Rebels athletics:

UNLV scholarship program strives to give personal touch to donors

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood addressees students during the annual Las Vegas Sun Youth Forum at the Las Vegas Convention Center Tuesday, November 20, 2012. Livengood promised to add another $1,000 to any Youth Forum scholarship winner who decides to attend UNLV.

Derek Ernst’s path to his first career PGA victory was a memorable one. And watching back in Las Vegas, two Rebels boosters felt a special connection to it.

Ernst, a 2012 UNLV grad, got a call just before the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, North Carolina, saying he was in the field as the fourth alternate. Six days later he was standing over a shot in the fairway on the first playoff hole with a chance to win the tournament.

Watching that moment on TV, Richard Yukes thought about his interactions with Ernst just a year before, when Yukes and Bella DuPrie “sponsored” Ernst’s scholarship for a year through the Rebel Athletic Fund Loyalty Circle.

Started in 2011, the Loyalty Circle is a slightly different approach to athletic fundraising. Through a five-year commitment that includes at least a $10,000 annual donation, the gifts are “treated as individual sponsorships of student-athletes.” Each year the donors are paired with a different student-athlete, giving both sides a better idea of where the money’s coming from and where it’s going.

“It’s something where you can reach out and touch it,” UNLV athletics director Jim Livengood said Monday night at the Loyalty Circle Spring Gala at MGM Grand.

The $10,000 covers the cost of books, room and board for one student-athlete one season, according to the RAF. Adding the personal touch of a sponsorship was the idea of Julio Freire, the senior associate athletic director for development, and Jay Vickers, a Wisconsin senior AD who previously worked at UNLV.

“The larger the gift, the less rational the decision becomes and the more emotional it is,” Freire said.

For big donors, then, he wanted to find a way to create a more personal touch. Yukes, the president of Black Bear Oil, certainly felt that while watching Ernst hit back-to-back stellar shots from the 18th fairway to set up easy putts for the tie and eventually playoff victory.

“This is like flying high,” Yukes said of watching Ernst’s improbable victory.

Donors are paired with a different student-athlete each season. They can pick the sport but not the athlete, and then they mingle at events like the Spring Gala.

The emotional attachment, Yukes said, will likely last long after the student-athletes are gone from UNLV.

“We have a special interest in them now,” he said.

Loyalty Circle members must donate at least $10,000, but they’re encouraged to contribute more, including another $10,000 for a student-athlete’s tuition and $10,000 for a championship advantage, which is “the money our coaches use to recruit, equip, train and compete,” Freire said.

The RAF stated the Loyalty Circle has brought in $1.6 million in new revenue for the athletics department, though certainly some of that was already going to be donated in one form or another.

The apparent success of the program is at odds with the general funding issues for the overall athletics department. Later this week UNLV is expected to announce the movement of its Sept. 7 home football game against Arizona to University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., in order to take a payday from the Wildcats.

If that’s a sign things aren’t going well, the group of donors Monday night giving a vote of confidence and continuing to open their wallets for the university is the opposite. As the Rebels continue to look for new ways to compete in every sport, the personal attachment of their 92 Loyalty Circle members is a place to start.

“How many (more) can we get next year?” Freire said.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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