Can Runnin’ Rebels become great again?

Can Runnin’ Rebels become great again?

February 27, 2018 3:00 AM

The transformation of Las Vegas into a “big league” sports city with the league-leading Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL and the soon-to-arrive Raiders of the NFL means trouble for UNLV athletics, because if the football and basketball teams don’t improve quickly, they soon may become an afterthought for local sports fans.

That, of course, would be a tragedy for Southern Nevada.

College athletics is not just the “Little Engine that Could,” from the 1930 children’s story used to teach the value of optimism and hard work.

A successful university sports program is the big economic engine that does!

Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels basketball teams certainly put Las Vegas on the national sports map, generating massive countrywide publicity and providing the fuel for a local economic momentum that produced a significant amount of revenue for a host of area businesses, including the casino/resorts for which Las Vegas is most famous. The late, great Chick Hearn would even come in from Los Angeles and call the games for Los Angeles television outlets. The basketball program was a big, big deal for lots of reasons beyond its talented players.

Those late night games in the East helped grow Las Vegas as viewers would stay up late and dream about being here, going to a game and taking a shot at the tables. Even on television, those UNLV games could get your blood percolating. You know what I mean.

Still a few months away from moving to Las Vegas and living in Atlanta, I remember the game on Dec. 29, 1986 when top-ranked UNLV played host to 12th-ranked Navy and superstar center David Robinson.

The Rebels sunk the Midshipmen, 104-79, before what was described by the Las Vegas Sun as a “fire-hazard crowd” of 20,321, in the Thomas & Mack, a building that seats only 18,500. A Sun reporter cleverly wrote, “One of the worst Naval defeats since Pearl Harbor.”

The 1990 NCAA National Championship team is generally regarded as one of the best squads ever. I never got a chance to sit in “Gucci Row,” with a veritable who’s who of important Las Vegas dignitaries, but wish I had. Who didn’t?

Can you name the 1990 starting five? They were Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt, George Ackles and Larry Johnson.

Arriving on the scene in May of 1987, I was quite amazed how many local businesses had “Rebel” as part of their name. If you check today, you can see Rebel gas stations, of course, but also numerous other businesses including a chemical company, a refrigeration company and even a pest control business. Further research shows an accountant, a party rentals firm, a pool service and many, many others all glomming onto the basketball team’s cachet as a winner.

But that was then, this is now.

Everybody loves a winner as the Vegas Golden Knights draw big, engaged crowds for all its home games. The UNLV basketball game this Wednesday past, a loss to Fresno State, drew an extremely modest crowd, some estimate as low as less than 5,000 while the Golden Knights sold out their T-Mobile Arena home with more than 18,000 in attendance.

UNLV certainly appears to have quality people in charge of the athletic program and coaching the basketball and football teams and I do not subscribe to the win at all costs tactics many universities have utilized in recent years. Is the lack of fans at UNLV games a problem for which winning is the only solution? I hope not. It would certainly help the region if both squads could re-appear on the national radar. Doing so would have economic benefits as it did decades ago, but don’t underestimate the “pride” factor. Everyone loves a winner.

I, for one, would prefer an emphasis on academics for college football and basketball players rather than the overemphasis on winning. However, anyone recalling UNLV’s glory days on the hardwood knows what a return to prominence might mean economically. Money has a loud voice. The advent of the Vegas Golden Knights and the Raiders will certainly make a return to relevance more difficult for UNLV, if not impossible.

Perhaps, as I learned from “The Little Engine that Could,” optimism and hard work might be the answer.