An era of Las Vegas sports history came to an end Saturday as UNLV closed out 49 years of playing football at Sam Boyd Stadium.
And they did it the same way they opened the place back in 1971 — with a victory — this one a come-from-behind 38-35 win over San Jose State, which saw its bowl aspirations die on the Sprinturf of Sam Boyd.
Next year, the Rebels will play at the opulent $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium off of Russell Road near Interstate 15. They may very well have a new coach leading them on the field as current coach Tony Sanchez’s future will likely be announced after next week’s season-ending game against Nevada. Despite having made progress off the field in terms of academics and facilities, the university may opt to go in a different direction. Sanchez is under contract through 2021.
But Saturday was a day for nostalgia not looking to the future. It was a time to reminisce about a facility that never captured the hearts of Las Vegans. It was a place that was out of the way to get to, and in terms of amenities, is bare bones.
However, Sam Boyd Stadium hosted more than just college football. It was home to three different professional football leagues (the CFL, the XFL and the UFL). It saw some great soccer players traverse the pitch in Pele and Cristiano Ronaldo along with Eusebio, who played for the Las Vegas Quicksilvers in the old North American Soccer League.
If you liked music, you got to see Paul McCartney, Bono and the Grateful Dead perform there.
But it was football that had the closest connection with the stadium, which first opened in 1971 as Las Vegas Stadium, a 15,000-seat structure built for $3.5 million.
UNLV was only in its fourth year of playing football, so this was a huge step at the time. Over time, the facility would undergo expansion and improvements as well as name changes. Unfortunately for the school, success did not accompany the growth of its home field. In the 49 years the Rebels called the place home, they produced just 16 winning seasons. In this century, there has been one, count ‘em, one successful year — a 7-6 season in 2013 under Bobby Hauck.
But there has been success with football in the stadium. The Las Vegas Bowl, which began in 1992 as a marketing tool to fill hotel rooms before Christmas, has grown into a popular annual event and like UNLV, is moving its game to Allegiant Stadium.
Some pretty good players have played here and coached here. Jim McMahon, Randall Cunningham, Ickey Woods and Stephen Jackson, all made plays in the artificial turf. Ron Meyer, John Robinson and Jim Fassel roamed the sidelines here. Tommy LaSorda got thrown out of the press box here. A Calgary Stampeders fan brought his pet ferret with him to the game for a CFL game with the then-Las Vegas Posse. The NFL’s first female official, Sarah Thomas, worked a United Football League game here with the Las Vegas Locomotives. Rod Smart became a national sensation here when the XFL played its short-lived one season here back in 2001. You know him better as He Hate Me.
For me, Sam Boyd Stadium may have been a place devoid of charm or amenities (the limited food options were never good), but it was the city’s venue. If you were a high school player, it was cool to have played here, especially when the Nevada state championship game was contested at SBS.
So what becomes of this place? Does UNLV keep it? Does it sell it to Clark County, which owns land adjacent to the facility? Does it lease the land where the stadium sits to a private entrepreneur?
The old joint’s fate won’t be decided right away. They’ll still play two more football games here — the Nevada state high school championship and the Las Vegas Bowl in December. then there’s a couple of motor sports events in the first quarter of 2020.
After that, though, it will be so long as a university turns the page and tries to write a successful chapter to its football history that has been hardly anything to write home about. But on a day where the UNLV defense forced five turnovers and found a way to come back late, the last page of the Sam Boyd Stadium era gave their fans a reason to smile.