By. Jeff Munn
It’s been a story told time after time – how much Phoenix sports changed in the 80’s and 90’s after the Cardinals, Coyotes and Diamondbacks arrived.
Now, in 2016, it’s about to be told again, but in a different location.
If you go to Las Vegas to enjoy the all-night buffets, star-studded shows and all those fun games, you’re only seeing a small snapshot of what has become the 30th largest metropolitan area in the United States. By contract, Phoenix is 12th. Like Phoenix, Las Vegas is about to undergo a sports transformation, and one that is already leading to some amount of sadness among the long time residents of Giltter Gulch.
Last week, the UNLV men’s basketball program – the program of Tark The Shark, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, in your face, attack oriented basketball – had a coach leave less than two weeks after accepting the job, and get this – no one in the Vegas media is blaming him.
Chris Beard took Little Rock to an NCAA Tournament berth this year and parlayed it (Vegas term) into succeeding Dave Rice at UNLV. However, this is the same Chris Beard who served as an assistant to Bob Knight at Texas Tech for ten years. So, when Tubby Smith left Lubbock for Memphis, the Red Raiders offered Beard what REALLY was his dream job.
UNLV quickly recovered and hired New Mexico State’s Marvin Menzies, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. A program that was the crown jewel of a city known for spectacles is on the verge of slipping into non relevance.
Las Vegas sports radio is convinced that in the next several weeks the NHL will announce they are putting an expansion team in a brand new arena next to the Strip. Then there’s the NFL. The rumors of Mark Davis moving the Raiders are, in the view of some national media, more than rumors. Still others openly wonder why the NBA hasn’t arrived with a team yet, and if the Tampa Bay Rays can’t figure out how to get a new home….
Long time Phoenix residents and ASU fans have lived through this.
There may not be much UNLV can do to stop the change in perception, but for those of us here who looked at UNLV as an example of how a college team can grab a hold of a community’s heart, this set of events is sad. This is not to overlook that UNLV didn’t always operate above board, and was punished as it should have been. Still, it appears the days of VIP’s occupying the floor seats at the Thomas and Mack Center are about to end…if they haven’t already.
UNLV also doesn’t have something ASU does – a Big Five conference membership. I admit I was worried how ASU would make the transition to the Pac-10 in 1978, but in no way would I ever want to go back to a league like, say, the Mountain West, where UNLV resides. Getting fans to buy tickets to see ASU play football against USC is one thing. Getting people in Vegas to watch the Rebels play Fresno State? Good luck with that, especially if the Raiders are playing in a new stadium the next day.
It would have made a ton of sense for UNLV to try to convince Larry Scott to include them in the 2012 expansion of the Pac-12. It might have even made more sense for the league to add the Vegas TV market instead of Salt Lake City. If Scott ever considers going to 14 schools, UNLV would need to do whatever they could to get in, simply to survive in their home market.
Notice I haven’t mentioned Tucson. The city leaders down south have worked to control the city’s growth, and while they will try again with minor league hockey, they’re content to be a college town first, foremost and always.
It’s hard to shed a tear for town like Las Vegas, but for UNLV men’s basketball, this is difficult to watch. If a coach leaves you 10 days after arriving for Lubbock, even if it’s his dream job, you’d better get ready.
You’re about to be moved to the back page of the sports section, and who would have bet on that?