Photo: Josh Hawkins

UNLV’s Struggle Is Real

Can the university's next athletic director make the push to a Power Five conference?

College athletics have a distinct division between the Power Five conferences and the afterthought conferences. UNLV currently resides in the afterthought group, but with a search for the university’s next athletic director underway, the school has dreams of taking the step up.

Current athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy will step aside at the end of June, leaving UNLV to make one if its most important hires ever.

The next leader of UNLV Athletics will inherit a department that has won seven conference titles in the last 12 months. The problem is that neither of the moneymaking sports, football and men’s basketball, have contributed to that total. To have a power conference even consider UNLV, the two most visible programs have to start winning.

Josh Hawkins

Whoever takes the job likely won’t be making a coaching change to impact the department. Head men’s basketball coach Marvin Menzies is in the first year of a five-year contract, while head football coach Tony Sanchez just received an extension through the 2021 season.

“People know that President [Len] Jessup is supportive of these two coaches, so as (candidates) think about their own interest in the position, [the inability to hire new football and men’s basketball coaches] is just one of many factors that they are going to look at,” says Nancy B. Rapoport, special counsel to the UNLV president. “They’ll get to look at the wonderful market that is Las Vegas, the other athletic dynamics that are going on in our city right now [and] the caliber of the university.”

Rapoport, also a professor at UNLV, is heading up the internal search committee for the next athletic director. UNLV has also hired an external firm, Collegiate Sports Associates, to help with the hunt. Todd Turner, the founder and president of CSA, was in Las Vegas in early February to meet with UNLV and start the process. CSA has helped Power Five schools such as Duke, Florida State and Clemson (plus fellow Mountain West Conference schools such as the Air Force Academy and San Diego State) with administrative searches.

The hiring of an external firm comes less than a year after UNLV’s search for a basketball coach dragged into April, which is likely the main reason the university is staring its fourth-ever losing men’s basketball season in the face.

“Our goal is to dominate the Mountain West, and then [we’ll] take it from there.”

The timeline for making a hire isn’t pressing, though. Rapoport says it could last until the end of June, but she doesn’t anticipate it taking that long. For public perception, a quick search would be best after last spring’s fiasco, but finding the right person to lead the athletic department is more important than the previous search for a men’s basketball coach—even if it lasts until June.

One of the biggest issues UNLV is facing is its budget. The athletic department is looking at a deficit of $4.9 million. One of the main areas of concern is generating higher attendance at football and basketball games. UNLV saw its average football attendance fall in the second year of the Sanchez era to under 19,000 fans per game. That ranked 106th of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs (meaning Division I varsity teams) and 11th in the 12-team Mountain West. For basketball, the average attendance has been listed at more than 10,000 this season. While that will likely rank in the top 50 in the country, it is far short of the average attendance of over 15,000 that packed the Thomas & Mack Center in the 2012–13 season.

Winning is the primary factor in high attendance numbers, but with the NHL planting the Golden Knights less than five miles from campus, UNLV’s stranglehold on sports in the Valley is weakening. And for UNLV, the Power Five conferences are off in the distance, as the Rebels haven’t had a winning conference season in football or basketball since the 2013-14 seasons. The first objective for the next athletic director is to tackle the current conference.

“Our goal is to dominate the Mountain West, and then [we’ll] take it from there,” Rapoport says.