las Vegas hard, in hopes of turning UNLV into a brand name in the minds of local top-tier high school talent. “We’re going to recruit Bishop Gorman,” he said, “but there is more than just Bishop Gorman in this Valley. There are kids in many high schools who leave [town] every year to go play big-time college football, and we need to become a choice. We need to get in the conversation; we need to get to know them early; they need to know who we are and what we’re about; and we need to be on their radar. We need to be the first choice, or one of the top choices for every [local] kid. And we’re going to do that.”