TIFFANY BROWN / LAS VEGAS SUN file
Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- Hardworking Koloskie quietly pushing to be UNLV AD (8-7-2009)
- Do we even need an AD? (7-23-2009)
- With exit of athletic director, UNLV sports heavyweights ponder future (7-22-2009)
- Who might take Hamrick’s place? (7-21-2009)
- Let’s be frank: This royal alienator of an A.D. stayed step ahead of ax (7-21-2009)
- Hamrick leaves Las Vegas with 'mixed emotions' (7-20-2009)
- UNLV athletic director emerges as likely Marshall candidate (7-19-2009)
- Near tragedy still weighs on UNLV athletic director (9-4-2008)
- Has he made the grade? (5-8-2008)
Beyond the Sun
In his 10 days as UNLV’s acting president, Dr. Neal Smatresk has learned plenty about the university’s relationship with athletics.
The fiscal health of the athletic department disturbs him, and finding the right athletic director to handle that shaky budget and generate excitement is more important to others than he had imagined.
“One thing is clear to me, (that) people care a whole lot more about coaches and ADs than almost any other element of the university,” Smatresk said. “As a result, it’s given me an immediate job lesson that athletics is the gateway to the community.
“Right now, there’s a lot of attention on the AD situation.”
Athletic Director Mike Hamrick is leaving to take a similar post at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., his alma mater.
Some supporters say Smatresk and his inner circle should look closely at local prospects, like South Point arena executive Steve Stallworth, Las Vegas Bowl director Tina Kunzer-Murphy and Jerry Koloskie, all of whom have ties to UNLV.
“I do believe there’s local talent and good local people,” Smatresk said. “Are they qualified to run a Division-I, NCAA-compliant program? Is there experience in that realm?”
Others don’t want to limit that scope and miss a dynamic national candidate that possesses the critical skills to raise funds while keeping morale high in an increasingly challenging financial environment.
Smatresk will consider all options. He pointed to Rebels basketball coach Lon Kruger, who already is a confidant, as an example.
“He didn’t come from here,” Smatresk said. “But he has ties to the community that, I think, the community really appreciates. Would (the new AD) be able to bring the community in and gain a lot of support?
“Of course, wherever (he or she) comes from, that will be their first and most important job – building some excitement and engaging the community.”
Hook ’em Horns
Smatresk, 58, ran track and swam in high school in western New York, and he pursued the backstroke at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
Sports were mostly fun and entertaining, and swimming kept him in shape as he developed other interests. But athletics have always intrigued him.
“Am I a fan?” Smatresk said. “You bet.”
At Texas, he studied for his Ph.D. in zoology and watched Earl Campbell run roughshod for the Longhorns. “There’s nothing quite so fun as a big homecoming victory,” Smatresk said.
At Texas-Arlington, where he served as chair of biology and dean of science during 22 years, he became a Texas Rangers fan and coached youth baseball for 14 years.
He was the chief academic officer at Hawaii, where he befriended football coach June Jones and basketball coach Riley Wallace.
Smatresk (pronounced SMAT-tresk and rhymes with mattress, according to UNLV) left Honolulu for UNLV, where former president David Ashley hired him as executive vice president and provost, before Hawaii’s football team went undefeated in the 2007 regular season.
He watched Georgia beat the Warriors, 41-10, in the Sugar Bowl. “They got pounded,” Smatresk said of the biggest game in Hawaii’s history. Nevertheless, he was proud to have watched Jones build that program.
Smatresk’s 24-year-old daughter, Kristen, played soccer. His 27-year-old son, Erik, pitched at a high prep level in Texas before tearing a rotator cuff and might have a say about UNLV’s next athletic director.
“He’ll have an opinion on everything,” said Neal Smatresk. “He doesn’t mind telling me I’m nuts.”
Smatresk’s wife, Debbie, is a fan of women’s volleyball and women’s soccer, and they are regulars at UNLV basketball and football games.
Smatresk even quotes from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” a favorite inspirational and strategic tome of former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight.
During National Library Week in April 2000, Smatresk wrote at Texas-Arlington that Sun Tzu’s lessons “help me evaluate my motives and achieve goals while minimizing strife.”
“Athletics certainly are wonderful outlets for competing and expressing some of those competitive urges we all have,” Smatresk said Monday morning. “I think, more importantly, they are wonderful ways for the community to gather.
“ … it’s a rallying point that allows the university and athletics to pull in the same direction. That’s something we hope this university does.”
Kruger likes what he has heard and seen of the new president.
“I am willing to do whatever he needs me to do,” Kruger said. “Everyone wants to get the best (athletic director) possible, and I think it’s an opportunity to do that.
“I’ve been very impressed with his enthusiasm and his vision. He has ideas about what he wants for the department and the university that are exciting.”
'Spring is when you get serious'
Smatresk wants strife to be minimal in his search for a new UNLV athletic director.
Koloskie, formerly the senior associate athletic director, is serving as UNLV’s athletic director in a temporary capacity. Smatresk said it’s a priority to formally appoint an acting athletic director soon.
“I expect it will be Jerry,” Smatresk said. “We’re required to talk to constituents. Pending that input, we’ll request an interim appointment … I would anticipate it is Jerry.”
Securing a permanent athletic director is obviously important, Smatresk said, but the timing likely won’t make that feasible until the spring.
“This is not the best time,” he said. “The spring is when you get serious about AD searches. It’s always sensitive. No one wants to tip his hand. People are more likely to apply and visit once we’re past major events. To be honest, that saves money.”
The bottom line is a big one at UNLV, where Hamrick inherited a deficit of about $2.5 million and leaves with a reserve of about $2 million. All the UNLV athletic programs were asked to make cuts in the past year, the football program has been losing money and the Thomas & Mack Center routinely writes a check of $2 million or so to help the athletic department balance its books.
That reserve, Smatresk knows, can disappear quickly in an ongoing saga of state budget cuts and rising expenses. He is analyzing the bottom line with Hamrick and Koloskie.
“The first thing I need to do is get my arms around and better understand the budget,” Smatresk said. “I have to figure out where we are and where the challenges are, and where we have room to grow revenues. It’s one thing that gives me pause not to rush in immediately.”
The AD vacancy and budget issues aren’t enviable for a new university president, he said. One affects the other.
Hamrick’s base salary of about $270,000 is about average in the Mountain West Conference but far below the major conferences. Elite candidates might not field a call from Smatresk.
“We won’t be breaking the bank,” he said.
At least Sun Tzu will be close by.
“We’ll do the best we can to make sure we have an AD who can take it to the next level,” Smatresk said. “What’s the next level, with the budget cuts and other challenges? The old level is not looking so bad.
“The revenue flows this year are going to be inadequate to maintain all elements of the programs’ funding, at least according to projections we have.”
Successful football and basketball seasons are vital to financial stability. If not, Smatresk said, perhaps UNLV will need private help to save a team or two, which happened at Arizona State a year ago.
Above all, Smatresk, who became president when his boss was bounced in hostile conditions, has vowed to be a calming influence.
“If I can help bring stability and normalcy to campus, I’m happy to do it,” he said. “We need to get away from the drama and return to doing what we do best, educating our students and bringing great ideas that enrich our community forward.
“I think this could be a great year, and a turning year, for UNLV sports. I’m hopeful.”