UNLV leader weighs options in selecting athletic director

President realizes sports are ‘gateway to the community’

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TIFFANY BROWN / LAS VEGAS SUN file

Neal Smatresk, president of UNLV, said he will consider local and out-of-state candidates for the school’s athletic director position.

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.”

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  1. Actually I believe he is officially called the "acting" or "interim" president.... I think it's a formality they had to do since there was no national search conducted.

    ...I could be wrong though.

  2. Murphy for UNLV Athletic Director

    No thank you

  3. What about Frank Stallone? I haven't heard anyone mention that guy.

  4. Smatresk was voted in by the Board of Regents on August 6th. He is the acting President.

  5. So I have until the spring to update my resume? That's a relief!

    Not to say 'I told you so,' but ... "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."

    Likewise, the community at present is not in a situation to step up and help out.

    Potential private sector partners who would be a perfect fit for UNLV - Station Casinos for example, Black Gaming, Herbst - are either in BK at the moment or headed there shortly.

    Help won't be coming from the private sector until the local economy turns around. And taxpayers don't have any cash to spare.

    That said, if UNLV is going to survive without help from the taxpayers or private sector, it's going to have to focus on cutting expenses and maximizing its revenue - meaning cutting better deals with its existing partners.

    Winning, of course, helps as well! :)

  6. Me, you sure are hung up on that one, eh? Technically if not legally, and this is coming from his office, "acting" is appropriate because he was appointed to the position -- as opposed to being selected through a full search process. He will be the president for two years. Very, very likely, however, that that will be extended because so many believe he is the right person for the job. The Board of Regents has expressed its desire for him to be referred to as "president," but the "acting" tag is not incorrect.

  7. @ Sufferin

    How many good athletic directors do you think are wondering the streets looking for jobs during football season and the beginning of basketball season. I agree we do need to find a good fit with Las vegas ties to garner up some monetary support. However, no athletic director is going to leave their job to come to UNLV during the middle of the season.

    Further, you said we should not hire locals...but then you go on to say we should hire someone with UNLV ties and loyalty. Huh? Please learn how to construct a proper argument before writing and not simply vomit vitrol into a comment. You are one pathetic human being.

  8. Koo koo, koo koo................

  9. 1 - If you could find one, please I would love for you to try. Further, do these "fifty" athletic directors have UNLV ties or loyalty? Remember, that was an ultimate criteria for you. That's not fair, I should not ask you to hire a coach, even though you said you could. Instead, please make a list of these 50 athltic directors who would jump at the chance whilst they are in the middle of the current contract? I will be waiting. If you want, I will then email them and verify that they would want to take this job.

    2 - So you want UNLV to hurry a decision when hiring a position for someone who will make hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    3 - How has the Las Vegas Bowl turned their nose up at UNLV? UNLV has not been bowl eligible since 2000. They last year we won...THE LAS VEGAS BOWL.

    4 - You, again, have showed how ignorant you really are. May God have mercy on your soul.

  10. Proper pronunciation is Smaaahhh-tresk -- not smat-resk.

    That definitely should have been an easy fact check.

    Sadly, many in administration don't know how to say his name either...at least he doesn't throw a fit or send nasty emails when folks get it wrong...

  11. It's SMAT-tresk, according to UNLV, and rhymes with mattress ... thanks

  12. Really Sufferin' Robert? Do any of these people you propose have a clue on how to raise money in this town? Tick, tock, tick, tock...I'm waiting...

    Hire an AD by 12/1 and fire everybody huh? If UNLV implemented your plan the athletic dept would be bankrupt and shut down within 15 months. But, that's what you REALLY want deep down, isn't it bitter betty?

  13. Man, you're not alone. Everybody wants to win. Give it some more time...and release the bitterness.

    It's cool, when it comes to Rebel basketball you can channel Randy Quaid's character from Major League II. That's your choice. Just remember to enjoy & savor the day Kruger guides this team back to the Final Four.

  14. Did you predict the Sweet 16 year sufferin? Lucked our way? You moron. Just like 89-90 right? Guess that was luck too.

    We did run into a good team though in Oregon......but they had to hold on for dear life just to barely squeak by us. You make it sound like they destroyed us.

    Boy I bet you were pissed when we beat Louisville last season and at their place no less. It ruined your brain damaged statistics (propoganda) that you try and employ every season.

    Seriously, how many minds have you changed with your thinking? None that I've ever noticed through your comments here or on the RJ. And the disdain that the writers here at the Sun show you is also a sign of your whacked out state of mind.

    We ALL want to win here....with good people that is.... but you, don't care what the price is, even if it means going back to the punishments that plunged our program into the depths and into obscurity.

    In regards to Sanford and Kruger, you're in the minority sufferin'. The jury is still out and they're going to get my support in the meantime, no matter what you have to say here.

  15. @ Sufferin'

    1 - Thanks for those names (sarcasm). I thought you said there were 50 Atletic Directors you knew who would die to take this job. Anyone could spout off lesser conference names. Here's your exact quote, "I could name you 50 Athletic Directors from lesser conferences that would jump at the chance to move to UNLV and could be here by September 1st. "

    2 - How do you luck into 30 wins?

    3 - You think the Pac-10 wants UNLV? You are an idiot.

    4 - If the Pac-10 wanted UNLV they would have done so 20-30 years ago.

    5 - Georgetown also has hundreds of milions of dollars in alumni money each year because the school is like 250 years old. Georgetown is private which means there is much less red tape when hiring. It is quasi-ivy league and it has one of the best medical and law schools in the country. Money pours in, even without an AD. Horrible attempt at an analogy.

    6 - Did Koloskie fire you?

    7 - Chase Stanbeck was Mr. California, and sat on the bench because he was a true freshman for a team filled with vetrans that made the final four. I agree, a little, on Jasper; we hope he can stay healthy. However, he was sought after by some of the best teams in the country and chose KY. Yeah, he must suck (sarcasm).

    8 - Joel Anthony started at UNLV in 2004. Which would have been a recruit of Lon Kruger. One is more than zero. Lou Amundmson, although not a recruit of Lon, was turned into the player under Lon Kruger.

    9 - You continue to show your true colors...if jackass is a color. I think it is, it is has a golden brown hue...I believe.

  16. 10 - I guess Lon lucked his way into the final four with Florida? What did he do at Illinois? Kansas State? Man, he must be luckiest human being ever.

    11 - Can't recruit? Two words...Anthony Marshall. Two more words...Carlos Lopez. You are as nearsided as they come.

    12 - Oregon barely beat us even though their midget of a point guard hit 10 three-pointers.

    13 - Your expectations for UNLV basketball are highly unreasonable. I guess Tark should have been fired after the 1985 season? or between the 1977 and 1983 seasons?

    14 - What did you predict the Rebels would do in 2007 and 2008. Every person wants to get credit for the 10% they are right, but fall into a hole when they are wrong.

    15 - Make your prediction right here, where will UNLV finish in the MWC this year?

    16 - Have you ever thought that good teams won't play us? The MWC has always had a problem scheduling "BCS" conference schools because they do not want to risk a blemish in their RPI ranking. I applauded Georgia Tech for taking a risk by playing at BYU season, but those are far and few between. It will even be harder for UNLV after beating Louisville on the road last season. Go look at most top 10 programs and look at their non-conference schedules. Duke usually doesn't play a true road game until their non-conference schedule, and those non-conference teams are usually VMI, College of Charleston or the likes.

    17 - Banking on Stanbeck and Jasper? Have you forgotten about Bellfield, Willis, Marshall, Hawkins, and Lopez?

    18 - Please stop your posting. You make yourself look foolish time and time again.

  17. ""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."

    ""Of course, our educational mission is of paramount importance," he continued"--what?

    oh.

  18. Intercollegiate Athletics is a very small world. There are only 119 Division 1-A programs in the entire country. The search is simple and here are the candidates:

    Current Athletics Directors:

    1)Keith Tribble - UCF (Top AD not in one of the major conferences) Most likely would not see UNLV as an upgrade

    2)Bubba Cunningham -- Tulsa (Same as above, probably would not see UNLV as an upgrade)

    3)Paul Kowalczyk -- Colorado State (Would take the job tomorrow)

    4)Thomas Bowen -- San Jose State (Would take the job tomorrow)

    5)Steve Orsini -- SMU

    6)Brian Mackin -- UAB (Would take the job tomorrow)

    7)Mario Moccia -- Southern Illinois (Would take the job tomorrow)

    Top Senior Associate Athletics Directors:

    1)Ross Bjork - UCLA
    2)Stephen Ponder - Arizona State
    3)White Babcock - Missouri
    4)Brian Wickstrom - UTEP
    5)Rick Costello - Rutgers
    6)Gary Friedman - Louisville