College Football: Why Can't UNLV Build a Decent Program?

Alan BlackAnalyst IIIJuly 16, 2013

Nov 10, 2012; Fort Collins, CO, USA; UNLV Rebels tight end Max Johnson (83)scores a touchdown against the Colorado State Rams during the fourth quarter at Hughes Stadium.  The Rams beat the Rebels 33-11.  Mandatory Credit: Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

The UNLV Rebels have not exactly ever been a football team that commands respect. In the past 25 years, the school has put together a winning season only three times. 

The Rebels' overall record during that span is an abysmal 88-202. Those fortunes have not improved at all since the team moved to the Mountain West Conference in 1999. Since joining the conference, UNLV has managed only one winning season and has had five seasons in which they finished the year with double-digit losses. 

The team also enjoys little support from its fanbase. Last season, UNLV averaged a paltry 15,208 fans per home game in attendance. Considering that the school is located in a metropolitan area of nearly 2 million people, with no pro teams in any sport to compete with for fans, those attendance numbers are so terrible it's sad.

The other programs that compare with UNLV in attendance and record are teams such as Eastern Michigan and Idaho, not exactly proud company to be in.

Unlike those programs, however, UNLV doesn't have the excuse of small size, isolation, overshadowing by a nearby powerhouse or lack of an overall fanbase. 

UNLV is far from a small school, as nearly 30,000 students currently attend. And it doesn't exactly suffer from an overmatched athletic department either. The school's basketball team is a powerhouse program, boasting a national title and an ability to regularly sign 4- and 5-star commits.

Lack of recruits isn't a valid explanation either, as the Vegas area itself regularly produces highly-ranked recruits not just in basketball, but also in football.

UNLV is unable to hold onto most of those recruits, however, many of whom opt to move one state over and join teams in Utah, Arizona or California. The school is also located less than five hours from the recruiting hotbeds of Southern California, so there is plenty of fertile recruiting in UNLV's vicinity, which they aren't able to capitalize on.

Lack of quality coaches doesn't necessarily explain the Rebels' ineptitude at football either. John Robinson, the head coach from 1999-04, led USC to four Rose Bowl victories in his two stints there. 

Current head coach Bobby Hauck took FCS powerhouse Montana to the national championship game three times in just seven years. Yet these same accomplished coaches posted a combined 34-74 record during their nine seasons in charge in Vegas.

Lack of facilities doesn't explain UNLV's struggles either. Their home field, Sam Boyd Stadium, is a longtime bowl game host site. The Lied Athletic Complex, which opened in 1996 at the hefty pricetag of $8.5 million, is amongst the premier student-athlete facilities in the West.

So why has UNLV been unable to build an even somewhat decent football program? They are the largest university in the state, in an enormous metro area, with a successful athletic department, high-end facilities and access to accomplished coaches, and yet despite having more to work with than a lot of other schools in FBS football, they have been entirely unable to establish any sort of solid football program.

Basketball may play a small role, but it hardly accounts for all of UNLV football's shortcomings. While it is true that UNLV is a basketball school, it is of a large enough size to easily accommodate a successful football program as well. 

Former MWC conference-mate Utah was also formerly a basketball school but had plenty of success building a solid football program, too.

In all honesty, UNLV basketball is more of a blessing than a curse for the football program, because its success and prominence allow the football program to have access to many more athletic and monetary benefits than a program with UNLV's historical lack of football success would otherwise have.

Simply put, there is no solid explanation for UNLV football's failure as a program. They have everything they need but still can't make it work, and they haven't been even close lately. 

Perhaps it's time for the administration to take a closer look at what is causing UNLV football to fail, because on the surface, it just doesn't make any sense.