Tuesday, April 12, 2011 | 2:01 a.m.
Maybe this time.
Almost 40 years ago, a decision was made at UNLV — which meant, in those days, the decision was made for UNLV by well-meaning supporters of the young university — that the best way to put it on the map of serious academic institutions was by investing in the basketball program.
That may sound illogical looking back, but the thinking was quite sound. Football was too expensive and would take far too long to reach championship status. Academics, while the prize at the end of the day, were a long-term effort that required deep investment and the passage of too much time. After all, most of the top schools had at least a century on what was Nevada Southern University just a few years earlier. That left the basketball program that, in those days, meant an exciting night out in the rotunda at the Las Vegas Convention Center where the town met to socialize and root for the home team.
For the dollars invested, the opportunity to put UNLV on the map — quickly — was best focused on basketball. So the question centered on whom. Who could bring the kind of excitement and immediate fame to this relatively “brand new in the desert” school that would make us the envy of the academic and sports worlds?
In those days money was not an issue, and reputation — beyond Las Vegas’ reputation in the early days, which didn’t leave much to imagine — was mostly relative. The only thing stopping us in our quest for top-of-the-heap status was our imagination. So we started to imagine what a national championship would mean for UNLV.
And then we focused on how we get there. Enter Jerry Tarkanian, “Tark the Shark,” and the winningest coach in college basketball. Sure, he had a bit of a public relations challenge, but so did Las Vegas. We were a perfect match. And so the deal was done. And the rest, as they say, has been a wonderful history.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a story about basketball in Las Vegas if there weren’t a few bumps in the road. But, thanks to Tark, our young UNLV became a household word across this country. Oh yes, did I mention the championship runs we made a few times as the Runnin’ Rebels? Whoops, did I mention the NCAA Championship we won in dramatic fashion in 1990 and the one we should have won the following year?
The point is that Las Vegas made a bet many years ago, and we placed that bet on a man and a program that was calculated to do a few things but, mainly, to win. And win we did! We ran ourselves and our opponents up and down the basketball court and the court of public opinion. And we won. Big time! The latest victory can be seen on HBO through a courageous documentary describing the darker days of the Tarkanian era and who was right and who was wrong.
I mention all of this because it is that time again.
After many fits and starts following Tark’s departure from UNLV, it appeared that we had finally found our dynastic leader. But, alas, in Lon Kruger what we had was a man who saw an opportunity when it hit him in the face. And he took it.
And that left the opportunity of a lifetime. UNLV had another chance to find the man who could coach the Runnin’ Rebels back to the top. Not just the big dance, but the top of the heap. The Final Four.
Once again, the town came together. Sort of. We are a lot bigger place 40 years later and there are opinions galore. This time the UNLV administration played the major role in choosing who would be given the chance to coach the Rebels to the promised land and drag a financially struggling UNLV along with them. This time the community provided the input — plenty of it — but the decision rested where it needed to rest. On the shoulders of the athletic director and the president of the university.
The difference between then and now? With Tarkanian we chose a man who was the embodiment of Las Vegas. We took a chance on a coach who was all talent and excitement, just like we were. But, just as we did here every day of our lives, we took a big risk. It paid off in a national championship and a place forever in the hearts and minds of basketball fans. It also led to some difficult days, as we all know.
Today, the risks are not as great. The new coach, Dave Rice, is a known quantity. We know him because he was a UNLV player and assistant coach. We know him because he was an assistant coach for BYU, a school that could have gone all the way this year and certainly showed us a few moves on and off the court. We know him because he worked his tail off for Coach Tark in the championship years and, while sitting a lot on the bench behind the best players in college basketball, learned something from his mentor.
It is no secret that the choice came down to two stellar candidates. The other top seed was Reggie Theus. Reggie was probably the Las Vegas favorite for the job. I know I was pulling for him. But this was a choice that I knew was going to be right either way it came down.
In those early days we risked everything we had on a Shark in the hopes that he would take us to the top of the food chain; this week Las Vegas has placed its latest bet on a man who hopefully can take us all the way and keep us there.
Welcome, Coach Dave Rice. Make this our time.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.