Photo by Jaime Green/Wichita Eagle/MCT UNLV coach Stacey Augmon talks to Mike Moser during the first half against Wichita State at Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas, Sunday, December 4, 2011. Wichita State beat UNLV, 89-70.
By anyone’s measure, Stacey Augmon ranks among the greatest UNLV basketball players in history. So it was a slam dunk for Dave Rice—shortly after he was hired to replace Lon Kruger as Runnin’ Rebels head coach—to offer his former teammate the opportunity to return to the UNLV sideline as an assistant coach. When Augmon, 43, accepted—leaving his position as assistant coach with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets—longtime Runnin’ Rebels fans immediately began to daydream about the return of our glory days.
Two weeks into the season, the town was buzzing after UNLV’s convincing victory over then top-ranked North Carolina, an upset that pushed the program into the Top 25, where it remained for the majority of the season. Having easily secured their 19th invitation to the NCAA tournament, the sixth-seeded Rebels (26-8) begin their quest for a fifth Final Four appearance on March 15 in Albuquerque, where they’ll face Colorado in a first-round game. It’s Augmon’s first trip to the Big Dance since March 30, 1991, the day UNLV—then the undefeated defending national champs—suffered a stunning 79-77 loss to Duke in the Final Four.
Shortly after you agreed to come back here, you were quoted as saying you first got to UNLV “against all odds.” What did you mean by that?
Just how I was raised, where I was raised—the reason USC and UCLA didn’t recruit me was because I had a quote-unquote bad rap. Coach [Jerry Tarkanian] looked past a lot of that and gave most of our guys a second chance. So it was against all odds that I happened to be successful here. Perfect place, perfect time, perfect coach.
What would the 1990s have looked like in NCAA basketball if Tark hadn’t been brought down?
UNLV would’ve been a dynasty right up until now. This program would’ve been at a top level like the North Carolinas, the Dukes—we’d have been the West Coast version of that. People would’ve been banging on doors to get here to play for Coach Tark. It’s sad that it went down. But it’s been a couple of decades now, and we’re here to turn the program around, and hopefully Dave Rice and the coaching staff will be able to get guys here who like to play how we play, and that’s Runnin’ Rebel basketball.
What’s different in Dave’s approach to running a team and a program from Tark’s?
You know what? There’s not too much of a difference. It’s funny, I worked out with [former Rebel] Mark Wade in the summertime—we worked [with] kids—and he has the same methods, teaching the same way, that Coach Tark taught us. I teach the same way. And Dave is saying the same things Coach Tark said. Coach built a legacy and handed down a philosophy and didn’t even know he was doing it. And his legend will live on with us.
What led to you choosing UNLV back in 1987?
I wanted to stay close to home [in Pasadena, Calif.], and UCLA and USC weren’t recruiting me. So this was the nearest place [to offer me a scholarship], and it was a team that was on the rise. I visited Syracuse and UTEP, but this was the perfect place for me. It was still close enough to California that my parents could get here to see me. The Vegas part appealed to me a little bit, but it was more Coach Tark and the way they ran—I thought it was beneficial to my game to get up and down the court. It was a good fit for me.
Fast-forward to your junior season in 1990 and the championship game victory over Duke. What do you remember feeling as the clock wound down?
When it first hit me, I looked over to our bench and saw [my teammates] jumping up and down. That’s when I realized, “We’re about to win!” Other than that I was just focused the whole time. It was like any other game. Of course it was the championship, but wewent into every game that year very positive, knowing that we were going towin. There was no other way to look at it—we weren’t going to lose. … We left it all on the court, and that was the biggest thing.
What was the experience like returning to the Final Four as undefeated defending national champs? Were you guys treated like rock stars?
We got the kind of attention like we were already in the NBA. But Coach Tark did a great job of keeping us away from that and keeping us level-headed. But that was a lot more pressure [that year]. You’re supposed to win it again, you have a target on your back, everyone’s after you. Wherever you go, guys are playing over their heads, teams are playing over their heads, coaches are coaching over their heads. It was tough.
Fortunately we came out ahead most of the year until theFinal Four. And it was just one of those games. We played our hearts out, we gave it our all, but the ball just didn’t fall our way at the end.
Do you remember what Tark said in the locker room in the aftermath?
No, I just remember a lot of sniffling, a lot of tears. If he did say something, I didn’t hear it, because I had my head down and was just very disappointed in the outcome.
What sort of edge do you bring to the recruiting process, beyond name recognition?
I bring a slight edge from other coaches in that I was in the NBA and know what it takes to get to the NBA—been there, done that. And a lot of the top recruits want to get to that next level, so they’re really interested when I come talk to them about how they can get to the next level. And if they have the ability and desire to get to that next level, I believe I can get them there. But you’ve got to have the ability, desire and work ethic.
What’s your favorite kind of player to recruit?
I like the very athletic, long, 6-[foot]-8, tough—real tough—kid who can shoot the ball. We really, really like the shooters. Coach Rice likes shooters, I like the shooters, but I like the long, athletic shooters.
How do you manage the balance between recruiting blue-chippers and building a team to last more than a year?
There’s a balance. You want to recruit the kids who are going to take you to the next level, and that’s the top kids. Then you have to balance it with [recruits] who want to stay with the program for four or five years. … It’s tough, because right now, we want to win—this town wants to win. So we’re going to go for the top guys and [try to] win now.
How realistic should the community be right now when it comes to UNLV’s ability to consistently land the nation’s top recruits?
We have to win first of all. We have to gather attention from the town, the country, to make it really, really [attractive] for kids to come here. Coach Dave brought [back] the running to the game, the freedom, so any kid who is willing and able to score and attack, he’s giving kids the freedom to do it. I think we have the type of program that we can sell to those kind of kids.
This is our first year, and we’ve accomplished a lot. But I think the bigger picture is yet to come.
Who was the trailblazing team of the early 1990s—the Runnin’ Rebels or Michigan’s Fab Five?
Come on, man! UNLV, 1990, of course! We started all that—the black shoes, the long shorts. We started all that, and they continue to take credit for it. And I’m tired of it [laughs]!
How would current Rebel Mike Moser have fit in on the 1990 title team?
Oh, he would’ve been the seventh or eighth guy [laughs]. No, Mike’s a great talent. He’d have been right in there. The only problem is we had Larry Johnson at that four-spot, and he didn’t come out [of games] much. So it would’ve been hard for Mike to get on the court.
What about Anthony Marshall?
Anthony would’ve fit on that team—he would’ve seen a little more time. But Greg [Anthony] didn’t come out that much, either. A lot of our starting five played a lot of minutes because we were conditioned to play a lot of minutes. Those guys [Moser and Anthony] have great work ethics, and they’re anxious to get better, [so] they would’ve come in and gotten some time—just not as much as they do now! They would’ve been a great scout team for us [laughs].
Hitting a game-winning shot or recording a game-saving steal—what brought you more joy?
Steal. Getting that steal at the last second when a team is trying to go down and score brought me the most joy. Because I’m a defensive player, and defense wins championships—in every sport!
Who wins a game of H-O-R-S-E today: You, Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony or Anderson Hunt?
Me, of course! Come on, now. They’re not in the kind of shape I’m in. The go-to shot would be a jump hook—that would end it.
What’s the one life and/or basketball lesson you learned from Tark that still resonates today?
Never judge a book by its cover—simple as that.