Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2014

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The magic man

It was one year ago this week that Mike Hamrick left East Carolina to become UNLV's 10th full-time athletic director, returning to the university that gave him his start in athletic administration.

Having once tutored under Brad Rothermel, arguably the most popular and effective AD in school history, Hamrick last Aug. 18 took the wheel of an athletic ship that in recent years sometimes appeared in jeopardy of foundering on the rocks.

It was John Robinson who began the arduous process of charting a successful course for the athletic program, but doing two full-time jobs proved too big a burden. So when Robinson stepped aside to concentrate on his football coaching duties and nurse his ailing wife back to health, it created a new opportunity as well as a major challenge for Hamrick.

After taking a few minutes to discuss the wild-card prospects of his beloved Chicago Cubs, Hamrick sat down with the Sun to discuss where the athletic program has been during his first year on the job.

Q. It has been exactly one year since you left East Carolina to take over as UNLV athletic director. Has time flown by because you are having so much fun or has it dragged on because you're not?

MH: "It's flown, honestly. It's been a really good first year. I can't even believe it has been a year as we sit here and talk."

Q. Most observers would consider the hiring of basketball coach Lon Kruger as the most significant development/accomplishment of your first year on the job. Would you agree?

MH: "I think so. What has made me feel so good about that is the response I've gotten from the college basketball community around the country, the athletic directors around the country ... what a positive hire it was. I don't think UNLV has ever hired a coach who comes in with Lon's credentials: Final Four, some Elite Eight, head NBA coach.

"The hiring of Lon was good because the timing was so right. We had an opening, and he was available. But the program here at UNLV is still to where you can attract a Lon Kruger. I think that hire is crucial to the future of our athletic program."

Q. On the topic of basketball, there seems to be a segment of your fan base that is still stuck in the early 1990s, fans who won't be satisfied until the Rebels are back cutting down the nets in a football stadium on the first Monday in April. Are they living in the past or is it still possible for a school from a mid-major conference to win an NCAA basketball championship?

MH: "Absolutely. I'm convinced that UNLV basketball can get back to the Final Four. If you remember, I stated publicly that one of the criteria I was looking for in a head coach was someone who had been to the Final Four. I said that before Lon Kruger even surfaced. We wanted someone who knows how to get a program into the NCAA tournament, and Lon Kruger did that at Kansas State, he did that at Illinois, he did that at Florida.

"There's something still magical about this program. The magic has just kind of disappeared for a short period of time. I don't think it will happen overnight, but I think we can get that magic back. The thing that has been so satisfying to me is that so many people in this community that were part of the program when it was magic now want to come back and help us get that magic again."

Q. OK, let's audible over to football. Some of your colleagues, perhaps remembering all those crunching tackles you made as a linebacker for Marshall's Thundering Herd, have labeled you as a football guy at heart. Is this an accurate assessment?

MH: "Honesty, yeah. I'm a football guy just from the standpoint that I played football, I coached a little bit at Ohio University, and East Carolina had been known as a football school. But I've also worked at Kansas when Larry Brown was the (basketball) coach, I worked at Illinois State when Bob Donewald was the coach, I hired Wimp Sanderson from Alabama at Arkansas-Little Rock, who, probably other than Adolph Rupp, was the most successful coach in the history of the SEC. So I've been at some good basketball places.

"But I believe for any athletic program to be perceived as being successful you have to have a successful football program ... and we can do that here. The program is better now than it was when John Robinson took over. The facilities, student-athletes are graduating, the credibility with people -- we've been picked to be on national TV three times this fall."

Q. Can you clear up John Robinson's situation? Although he has another year after this one remaining on his contract, there are whispers that you and he have a gentleman's agreement that he will step down after this season. Is there any truth to these rumors?

MH: "No, that's not true. John and I have agreed that at the end of the football season that we would sit down and discuss his future. The only thing that we have agreed upon is that he is going to evaluate things at the end of the season. What I would like to see happen? I would like to see us have an outstanding season and see John Robinson back next year for the final year of his contract."

Q. Football, basketball, baseball, tiddlywinks ... regardless of the sport, UNLV, like anybody else who plays ball in Las Vegas, continues to have trouble filling its stadiums and arenas, despite the fact that 6,000 potential new fans are moving to town every month. So how do you get them to buy season tickets?

MH: "There's three ways: W-I-N. You've gotta win. We can spend three hours talking about ways to get people to come to the games but you've got to win, and you've got to play good people. If you look at our basketball schedule this year, we've upgraded, and we've got some good football games down the road. So we're going to play good people but we've got to win.

"I believe if you win in Las Vegas, people will come and watch and support you. There's no beating around the bush. You've got to win. I mean, we're not the Cubs, that's a unique situation."

Q. Season tickets are one thing, but getting into the pockets of wealthy benefactors is another. How is athletic fundraising going, and what part does it play in the overall success of an athletic program?

MH: "I think it plays a significant part and I think that's one area in the last year where we've really excelled. It's way up. We're bringing lots of people back into the fold. I'm at lunch every day (with potential UNLV boosters). I've brought Brad Rothermel back (as a fundraising consultant) and he's gotten me an audience with a lot of people. John Robinson and I have worked hard with some people and we're really doing well from a fundraising standpoint.

"Let me give you an example. I can't share people's names with you, but when we brought in Lon Kruger, we wanted to really upgrade our basketball. So I went out and identified 10 people and asked them to give me $20,000 a year for a five-year commitment. On top of everything else they give. That's a hundred grand each, and there's 10 of them, so that's a million dollars. And within three days, that was done.

"So I have found that people in Las Vegas are very generous and they want to see our program do well. The money is there, we've just got to get it."

Q. You have talked at length about Sam Boyd Stadium and the Thomas & Mack Center being brought under the athletic department umbrella, rather than being run as independent entities, and 10 days ago it finally happened. Why is this so significant?

MH: "I think what it says is that athletics is important. I think it gives both athletics and the Thomas & Mack an opportunity to be better than they are. This has been in (effect) for almost two weeks now, working together, and it's going to help us in scheduling. We're not competing against each other in different areas. We're working together, we're organized, and the right hand is going to know what the left is doing.

"This is a key statement: It's not the Thomas & Mack, and it's not the athletic department. It's UNLV."

Q. I don't expect you to correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems there have been few/no athletic department scandals during the past 12 months and the closest thing to an NCAA violation was when the basketball recruiters came sort of close to the gray area in contacting a basketball prospect who already had committed to another school. So, I ask, what are you trying to do, spoil UNLV's outlaw image?

MH: "(Laughing). No, the president has made it very clear to me that we're going to do things by the book. When I got here, we had the telephone PIN issue (dozens of UNLV athletes were penalized for making toll calls on a stolen credit card) and basketball is still on probation, but several members of the NCAA staff were very complimentary following the hiring of Lon Kruger, from that standpoint. But I just believe you can win here without any of that (illegal) stuff.

"What we've tried to do is put in a structure of accountability and a structure of organization where telephone PIN numbers aren't laying out on people's desks. I said this when I was interviewed: You've got to create an environment where you just don't tolerate that kind of stuff. It's gonna happen, it happens everywhere. But when you create an environment where you don't tolerate it, it won't happen as much.

"We've balanced our budget this year, we've had fewer secondary violations this year than we've ever had and our coaches have been good. They ask questions before they do things and our administrators, i.e., myself, (associate athletic director) Jerry Koloskie and Lisa Kelleher, our women's administrator, have taken more control of the athletic department. It's just like running a business and I've had 14 years of being an AD, so I understand staying within the rules, I understand about balancing a budget."

Q. The president, your boss, Dr. Carol Harter, has been keeping a low profile, at least with matters involving athletics, since you came on board. Most Rebels fans think this is a good thing and I'll save my breath asking you to comment on that. How would you describe your relationship with her?

MH: "I have a very good relationship with Dr. Harter. I think she feels very comfortable with the direction athletics is going. She has been very supportive, i.e., the situation with the Thomas & Mack. Another example is the academic advisers. Prior to two or three months ago, the academic advisers had no reporting to athletics. Now they have a dual reporting role, to me and to the dean of university colleges which gives you accountability, from my standpoint, because I'm the guy who has to judge my graduation rates ... so she made that decision. We're getting ready to put in brand new lights on our practice football field, desperately needed, and we worked a way together to make that happen. She gave me the authority to go hire the basketball coach, which is the appropriate thing to do.

"So I really believe she's gotten a bad rap, although I really can't comment on what was before I got here. But to answer your question, she's been very supportive."

Q. Someday -- like now -- Rebels fans want to start competing against the NCAA marquee programs as well as those in the Mountain West Conference. But is it realistic to expect UNLV to line up against the likes of big budget programs such as Michigan and Stanford and Florida?

MH: "Can we compete with those people in some sports? Yes. Basketball? Absolutely. Golf? Absolutely. Tennis? Absolutely. Baseball? Yes. Probably the only sport at this point that it would difficult would be football. In all honesty, our goal in football is to win a championship within our conference. But you have to have a vision to one day get to that level.

"But let's not forget that Michigan has a 100,000-seat football stadium. Tradition is important, facilities are important, dollars are important, all those things are important. But there's just something else that I can't explain that makes those programs great. Pretty much it's the same schools every year. BCS money is critical, but so is the perception of being BCS.

"It all boils down to recruiting, and all those things I talked about play a factor in recruiting. If I go into your home to recruit your son in football, and it's (between) UNLV and Michigan, and your son is a star player who wants to play in the NFL, then we're at a bit of a disadvantage right now. But ... but ... we went to Wisconsin and won last year, so we're not that far."

Q. OK, so what are your turn-ons and turn-offs? Just kidding. Thanks for your time. And go Cubs!

MH: "Go Cubs!"

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