Thursday, May 9, 2013 | 2 a.m.
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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.
How would you rate Jim Livengood's legacy at UNLV?
- How would you rate Jim Livengood’s legacy as the UNLV athletic director?
- Excellent — 36.9%
- Good — 33.6%
- Average — 14.9%
- Poor — 14.6%
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Note: This is not a scientific poll. The results reflect only the opinions of those who chose to participate.
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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.