UNLV trying to get its swagger back

UNLV hasn’t played in a game that mattered since March 30, 1991, and it’s sad that college basketball has never been able to fill that vacuum.

Sure, there have been good players at UNLV since then, and even some decent teams. But when’s the last time UNLV really meant something — not just as a program, but as the unabashed symbol of this sport’s counterculture?

That UNLV died in Indianapolis 21 years ago when Duke pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Final Four history, triggering the final sequence that would undo the reign of Jerry Tarkanian and push the school into a decades-long struggle to decide what kind of basketball program it wanted to have. UNLV, for all intents and purposes, hasn’t been nationally relevant since.

Which is too bad, really. For all the rogue figures and brushes with the NCAA that dot UNLV’s past, college basketball was a more fun, more interesting sport when they mattered. And now, with the school finally having the courage to embrace its heritage, there’s a chance it might matter again.

In his first year at UNLV, Dave Rice has coached the Runnin’ Rebels to a 24-7 record heading into today’s quarterfinal round of the Mountain West tournament. Regardless of its performance this week, UNLV will get a bid to the NCAA tournament for just the seventh time since Tarkanian was forced to resign under a cloud of scandal in 1992. No matter how it ends, it will be a nice season.

But for the first time in a long time, there’s a sense that something more is on the horizon; not just that UNLV can continue to be good under Rice, but that it can be a major presence in college basketball again.

And for the 43-year-old Rice, who played under Tarkanian on UNLV’s 1990 national championship team, getting the program back to that level of prominence isn’t just an empty cliché every coach talks about when he gets a job. He’s seen it. He’s lived it. As the first alumnus UNLV has ever hired to coach its basketball program, it means more to him than any coach here since Tarkanian.

"One of the things when I got the job that I talked about with our staff was to make sure that we became nationally significant," Rice said. "The word is way overused, but there’s an inherent swagger that’s related to UNLV. So, when our program is playing well, when it’s winning games, it’s just a natural for there to be a lot of attention [here] for a variety of reasons.

"We’re talking about a school that won a national championship, a school that’s been to four Final Fours. So, from that standpoint — all the draft picks, the lottery picks, the conference championships — I do think it’s important to be up there and be ranked and be relevant."

Rice talks about this while standing on the floor of the Mendenhall Center, a sparkling, $11.7 million practice complex that puts UNLV at least on par, facility-wise, with every other program on the West Coast. In tangible terms, that’s important for UNLV in recruiting battles with other schools in the Pac-12 and Mountain West. But symbolically, making that commitment is even bigger. For a while, it was fair to question just how good UNLV really wanted to be.

UNLV’s past is no more rogue than that of UCLA, which won national titles with players funneled to John Wooden by a mega-booster named Sam Gilbert. It’s no more rogue than the way many programs won in those days and still win today. But it was Vegas, and it was Tarkanian, and for 17 years that combination shook up the college basketball establishment in a way that made the sport infinitely more interesting. Whether it was true or not, those four letters evoked images and feelings for anyone who watched basketball.

Not many programs can do that, but UNLV was one of them. Ultimately, it paid a price for that. After photographs surfaced of players in a hot tub with notorious gambler Richard Perry, school president Robert Maxson forced Tarkanian to resign amidst an NCAA investigation. But even without Tarkanian, UNLV couldn’t escape scandal.

Rollie Massimino left Villanova to replace Tarkanian and not only lost, but the discovery of a secret under-the-table contract to supplement his salary took down both him and Maxson in 1994. Then in 2000, after Bill Bayno had gotten UNLV back to the NCAA tournament, the school found itself back under the NCAA’s microscope after allegations of booster payments and improper benefits to Lamar Odom came to light. Bayno was fired, and UNLV reached a tipping point. It no longer had the stomach for big-time basketball.

But as Rice completes his first season, it’s possible there has never been a better time to take over UNLV’s program. Though they didn’t win at a nationally relevant level, Charlie Spoonhour and Lon Kruger were well-known for running clean programs and restored credibility with the administration. With Kruger’s urging, the ball got rolling on the Mendenhall Center. And when Rice came over from BYU, where he was an assistant the past five seasons, he discovered a veteran team ready to win right away and a fan base ready for the program to get back to an elite level.

Most of all, instead of having to run from the Tarkanian era, the school could finally embrace it.

"We have talked from Day 1 about the importance of the tradition of our program. That’s very important to me," said Rice, who brought in former UNLV great Stacey Augmon as one of his first assistant coaching hires. "Some of the things we’ve been able to accomplish this year haven’t been done in a long time, and yet we know how much work there still is to do and how far we have to go. We’re in a great position to get it going in a big way."

Nobody knows the future, but everything has fallen into place so far. UNLV scored a big upset over then-No. 1 North Carolina back in November. Rice landed shooting guard Katin Reinhardt — a top-50 national prospect — and brought in two big-time transfers in Bryce Jones of USC and former top-10 recruit Khem Birch, who left Pitt in December.

UNLV is good this year. Next year, the Rebels will be loaded and Las Vegas could once again be one of college basketball’s marquee destinations. Everybody understands the Tarkanian days are over. But the unique UNLV swagger is on the verge of coming back, and this program is about to matter again. For a sport that needs its interlopers just as much as its blueblood dynasties, that’s a very good thing.