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October 1, 2014

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Ron Kantowski hopes UNLV learns from Kansas’ remarkable turnaround

A few hours from now, providing you are reading this over toast and coffee, the Kansas football team -- the 11-1 Kansas football team -- will play Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, which pays a cool $17 million to its participating teams.

Kansas? In the Orange Bowl? Playing football for $17 million? How in the name of Gale Sayers did that happen?

I guess pigskins really do fly. But not like the Kansas Comet.

When it comes to generating new revenue for an athletic department, however, one can certainly learn from Kansas. So click your cleats together three times and repeat after me:

There's no place like Lawrence ... there's no place like Lawrence ... there's no place like Lawrence ...

Dorothy knows that. Toto, too. UNLV, I'm not so sure.

I'm not so sure because it was just five years ago that UNLV was beating up on Kansas in football. On Sept. 7, 2002, the Rebels rocked and chalked the Jayhawks 31-20 at Sam Boyd Stadium. John Robinson was coach then. Funny, I find myself saying that -- when Robinson was coach -- a lot these days.

By 2002 the Jayhawks had reassumed their role as Big 12 football munchkins. But losing to UNLV was like Dorothy's house falling out of the sky. Only instead of landing on the Wicked Witch of the East, it apparently crushed the indifference all those wheat farmers had for sports that don't come with a peach basket.

The next year, Kansas had a new athletic director. This apparently is what happens when you lose to UNLV in football.

Kansas knew it needed a sharp guy to run its program, so it hired Lew Perkins, who was the man in charge at UConn when it won national championships in men's and women's basketball and made the considerable jump from Division I-AA to kick the football around with the big boys, or at least those who play in the Big East.

UNLV also hired a new athletic director in 2003. It hired Mike Hamrick away -- if that's the right word -- from East Carolina. Beating Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl is a nice win and all, but it's not exactly cutting down the nets at the Alamodome, now is it?

The year before Perkins came onboard, Kansas' athletic budget was $27 million. Now it's $53 million. Nearly double.

UNLV's athletic budget is $25.1 million. The only Mountain West schools spending less on sports are Wyoming and Colorado State. So you can't blame running Tank Summers outside the tackles for everything, Rebel fans.

The first thing Perkins did at Kansas was dip his pole into existing revenue streams -- basketball, apparel, multimedia -- and make them deeper by negotiating new contracts. UNLV has done some of that, too. But as Kansas discovered, continually tapping into established resources eventually will exhaust them. So it turned to the same cash cow that virtually every successful athletic program worships in times of financial need.

It turned to football.

After dramatically increasing the athletic budget, Perkins committed a big chunk of the new money to football. Go get yourself some assistants, Perkins told football coach Mark Mangino. So Mangino did. Virtually all of his aides have impressive resumes, none more so than Bill Young, the Kansas defensive coordinator, who held the same post at Ohio State, Oklahoma and Southern Cal.

Last year, UNLV had co-defensive coordinators. Before coming to UNLV, Kurt Barber coached linebackers and defensive ends at Utah and defensive linemen at Kent State and Tennessee-Martin. Vic Shealy coached defensive backs at Air Force, was head coach at Azusa Pacific and offensive coordinator at Mars Hill College, which, I think, is where Spike Lee went to school.

Though Kansas' football budget is still modest by Big 12 standards, the money Perkins was able to raise, combined with the coaching talent it bought, has enabled the Jayhawks to turn around the football program in five short years. A new $32 million football training facility that will open in the fall should help Kansas attract even better players.

Last month Jim Rogers, the chancellor for the Nevada System of Higher Education and, despite what others will have you believe, one of UNLV's biggest fans, told me it needed two things to save its football program from self-destructing: money, and a plan for how to raise and spend it. Some, he said, should be set aside for new assistant coaches.

Sharp guy, that Rogers.

What he didn't tell me was that he apparently was holding the Kansas blueprint for overnight success in the palm of his hand.

Ron Kantowski can be reached at 259-4088 or at [email protected]

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