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September 2, 2014

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

Jim Livengood’s ‘retirement’ doesn’t feel right

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Sam Morris

UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood details the circumstances surrounding his retirement Wednesday, May 8, 2013.

Jim Livengood Retires

UNLV Athletic Director Jim Livengood details the circumstances surrounding his retirement Wednesday, May 8, 2013. Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

Athletic Director Jim Livengood retires

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Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and UNLV beat writer discuss the possible reasons for Jim Livengood's sudden departure and what it means for the athletic department.

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A coat rack in Jim Livengood’s office at the Thomas & Mack Center had five shirts hanging on it Wednesday when media came in to talk about his retirement as the UNLV athletic director.

Livengood usually arrives at work before the sun rises each morning and leaves after it sets, so he needs changes of clothes for the many functions he attends. Even if the Rebels have a late basketball game, Livengood is the first to arrive the next morning. Not just some days. Every day.

That’s impressive for anyone, let alone someone in their late 60s — or someone “retiring,” if you believe that.

It doesn’t make sense that Livengood’s successful three-and-a-half-year run at the helm of the department is suddenly ending. Instead of celebrating the man who nearly tripled the department’s fundraising efforts, a spur-of-the-moment news conference is held in his office to address his retirement. Strange, right?

This is not a bang-bang decision. You just don’t wake up one morning and decide it’s time to retire, especially when your contract is through December 2015 at $350,000 annually. And Livengood said he wouldn’t receive the remaining compensation on his contract, nor was he bought out of the deal, also raising a red flag of curiosity.

It’s no secret Livengood and President Neal Smatresk didn’t always see eye to eye, but conflicts between high-ranking officials are commonplace in college athletics. On Wednesday, Livengood repeatedly denied notions of friction. He also said he wasn’t being forced out and retiring now seemed like the right time.

Again, if that’s what you want to believe.

“More than anything else, If I am going to do this, let’s do it. Let’s not hang on,” Livengood said. “Let’s not get it to the point where there are a lot of questions in the community and our campus with what is going on.”

Let’s chalk that comment up to Livengood being a true professional. He’s been a great ambassador for the university and always finds something positive to say in the face of adversity. Even Wednesday he raved about his time at UNLV, refusing to take the bait of some questions to talk negatively about the school.

But he couldn’t disguise the shortcomings of the football program, which is one of the areas where he clearly underachieved — and likely one of the reasons why he’s no longer the athletic director.

Football has been the black eye of his tenure, with the program at best being stuck in neutral, if not taking a few steps back.

Games haven’t been won on the field, tickets haven’t been sold at the box office, television revenue is minimal and the program continues to operate in the red. Livengood hired Bobby Hauck and continues to believe in his coach despite defeats to lower-classification schools in consecutive years and three gut-wrenching seasons where the Rebels were one of the nation’s worst teams.

There are two verified supporters of Hauck: Livengood and me. Considering Hauck has just six victories in three years, Livengood’s endorsement of the coach, even with backers begging for him to be fired, isn’t necessarily something to hang his hat on.

Still, give credit to Livengood for sticking by his guy. And, it’s not just lip service. Last year, when UNLV beat Air Force, I wrote how fans needed to be patient with Hauck and how signs of improvement were obvious.

The next morning, rather early because that’s when Livengood starts his day, Livengood reached out to tell me he agreed.

“When — notice there’s not an if — when we show Rebels football is what people want to see, and Bobby is absolutely, in my opinion, that individual, then that can turn around,” Livengood said Wednesday.

There is no easy solution to fixing the football program, but Livengood was a key player in a project that would have done the trick. UNLV Now, the proposed on-campus stadium project, would have been the upgrade to take not only the football team but the university to the next level.

The project recently stalled, its developer Majestic Realty was fired, and the proposal seems less likely than the Rebels winning the Rose Bowl next season. There are more questions than answers, and, like most things associated with the athletic department, financing is a long shot.

And that’s with Livengood, an accomplished fundraiser and industry veteran leading the charge. Livengood spent 28 years at four institutions on the job and is respected nationally, but he still couldn’t work his magic to get a stadium built.

Livengood’s hiring in 2009 was a major upgrade for UNLV, and he delivered in elevating the school’s image. Just think what an on-campus football stadium would have done.

Livengood frequently said UNLV isn’t a run-of-the-mill, mid-major conference school. He helped make it more than that. He oversaw construction of the Mendenhall Center, the basketball team’s state-of-the-art practice facility, and hired Dave Rice as the team’s coach. The Rebels have won 51 games the past two years and tickets are hard to come by — a transformation Livengood partially orchestrated.

He knew UNLV had its financial troubles in 2009 but took on the job with a head of steam and started making changes. The department still is piecing it together, and Livengood’s replacement is going to face similar challenges.

The Mack needs millions of dollars in renovations, basketball has been nationally ranked despite operating with a small budget, and solving the football program’s problems might be impossible.

“There are going to be some things ahead that will be harder to probably control,” he said. “That doesn’t need to be characterized as bad. It’s just the way it is.”

Whenever someone leaves a job, you try to hire someone more talented or better suited for the position. It’s the same deal in recruiting — when your point guard graduates, you hope to sign someone better at the position.

It’s going to be difficult to find someone better, or with as much experience, as Livengood. And that’s why his retirement, or conflicts with Smatresk, seem odd.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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  1. UNLV has a football team?

  2. Hiring a former UNLV Rebel as basketball coach - either Dave Rice or Reggie Theus, he would have had Alumni support. So getting $$ for either of them or the big what if - Rick Pitino had chosen UNLV over Louisville - Alums and Donors would have stepped up based on his record. Rice just needs to take the next step by winning the Conference and getting wins in the tourney. But, he has been an inexpensive hire. Local fans can connect with the program, they know Chambers and the amount of local prep baseball talent - supporting them is easy. A football team with no UNLV grads on staff or involved in promoting the team - not even mentioning having a Coach who has never built a D1 program from the ground up. Fans and Alums wont support this. Yet doormat New Mexico can hire a former Notre Dame Head Coach (not some Assistant Coach) and they can turn things around quickly? Even if the Coach turns it around and then leaves for a bigger job - the program would be miles ahead and the Stadium on campus would have a better chance for success.

    Why is an announcement of a marketing person leaving the Athletic Department worthy of a press mention? Better question how does someone who writes a book with Lon Kruger given a job in Athletics? Sound like special favors were being given? Sadly - yes.
    Give us a young #2 AD at Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan - who knows about establishing a top flight football program. Someone who is committed to Rebels past, present and future - not someone in their final years of employment or is about the good old boys.

    Fix Football - by firing Hauck.
    Schedule 4 non conference cupcakes, recruit local kids when they are Freshman and Sophomores, any kid can compete for any position, hire former UNLV Alums and Players to surround the staff. Hello - Hunkie Cooper!
    No more selling off games - this is a bandaid. The team needs to go bowling! Go 4-0 in non conference and just win 2 conference games - this program then is in an upward direction.

    Finally - if you do not bleed UNLV colors, you should not be representing UNLV. Considering that San Jose State, Utah State, New Mexico all quickly turned around their programs and UNLV still has Hauck - the cash cow of football is not being fixed while the competition got better all in the span of 3 years or less. With Ault gone from Nevada - the door is open for UNLV Football. Give us an AD who will get a Coach who can exceed the fans expectation and show everyone a new commitment to football. Then ask for the Alums and Boosters to get on board. It has worked for basketball and baseball.

  3. Randall would bring some major interest.
    Any former UNLV player - from Keenan to Hunkee to Jamal Brimmer would be great even if in a Grad Assistant Role. Just create some connection to the community that makes people care. Make fans believe that the Coach is working hard to get fans and local recruits to UNLV. That connection is not on the UNLV Football Staff or even in the broadcast booth.

    Dave McCann- as soon as the checks stopped coming, he stopped bleeding UNLV Red. As all along he was sending his checks to the BYU Alumni Fund - which lead to him writing stories on BYU for the RJ and then on BYU TV.

    UNLV can not afford to lose money on football, when San Jose State, Utah State and even New Mexico can turn around their programs inside of 3 years.

  4. @kirkland - you make some great points and I agree with most of them. Great commentary.