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April 17, 2014

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Has he made the grade?

Mike Hamrick, UNLV’s athletic director, is no stranger to scrutiny, but a closer look reveals it hasn’t been all bad

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Steve Marcus

Mike Hamrick has overseen the UNLV athletic department since 2003. While the men’s basketball team has flourished under his leadership and the coaching of Lon Kruger, who was hired by Hamrick, the football team has floundered under Mike Sanford, winning just two games in each of the past three seasons.

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  • Hamrick on if another two-win football season will be acceptable this fall.
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  • Hamrick on the backlash of hiring basketball coach Lon Kruger.
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  • Mike Hamrick, UNLV athletic director, on the criticism that goes with his position.
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Mike Hamrick has been UNLV athletic director for five years. Has he turned around Rebel athletics?

For answers, the Sun spoke to Hamrick’s supporters and critics and interviewed him in the back yard of his Seven Hills home, along the fairway of a golf course he has never played.

A few facts: Hamrick inherited a department in decline and a $2.2 million deficit when he took the job in 2003. The men’s basketball team is winning more games and is back on the national stage. The football team is still a loser. Fundraising is still a work in progress. Graduation rates for athletes are higher.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished the past five years at UNLV,” Hamrick says. “You have to feel real strong about what you believe in and how you do things.”

Here’s a progress report on Hamrick:

Academics

This is his top priority, and he constantly emphasizes grades and graduation in meetings with coaches. It’s working.

When he landed at UNLV, athletes graduated at a 30 percent rate. The latest figure is 63 percent.

Still, UNLV is in the bottom third in the league’s scholar-athletes, according to the Mountain West Conference. And the NCAA just took away a football scholarship for low grades.

There’s plenty of work to do, but Hamrick has set a positive tone.

Team performance

Basketball — The Rebels have returned to prominence under coach Lon Kruger, going to the NCAA Tournament the past two years and winning three games. It’s the first time UNLV has won games in consecutive NCAAs in 17 years.

Hamrick had the savvy to let special adviser Brad Rothermel, a former Rebels athletic director who became close with Kruger at Kansas State, initiate talks with Kruger, then Hamrick closed the deal. Kruger says he has a good relationship with Hamrick.

Hamrick remembers one of the first questions he was asked at Kruger’s introductory news conference. Why didn’t you hire George Karl?

“The criticism I took,” Hamrick says, “if I had let that affect me and the program, where would we be right now? You have to feel real strong about what you believe in and how you do things.”

Kruger was named Mountain West coach of the year this past season and was a finalist for several national honors.

Football — Hamrick also hired Mike Sanford, giving him his first head coaching gig and a five-year contract. He continues to support Sanford despite three consecutive two-win seasons, the only three-season stretch in the 40 years of the program in which UNLV didn’t win at least three games in one campaign.

“As long as you see improvement, you have to feel good that you’re eventually going to be where you need to be,” Hamrick says. “Do we want to win more than two games? Absolutely ... I think we’ll be significantly improved this fall.”

The Rebels did set an attendance record last fall, thanks to home games with Hawaii, Wisconsin and Brigham Young, which bring lots of fans. Hamrick wants the home team to be the draw.

Other sports — Under Hamrick, the lesser-known UNLV teams have won 19 conference regular-season or tournament championships. In the four years before Hamrick arrived, those teams won eight titles.

This year UNLV won crowns in women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, women’s tennis and men’s swimming and diving. The four titles tied UNLV with TCU for second behind league powerhouse BYU.

Four Hamrick hires — women’s soccer coach Kat Mertz, women’s volleyball coach Allison Keeley, men’s tennis coach Owen Hambrook and men’s soccer coach Mario Sanchez — have won league or regional coach-of-the-year honors.

Diversity hiring

Among nine new coaches, Hamrick has hired a Hispanic, Sanchez, and four women, one of whom, women’s track coach Yvonne Scott-Williams, is black and Asian.

But three of the coaches he’s replaced are black women, including women’s basketball coach Regina Miller.

“I don’t see color of skin,” Hamrick says. “I see people. I didn’t hire Mario Sanchez because he’s Hispanic. I hired him because he was the best damn soccer coach we could get. I don’t see (race or gender). Never have, never will.”

Compliance

Hamrick took over a program that was on NCAA probation because of the men’s basketball team.

Only two incidents have marred his reign — a misdemeanor charge against a football player in a clothing store scandal and a basketball player being booted off the team after a drunken-driving arrest. The NCAA recently certified that the UNLV athletics program is maintaining substantial conformity with Division I policies.

Fundraising

This is Hamrick’s soft spot.

Hamrick claims he’s doing well with the budget, slashing the deficit to about $1 million and increasing private donations to $7 million a year — best in the Mountain West Conference.

But critics note the football program loses more than $2 million a year and only outside events at the Thomas & Mack Center, such as the rodeo, help balance the athletic department’s budget. They also note that Las Vegas is a wealthy city, and UNLV’s $25 million athletic budget puts it in the bottom half of the Mountain West Conference.

One of Hamrick’s most vocal critics is university system Chancellor Jim Rogers, who regularly grills Hamrick at Board of Regents meetings. In June, the attack escalated to the point where two regents intervened.

“It was a public arena, but he has the right to say what he wants,” Hamrick says. “I respect that. We’ve had opportunities to revisit that and I feel we’re going in the right direction.

“My boss, though, is David Ashley.”

Ashley, UNLV’s president, says Hamrick is doing a fine job, noting improved graduation rates and championships in nonrevenue sports.

“We all recognize the importance of increased fundraising efforts to increase the competitiveness of our programs,” Ashley wrote in an e-mail. “This will be a major focus for the athletic director.”

Rogers says recent chats with Hamrick have clarified the department’s financial challenges.

“He’s probably done all of the things he could do, given the fact that the community doesn’t support football,” Rogers says. “It’s uphill work. The only disagreement I’ve had with Mike is I don’t think he’s communicated very well with enough people in the community.”

Hamrick says, “We have to do better and we will. We probably need to be a little more aggressive in how we do our business. We’re working to do that. Nobody’s perfect.”

• • •

Hamrick is no stranger to the criticism leveled at athletic directors, having served in the same post at Arkansas-Little Rock and East Carolina.

He says he’s learned not to take it personally.

He quotes Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas: “Those people who have all the answers are the ones who don’t have to make the difficult decisions.”

Hamrick didn’t flinch when asked if he’s looking for his next job.

He’s been sought by two other schools and search committees have pursued him, he says, but he’s committed to UNLV. “This thing is just starting to build.” His contract lasts through June 2010.

He knows he’s evaluated every time a Rebels team plays, whenever there’s a graduation ceremony, and any time there’s a budget issue or distraction.

“The microscope’s on. I know that,” Hamrick says. “If there were more negatives than positives, I wouldn’t do this.”

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