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TGS 2012 COLLEGE FOOTBALL PREVIEW...UNLV REBELS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


Now, for a look at the other end of the college football spectrum, in a land awash in red ink, and far away from the BCS bowls and any chatter regarding an upcoming playoff.

Such is gridiron life at forlorn outposts such as UNLV, which worries more about eventually becoming a viable gridiron presence and the day in which it will cease to siphon so much capital from the athletic department budget.

Before asking why we devote space to lower-level programs such as the Rebels, it’s worth a reminder that, at least from a handicapping point of view, some of the best bargains are often found in such out-of-way leagues as the Mountain West, where UNLV resides. In fact, the Rebels have been among the most-formful pointspread performers in the country over the past few years (more on those specifics at the conclusion of this piece). While it’s easy to fawn over the SEC and the big-money conferences, we suggest a serious handicapper should be aware of potentially-profitable developments all over the college football map.

For those reasons, an entity such as UNLV could be every bit as valuable to a shrewd handicapper as an Alabama, LSU, or Notre Dame.

Yet, to get an idea of how the welfare class of college football exists, the Rebels provide as good an indicator as any. Moreover, they illustrate the precarious perch in which much of the non-BCS schools sit in the current fiscal environment.

In short, football is a big money loser at several schools outside of the BCS, and there is no better example of that fact than UNLV.

The Rebel football program has been bleeding money for a long time, with red ink estimates ranging from $3 million and up in recent years. How long programs such as the Rebels’ continue to swim against the tide and hope they can someday become fiscally viable will be an interesting storyline over the next few years.

Although various schools are now attempting to enter the big-time football fray (consider recent start-ups at places such as UT San Antonio, South Alabama, Georgia State, Charlotte, and Old Dominion, all with dreams of football riches and a chance to share in the ever-expanding college gridiron pie), the day is coming soon when we see some current FBS-level members drop the sport entirely. Much as several one-time rather prominent programs (Wichita State, Long Beach State, Pacific, and many others) did in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and many other once big-time football powers long ago.

Not that fiscal imbalance is anything new to the UNLVs of the college football world. Indeed, back in the 1970s, there were proposals being floated that were equivalent of football TV revenue socialism, including a movement championed by the former president of Long Beach State, the late Dr. Stephen Horn, who would eventually serve a decade in the US House of Representatives. At the time, Horn’s 49ers were fielding a football team in the old PCAA and still dreaming about the day in which they might rival nearby entities such as USC and UCLA in the gridiron world.

Horn’s mid-'70s proposal (which was reviewed in depth by John Sayle Watterson in his excellent book College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy) would have made Karl Marx smile. Included among them were a slash of football scholarships from a then-105 down to 55, as well as the real kicker that stipulated that television revenues be allocated via a formula that would allot only 50% to the Division I schools, with the rest of the cash distributed to Division II and III institutions.

Horn’s rationale was that his plan would help the many schools that didn’t appear on TV as much as the marquee teams that received the bulk of the exposure. “As far as I’m concerned,” Horn declared at the time, “Notre Dame and Ohio State can be on (TV) every weekend. If that were so, I think we might get a $30 million contact for the season and it would help everybody.”

(Obviously, a statement made in the 70s; football TV revenues four decades later are now being quoted in the billions rather than millions of dollars.)

Horn (left) also proposed dividing up the proceeds of the bowl games. After the bowl teams and bowl committees had skimmed their 50% of the profits, Horn proposed a split of the remaining 50% between other D-I schools and the entirety of Divisions II and III.

Horn’s proposals gained plenty of media attention almost 40 years ago but hardly swayed NCAA president Walter Byers, who was not amused at Horn’s ideas. " The passionate desire to be associated in the press with the big-name universities,” Byers said, “is best illustrated by California State University at Long Beach and its president, Stephen Horn.”

The major football powers and conferences were not about to cotton to Horn’s Robin Hood act, either. Including those long-suffering football schools such as Northwestern, Rice, and Vanderbilt, who had been the traditional whipping posts in their respective conferences but could at least share in the TV monies that their leagues would generate.

Horn’s proposal was accurately gauged by football insiders to likely have exactly the reverse effect to which Horn intended, as the major conferences would have grown even more one-sided than they had already become.

Legendary Michigan AD Don Canham was certainly not impressed by the Horn plan, and bristled noticeably when informed that some schools (such as in-state Western Michigan) thought Horn’s idea had some merit. “Hell, that’s socialism,” growled Canham, “and we’re not in a socialist state. Why should Michigan play for $40,000 rather than $450,000?”

Had Horn’s proposal passed, it would likely have resulted in the end of the NCAA as we had known it, with the big football powers likely withdrawing from the association entirely.

Ironically, four decades later, that subject of withdrawal from the NCAA is being revisited, one in which we will address when time and space permit in the very near future.

The byproduct of Horn’s proposals, however, are still being felt today, as it marked the beginning of the end to an old caste system in which the TV contracts were rigidly structured. The Michigans of the college football world were not interested in providing a revenue source for the “freeloaders” of the sport and began to organize a movement that would maximize, rather than inhibit, future TV revenues. Indeed, Horn’s Robin Hood act was the first chapter in what would first become the College Football Association, or CFA, and eventually an era in which the major football powers would seek to maximize their profits, a movement that has continued to evolve to this day.

Where, then, do entities such as UNLV fit into the picture?

Along with the rest of the membership in the Mountain West Conference, the Rebels are looking for any TV money crumbs where they can find them. By 1970s standards, UNLV and the rest of its league brethren are nowadays raking in money like the nearby slot machines at the various Vegas casinos. By comparison to the bigger conferences, however, the Rebels and the rest of the Mountain West are still paupers.

The proliferation of TV networks, however, has made it possible for UNLV and other similar football schools to at least carve out a small piece of the ever-expanding gridiron financial pie. In the case of the Mountain West, expected new TV contracts figure to add as much as $3-4 million per school, with entities such as NBC’s new Sports Network (the old Versus), Fox Sports, and others hungry for more programming and more football.

As for the Mountain West, its regional The Mtn. network proved a money-loser and had its plug pulled by majority owner CBS, but that act simply opens up other more lucrative avenues for UNLV and its conference family to explore. A potential merger between the Mountain West and Conference USA has been tabled, but joint negotiations on new TV deals are potentially still a part of the new order. And even if the MWC goes it alone on a new conference TV deal, it figures to greatly pad its coffers.

All of which is good news for UNLV, although getting the football program to a profitable status remains a difficult chore. There are more than a few Rebel boosters who would like to see football ended completely and for the school to return to the non-football Big West Conference, where the other UNLV sports programs could likely flourish.

For now, however, there seems to be little sentiment in the desert to take that course, especially with AD Jim Livengood and school president Neal Smatresk both bullish on football not only surviving, but eventually flourishing, at the school.

Indeed, the central figure in UNLV’s football future is Livengood (left), a well-respected AD whose past employment includes decorated stints at Washington State and Arizona. Immediately upon his hire at UNLV in December of 2009, Livengood enlisted Montana HC Bobby Hauck, who had posted an 80-17 record with the Grizzlies, to lead the Rebels out of the football wilderness. And all along his tenure at the school, Livengood has maintained that propping up the football program remains his top priority.

Recent history, however, shows that Livengood faces an uphill task. The Rebels have had only three winning seasons since the departure of their last coach with a winning record, Harvey Hyde (whose first three teams featured Randall Cunningham), after the 1985 campaign. UNLV hasn’t been to a bowl or had a winning season at all since 2000, when John Robinson’s regime reached its apex with one glorious season that concluded with a win over Arkansas in the local Las Vegas Bowl.

The program, however, has deteriorated since. The hiring of Robinson in 1999, while considered a worthwhile gamble at the time, eventually boomeranged, as the Rebs would slide into irrelevance once more under “Robo” by 2004. Without a designated heir apparent on the Robinson coaching staff, UNLV started from scratch again in 2005 with well-regarded Utah o.c. Mike Sanford, fresh off of an undefeated season with the Utes as a member of Urban Meyer’s staff.

Sanford, unfortunately, proved a poor fit, although his teams did make some progress later in his tenure when recording back-to-back 5-7 marks in 2008 & 2009. Five losing seasons in a row, however, and another change in the AD situation led to Sanford’s ouster.

Some UNLV football followers have also suggested that an ongoing stream of ADs has contributed to the instability of the football program. The hope in the desert is that the well-regarded Livengood is changing all of those perceptions, with his long-range plan to make Rebel football viable.

Livengood, however, might be risking the entire project with his commitment to Hauck (right), whose first two teams have regressed alarmingly from the end of the Sanford regime. Hauck’s two-year record is 4-21, but Livengood appears to be doubling-down on Hauck as the program savior, continuing to offer unwavering support.

Not to overdramatize the situation, but some conference insiders believe Hauck might represent the last chance for UNLV to salvage its program. Also hanging in the balance are various stadium proposals as a replacement for Sam Boyd Stadium, a serviceable facility but inconveniently located in the valley at a remote locale off of Boulder Highway on the way to Hoover Dam. One of those proposals that seems to have the best chance of sticking is a domed stadium project to be funded by L.A. developer Ed Roski, part-owner of the Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings and builder of the Staples Center. Proposed to sit adjacent to the current Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus, the dome would be the home of Rebel football and countless other events and offer more convenient access than the out-of-the-way Sam Boyd Stadium.

No pressure here, Bobby Hauck.

The long-held mantra of UNLV football, one embraced by the Hauck regime, is that the Rebels have to take two steps back before they can take another step forward. UNLV backers, however, have been hearing that excuse for decades, and wonder if the Rebels might eventually fall off of the top of nearby Hoover Dam if they continue to backpedal in hopes of eventually gaining traction.

The Hauck Rebels have lacked a personality on offense, even compared to the preceding Sanford UNLV teams, which made no bones about their intentions with a full-bore, spread passing system. Hauck has ditched (perhaps unwisely) all vestiges of the Sanford spread while hoping to implement a more-balanced offensive attack. And while his strike force has run the ball better over the past two years, piling up rushing stats cannot be an end unto itself. In short, Hauck’s offenses have not been close to as good as the Sanford offenses that contributed to the coaching change after the 2009 campaign.

For confirmation of the “O” downturn, the Rebs ranked a woeful 117th nationally in total offense last season at a mere 273 ypg, and were almost as low-seeded in scoring offense (113th at 17.25 ppg).

Offense is only part of the equation, however, and the Hauck defenses have failed to maintain their end of the bargain, too. Indeed, allowing over 40 ppg a year ago, UNLV produced its worst defensive effort since conceding over 45 ppg way back in 1996 and one of the low points in Rebel football with a 1-11 team under HC Jeff Horton.

Identifying a need to make changes offensively, Hauck decided to switch roles on his coaching staff in the offseason, demoting o.c. Rob Phenecie and promoting TE coach Brent Myers as the new coordinator. Phenecie will be limited to coaching the quarterbacks this fall.

The QB spot was a featured topic during spring football, with returning starer Caleb Herring (right) challenged by Colorado transfer Nick Sherry, who left the Buff program when Dan Hawkins was fired in 2010. The lithe Herring, at 6'3 and 200 lbs., performed with occasional flair last fall. Competition for the starting role will continue into fall camp, but most insiders suspect that Sherry will probably be taking the snaps when the Rebs open their season on August 30 against Minnesota at Sam Boyd Stadium.

One aspect of the offense that Myers must address is how to get more out of the passing game, which fell to 118th nationally a year ago at a puny 109 ypg. Only option devotees Navy and Army and their landlocked attacks posted lesser passing stats in 2011. Moreover, the Rebs had no downfield aerial threat to speak of, with a long-gain completion of only 33 yards. Hauck’s critics complained long and hard that the offense never effectively utilized its best weapon, WR Philip Payne, a long strider who had caught 58 passes in Sanford’s final season in 2009. After gaining 17 yards per catch in 2010, Payne gained only 11 ypc a season ago.

Now, Payne and Michael Johnson (who combined for 75 catches last year) have graduated. Sources say rangy 6'3 soph WR Devante Davis has considerable upside, but with only 4 receptions last year, he’s yet to establish himself as a threat. Redshirt soph wideout Marcus Sullivan, who sat out last season due to eligibility issues, is another option who can also help with the special teams after averaging nearly 28 yards on his kick returns in 2010.

Hauck also has had the built-in excuse of relying heavily upon underclassmen the past two years, which was never more evident than a year ago on the OL when three frosh earned starting roles. The entire forward wall returns from 2011, and the unit did open up occasional holes for jr. RB Tim Cornett (left), a slasher with coast-to-coast potential who gained 671 yards and 5.6 yards per carry in 2011 and also took back a kickoff for a score. But backfield mate Dionza Bradford, who showed considerable promise as a frosh last fall when gaining 615 YR, left the program, with intentions to transfer, in spring.

The line, however, had its problems in 2011 protecting Herring and juco transfer QB Sean Reilly, allowing 35 sacks, ranking a poor 106th nationally. And this was with a QB (Herring) with a pretty good set of wheels.

Still, expect Cornett, a Texas prep product who could likely see action at plenty of schools, to handle much of the load and perhaps become the Rebs’ first 1000-yard rusher since Dominique Dorsey on Robinson’s last team in 2004. But we’re not sure Cornett will be any more effective for the “O” than a year ago if the passing game doesn’t markedly improve behind either Sherry or Herring.

We have saved mention of the Rebel defense because there is not a lot to talk about within this stop (go?) unit that was routinely bludgeoned a year ago. Picking up on the assignment change theme illustrated by the coaching shuffle on the offensive side, Hauck has similarly adjusted his defensive staff, with former DB coach J.D. Williams promoted to the coordinator role at the expense of Kraig Paulson, who will concentrate on handling the OLBs this fall.

Williams has his hands full, however, trying to coax anything out of a defense that was routinely trampled in 2011 when allowing 40.52 ppg, ranking an awful 118th nationally.

There is hope that new playmakers could emerge in the fall, especially with the addition of one-time Southern Cal recruit James Boyd, who detoured to UNLV via the juco route and was determined to play QB. By the end of spring, however, Hauck and Williams had convinced the 6'5, 255-lb. Boyd that his future lies at DE, where he starred as a decorated prep and could emerge as a pass-rush terror.

Still, the DL in Williams’ 4-3 is undersized and prone to tramplings from opposing infantries that gained almost 200 ypg in 2011. Unless Boyd emerges, the strength of the platoon (such as it is) likely resides at the LB spots, where jr. MLB Tani Maka and sr. OLB Princeton Jenkins at least proved durable a year ago.

Overall, Williams welcomes back only five starters to his stop unit, but the platoon could hardly be worse than it was in 2011. The addition of DE Boyd figures to be a plus, especially if he can generate a pass rush that was mostly absent a year ago when UNLV netted a mere 14 sacks, again ranking in triple-digit territory (108th) nationally. Any pass rush pressure figures to help a young secondary that returns only one starter (undersized jr. CB Sidney Hodge, all 5'8 of him) and will feature more underclassmen, with two sophs and a redshirt frosh likely to start unless Miami-Florida transfer Dre Crawford, who has battled eligibility issues since arriving in Las Vegas, is reinstated in time to claim a strong safety spot.

The Rebs get a slight scheduling break this fall with four contests at Sam Boyd Stadium to open the season, but UNLV can take nothing for granted after losing one of its home games to lower-level Southern Utah, by a 41-16 count, no less, a year ago. Livengood is also being forced to scramble in future slates after Navy recently pulled out a scheduled 4-game series that was to have begun in 2014.

As promised at the outset, we won’t forget the pointspread nuggets the Rebs have delivered in recent years as one of the nation’s most formful teams. Which includes an awful record on the road, both straight up and against the number; UNLV hasn’t won a game away from Sam Boyd since 2009 at New Mexico (Hauck is 0-14 SU on the road), and has covered the number as a visitor just once in the past two years, quite a feat considering the hefty imposts involved in most Rebel games. On the other hand, UNLV has fared very well against the number at home, standing 8-2 vs. the spread under Hauck against FBS opposition (and 7-2 as a home dog).

Summary...If Hauck indeed had a two-year grace period before finding some traction with the Rebels, he has used up every bit of it, reflected in that 4-21 SU mark since his arrival. It is time for the Rebels to make some progress in the win column this season. A split of the opening 4-game homestand would be a signal that things are headed in the right direction, but that means that at least one from among Minnesota, Washington State (which beat the Rebs 59-7 in Pullman last September), and Air Force must be vanquished, and the Northern Arizona game cannot be considered a gimme after the Southern Utah fiasco a year ago. There is hope that the high-profile transfers QB Sherry and DE Boyd will help forge a mild turnaround, but the clock is ticking on Hauck. And perhaps the future of the Rebel program.


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