The UNLV Rebels football program is a sleeping giant that has yet to be fully awakened, but great potential may begin to stir with new Head Coach Tony Sanchez.
It seems that some of the right elements might be in place for UNLV Rebels football to start its way towards making a long awaited move into the upper tier of the Mountain West and the Group of Five. However, new Head Coach Tony Sanchez, from Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, will have his work cut out for him. Sanchez has had a tremendous run at Bishop Gorman, winning 6 straight state championships while going a Vegas worthy, gaudy, 85-5. Bishop Gorman has produced excellent football talent and the move to hire Sanchez could also be predicated on the idea of keeping that Las Vegas and other Nevada high school talent at home. And also from heading to rival University of Nevada in Reno.
From 1986 through 2014, UNLV has had six head coaches. These six, including John Robinson, of USC fame, have all had losing overall records at UNLV, including some that are very lopsided. Together they accounted for 3 bowl appearances in that time span.
The track record of high school coaches moving straight to a head job in Division I NCAA Football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level has not been great. The most recent example I can think of was Todd Dodge coming from quarterback factory, Southlake Carroll, in Texas, to North Texas State and bringing along his quarterback son, to boot. It did not end well for the Mean Green.
Going way back, Gerry Faust had mixed results at Notre Dame and, later, at Akron. The similarity is that he also came from a Catholic private school that was a football powerhouse. But Ohio high school football and Cincinnati’s Moeller High School are not the same as Nevada high school ball and UNLV is not Notre Dame. What is striking, though, is Faust was 174-17-2 at Moeller with five state titles in his last six years at the school. His run at Moeller looks an awful lot like that of you know who, but over a span of 18 years. For the record, he was 30-26-1 for the Fighting Irish and was 43-53-3 for the Akron Zips. Say what you will about Faust, but he was a very good guy and the college record books are littered with coaches who did worse. His record at Akron is way better than what UNLV has had since 1986, including the very cool and super successful football coach, John Robinson, who went 28-42 at UNLV.
There is a higher hope, however, as Gus Malzahn has proved a high school coach can have an immediate, smashing impact. There is no denying Malzahn made a very quick splash at Arkansas as an assistant and he has been given credit for inventing the Wildcat offense. He was one of the early masters of the spread. Offensive Coordinator positions at Tulsa and Auburn quickly followed and resulted in a ton of wins and a National Championship at Auburn. In his one year at Arkansas State as head man, he kept their superb record of Sun Belt success going strong. He then led the Auburn Tigers to an SEC Championship and National Championship Game appearance in his first year at the helm of War Eagle. Again, UNLV is not Auburn, but there is hope for the Rebels, here, in the sense that it can be done.
Bobby Hauck resigned after UNLV’s 2014 season. He had some good moments including a bowl appearance after the 2013 season. And he knew what he was doing considering he had three Football Championship Subdivision National Championship Game appearances at Montana. This shows it will not be easy for Tony Sanchez. The previous UNLV Rebels football head man, Mike Sanford, is also a highly regarded and experienced coach who had a fantastic run as Utah’s offensive coordinator with a two year, 21-2 overall, 13-1 Mountain West, run that culminated in a 2004 Fiesta Bowl win. Sanford had some good moments in Vegas, but ultimately could not get it done to their satisfaction. There may have been issues of university support and athletic director continuity while he was at UNLV. In any event, again, it will not be easy for the not so new man in town, Sanchez.
UNLV does have a few things going for them that they need to capitalize on. Surely, the bright lights of Glitter Gulch can be an attractive recruiting destination or am I missing something here. You are not going to freeze to death like you might in Laramie or some of the other mountainous venues of the Mountain West. You might even be able to steal some Power Five recruits from a place like Washington State who don’t want to face the winter wrath out on the Palouse. You have one of the biggest and most exciting cities in all of the conference. Heck, the world. It sure seems like a place for some Fun and Gun, wide-open, West Coast style. However, there are a number of big or medium sized city schools in the Mountain West, as opposed to pure college towns, that have plenty to offer. This is especially true in the West Division of the Mountain West where all of the schools are in big or medium sized cities, including UNLV. Maybe this isn’t a great draw. Perhaps pure college towns are more attractive to many recruits, but some will surely go for the bright lights of The Strip.
Sam Boyd Stadium is a very good venue, but it is about 7 miles away from campus. Originally known as Las Vegas Stadium, it was built in 1971, way out in the desert, all by itself. They city has finally come out to meet it. Getting their own on-campus stadium right in the heart of Las Vegas would probably do wonders for the fortunes of UNLV Rebel football. The basketball team has no such problems and no one needs to be reminded of their success over the years. I have heard of a proposed 60,000 seat on-campus stadium. Not only would this be the biggest on-campus stadium in the Mountain West, but by the time they build it, considering today’s standards, it would be the best, for sure. Furthermore, UNLV has to beat Colorado State to the punch on a new stadium. I’m going to say it, “Build it and they will come.” Fans, recruits, television and the whole ball of wax. And, hopefully, wins, rankings and bowl games. UNLV needs a facilities upgrade and building a new stadium in Las Vegas does not seem at all far fetched considering the juice the power players in Vegas have at their disposal.
Recruiting is going to be limited in the Nevada high school ranks, no doubt. The Bureau of Land Management deserts have plenty of wild horses and burros, but not too many football players. But you have California right next door. I would have to think Vegas would be an attractive destination for a Group of Five recruit from California. Then the California Junior College’s are second to none in producing football talent and the same notion would be true for those transfer players as well. Additionally, the JC recruiting grounds of Utah and Arizona have always produced plenty of good talent that has spread across the nation. There are tons of quality players right next door across the rugged borders of Nevada. The kicker is that this is right up Sanchez’s alley. He was born in California and played his high school ball at Granada High School in Livermore, California, and graduated in 1992. He then played California JC ball at Laney College in Oakland in 1992 and 1993. After that, he took his talents to New Mexico State where he played against UNLV as well as some other Big West Conference football refugees that ultimately found homes in the Mountain West. If you look at it this way, Tony Sanchez could be licking his chops. As the Music Man said, “You gotta know the territory.”
One thing Sanchez will need to do is to get UNLV over the hump in close games. There were many very close losses over the two coaching regimes of Hauck and Sanford. Some of these would have been huge wins, including Power Five wins, if the Rebels could have come through.
Things get serious real fast for the Rebels in 2015 with a challenging non-conference schedule that starts September 5th at Northern Illinois. A home game with UCLA is next, followed by an away game at Michigan. The West Division of the Mountain West will be plenty tough considering the Rebels were last in the West in 2014. The Mountain Division was extremely tough in 2014 with Boise State and Colorado State among the national leaders. Utah State and Air Force had excellent seasons, too.
The question is, have the Rebels hit the jackpot with new head man Tony Sanchez? If so, and improving on the things mentioned above, the sleeping giant that is, and has been, UNLV Rebels football, might just stir to life. And once it awakens, who knows? After all, Las Vegas is a city that never sleeps. It just might be worth the bet.