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UNLV Basketball is Dead and Fans Helped Kill It
Look in the mirror if you want to know one of the parties responsible for killing the once proud Runnin’ Rebels basketball program.
I lived and breathed UNLV for most of my adolescent and adult life. I grew up watching the great teams of the 1980s and 1990s and finally as a student at the school. I was as loyal as loyal could be. I watched the lean years with enthusiasm arguing with friends and fellow alumni who long had given up on the Runnin’ Rebels during the dry 1990s and rough early 2000s.
Today, I stand before you to tell you the program is dead. It heaved its last breath on January 10, 2016 after first being smothered by Robert Maxson in 1991. When the current, and soon-to-be former, athletics director caved to pressure by a select group of selfish boosters, and fired coach Dave Rice three games into the conference season, that was it. Dead. Don’t even argue. It’s incompetence that killed it and it wasn’t who was coach.
And I blame us — and you — the fans. UNLV fans over the years have lost their way. Perhaps because many that sustained the program during the glory years have either died off or been run off. Either way, the current group of “fans” are both uneducated in most things college basketball. The fans, who rarely show up in consistent numbers anymore, have reached new lows in recent years. From rushing the court when the team beats a ranked opponent, to heckling the brother of a former coach when he’s out enjoying a night at a game, this new lot lacks class, understanding, and any semblance of the patience it takes to build a program.
Currently, the Runnin’ Rebels are led by first year coach Marvin Menzies. Let me say this about Coach Menzies: I don’t know him but hear great things about him as a coach and a man. He walked into a tough situation and I blame him for nothing. I wish him luck but believe even for him to reach his full potential, he should find somewhere to go as soon as he can. This place kills coaches and I don’t wish that on a good man.
But back to the reason UNLV basketball was the victim of homicide.
The case of coach Dave Rice has been made over and over on both sides. My intention isn’t to reargue that case here. The fact of the matter is some were not happy with Rice and his team’s performances. Yet the record — sans NCAA appearances and conference titles — was beyond exceptional. Building programs outside of the Power 5 conferences takes time and patience. UNLV fans, and their boosters, had no patience. The local media didn’t help building expectations that are not realistic in 2016. UNLV is neither a national powerhouse nor a program that is anywhere near a Kansas, Duke, or Kentucky. A coach and some wins would not change that. It’s not 1990 and the landscape of college basketball has changed.
Rice also created teams that performed academically like no other in UNLV history. His teams had 958 four-year APR average and 1000 single year score. Rice teams had no NCAA issues and represented the university as well as you can.
Fact: UNLV ranks fourth in funding in the Mountain West Conference. Fourth. Teams like Boise State, New Mexico and San Diego State have a more robust athletics budget. Yet UNLV fans think they have the keys to a Ferrari that just needs new tires? You’re kidding yourself.
When athletics director Tina Kunzer-Murphy decided to press the panic button after three games in the conference season last year, she set the program back 5–8 years with one bad decision. Rice was told he could finish the year. What did blowing him out early accomplish? It didn’t do anything and the team struggled. It ran roster players and recruits out of town faster than a deadbeat gambler deep into a bookie. Killing basketball also means the rest of UNLV athletics will suffer. So not only did you hurt the men’s basketball program, but also countless Olympic sports that count on basketball revenue to survive. It’s unfathomable this idiocy.
It cratered the coaching candidate pool and showed how inept the administration was in preparing to replace Rice. Apparently, Kunzer-Murphy takes her orders from three boosters — one of which throws his weight around yet spends very, very little on any UNLV athletics programs directly. She broke her promise to the coach that he could finish the year and would keep his job if the team could make the post-season and meet expectations. Apparently telling the truth and keeping your word at UNLV means little.
In the aftermath, the Mensa at UNLV continued to stumble around like Chief Inspector Clouseau– no plans, no contacts, and no relationships to lead to a viable replacement. Most of those viable replacements saw how UNLV treated Rice — one of their own mind you — and got as far away as they could. Would you work for an AD and a President that lied to their former coach and kicked him to the curb three games into the conference season? Hell no.
So why am I being so hard on the fans? Well, none of you are realistic. When I argued that Rice should have been able to complete the season on Twitter one day, one fan said midseason changes happen all the time in college coaching. He pointed to the changes we saw this year with SEC football. First, not an even comparable, and second, Rice — again — was forced out after just three conference games. Like him or not, that was not enough time to truly see how the team would perform last season. And no, it doesn’t happen often unless the coach has done something to tarnish the university — like at Baylor.
This type of comparison shows UNLV fans have unrealistic — wildly unrealistic — expectations of their team and their coaches. UNLV is not in the SEC or the ACC and is the bottom rung (overall) of the below average Mountain West Conference.
Are you all even looking in the mirror and realizing what you aren’t? The ignorance is beyond compare and I’m done with it. This fan base deserves what they’ve gotten — a program in disarray because you helped create it. In the last 12 years, fans have called for the head of Lon Kruger and Dave Rice in succession.
Kruger was run out of town after amassing a record of 161–71 in seven season at UNLV. In that time, he never won an outright conference title. He reached the NCAA Second Round once and the Sweet 16 once. A stellar performance but UNLV fans complained and boosters refused to pay him so Kruger left for Oklahoma. What he’s done there speaks volumes to what a good coach can do with a good budget and school that backs him.
The Rice years started off with fan excitement as for the first time “one of our own” would take the realm of UNLV in the modern age. Dave Rice came and made instant impact and finished with a record of 98–54 in four-plus seasons at UNLV. He made the NCAA Tournament the first two years and didn’t return before he was unceremoniously forced out. In his time, he arguably had the best recruiting run of any coach in UNLV history signing the likes of Anthony Bennett, Chris Wood, Stephen Zimmerman, Derrick Jones, Jr. and Pat McCaw — all who now play in the NBA. It was a remarkable effort that will never be seen at UNLV again.
Despite this, some fans turned on Rice after year four when the Rebels struggled after a roster adjustment. Rice was forthcoming with the change and how it would impact the program. But he had been reassured he had time to build it right. Fans and athletics administration didn’t have the patience or the fortitude to build UNLV the right way. The impatience and unrealistic expectation that UNLV could be at the top of the heap again took over. So they ran a good man and good coach out of town. Not only that, they continue to insult and malign one of their own. They blame everything on Rice including this season’s robust schedule. Apparently, fans want to play and beat subpar teams yet be nationally relevant. Again, idiotic. Fans helped drive away a Runnin’ Rebel who would care and build the program like no other coach could or would.
That’s two straight coaches — with a combined record of 259–125 — that weren’t good enough for UNLV fans or the small cabal of boosters who call the shots. Meanwhile, San Diego State has built itself into what UNLV should be. Steve Fisher continues to win because he’s always had leadership and support behind him. Even after starting his tenure at San Diego State going 56–63 over his first four years — about the same length of tenure Rice went 89–47. But 89 wins in four seasons isn’t enough in Las Vegas. It never will be and that’s why UNLV will never be as strong as it once was. Not by a mile.
I know many of you won’t agree. And I don’t really care. This isn’t something I write to pick fights or cause arguments about. It’s just my belief and a little manifesto of why I am done supporting the program.
They say the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again despite knowing that the outcome will be the same. That’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels basketball folks.
I’ll let the worst fans in America continue on. I’ll do something better with my time and money.
Scott Gulbransen is an accomplished social media, public relations, and digital marketing pro and thought leader. Having managed public relations, social media and digital marketing at brands like Intuit, Applebee’s and H&R Block, and in college athletics. He recently left his role as Global Head of Digital Content at Haymon Boxing, creators of the Premier Boxing Champions series. Gulbransen now is owner/partner in Classic Rock Coffee Co. in Las Vegas, and also serves as the State Director of Communications for AARP Nevada. Gulbransen resides in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. #BattleBorn