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Chasing Ghosts: 25-plus years since Tark, UNLV is still searching

Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures along the way.

This week, the “Chasing Ghosts” series continues with the UNLV Rebels, a one-time loaded Final Four perennial that has drifted from the national conversation.

History | Roundtable: What’s kept UNLV from restoring the glory?

UNLV Rebels

Icon: Jerry Tarkanian

Seasons coached: 1974-92
Key accomplishments: 509-105 (.829) record, 12 NCAA tournaments, 4 Final Fours (1977, 1987, 1990, 1991), 1990 national championship

“When you go into a job like UNLV, with the legacy it has, one created by Tarkanian and undefeated teams and a national championship, you’ll always have those who think they should be in the Final Four every year. That’s not realistic, not with the landscape today. But you know going in that some who don’t understand the business will have those kind of expectations.” — Then-San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, to the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2011.

“In college, it’s all about the win and hiring a big name … I could have won, but it was all about image.” — Former UNLV interim coach Howie Landa to in 2011.

“We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the 1990 national championship team, a team I watched as a seventh-grader up in Wisconsin. The aura around UNLV basketball was electric, the play on the court was rife with excitement and the arena was rocking. We will get that magic back. … We’ll compete for conference titles, for NCAA tournament berths and one day for a national championship again.” — First-year UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger.

Ranking the Tarkanian chasers

12. Tim Grgurich, 2-5 in part of 1994-95 season — Grgurich was Tarkanian’s top assistant during the program’s golden years, and was brought back to campus after Rollie Massimino was fired on the eve of the 1994-95 season. But Grgurich lasted just seven games, citing health problems and lingering animosity toward the administration that had removed his boss two years prior. “I repressed and never talked about my feelings,” Grgurich said upon his resignation. “My heart was taken away from me. This caused a real, real medical and mental problem for me.”

11. Cleveland Edwards (interim), 5-9 in part of 1994-95 season — Edwards was the fourth and final man to serve as UNLV’s coach within a three-and-a-half-month span of the misbegotten 1994-95 season. With just eight scholarship players and a program still feeling the impact of NCAA penalties, Edwards could do little more than pilot the flaming battleship that was the Rebels program into the dock.

10. Howie Landa (interim), 5-2 in part of 1994-95 season — The 63-year-old Landa took charge after Grgurich stepped aside in 1994-95 (see above), lasting less than a month before also bowing out due to stress. “We don’t want somebody under pressure or trying to do too much,” said interim president Kenny Guinn. “I think it needed to be done. He had indicated the pressure was building.”

9. Jay Spoonhour (interim), 6-4 in part of 2003-04 season — Spoonhour took over in February 2004 after his father, Charlie, resigned amid health problems. The younger Spoonhour nearly led UNLV to the NCAA tournament — the Rebels suffered a heartbreaking loss to Utah in the Mountain West championship — but the school had already hired Lon Kruger by the time Jay (now the head coach at Eastern Illinois) coached the team for the final time in the 2004 NIT.

8. Todd Simon (interim), 9-8 in part of 2015-16 season — Simon was elevated from associate head coach after Dave Rice was forced out in January 2016, with Simon winning his first three games but failing to sustain the momentum with a roster that would shrink to six scholarship players due to injuries and eligibility issues. Simon was not a serious candidate for the permanent job that eventually landed with Marvin Menzies, and was subsequently hired to his current role as head coach at Southern Utah.

7. Max Good (interim), 13-9 in part of 2000-01 season — Good was named head coach after Bill Bayno was fired in December 2000, with Good making the most of his partial season but never emerging as a serious candidate for the permanent job that eventually went to Charlie Spoonhour. Good would later serve as head coach at Bryant and Loyola Marymount.

6. Marvin Menzies (2017-19), 48-48 (.500) — Menzies was the next man up after the Chris Beard tenure that wasn’t, taking over the program late, inheriting little talent, and ultimately failing to prove himself during a brief three-year stint in the desert. The former New Mexico State coach did make gains on the recruiting trail, but could not translate those wins into success quickly enough to satisfy the UNLV administration or fan base.

5. Rollie Massimino (1993-94), 36-21 (.632) — Massimino was a name coach with a national title on his résumé, but never thrived amid the lingering rift between Tarkanian’s legion of supporters and Tark’s main antagonist, school president Robert Maxson. When Maxson left, the school discovered a secret contract that would pay Massimino from a side booster club fund. UNLV attempted to void that part of the deal, and Massimino resigned a week before the season started. On the court, Massimino’s 21-8 and 15-13 records were viewed as substandard for what had recently been an elite college basketball program.

4. Charlie Spoonhour (2002-04), 54-31 (.635) — Spoonhour, the former Saint Louis coach who was pulled out of retirement to take over at UNLV, served as a bridge between the scandal-marred end of the Bill Bayno era and the more successful Lon Kruger era that followed. Spoonhour didn’t reach the NCAA tournament at UNLV but all three of his teams made the NIT and he was regarded as a good on-the-floor coach who ran a stable program. Spoonhour stepped down near the end of the 2003-04 season due to heart problems.

3. Bill Bayno (1996-2000), 94-64 (.595), 2 NCAA tournaments — Though he guided the Rebels to the NCAA tournament twice, the Bayno era is best remembered for the scandal that led to his firing early in the 2000-01 season. This episode centered largely around the recruitment of Lamar Odom, who was found to have accepted cash and improper benefits from Dr. David Chapman, a dentist friend of Bayno and a UNLV booster. When the program was placed on four years probation by the NCAA, the university fired Bayno.

2. Dave Rice (2012-16), 98-55 (.645), 2 NCAA tournaments — Rice played for Tarkanian at UNLV and had a decade’s worth of experience as an assistant with the Rebels before being plucked from the BYU staff to succeed Lon Kruger in 2011. Rice gained some early momentum — he won 51 games in his first two years, and recruited well, including a future No. 1 NBA pick in Anthony Bennett — but his support eroded after two NCAA-less campaigns, and Rice was fired after an 0-3 start to the Mountain West season in 2015-16.

1. Lon Kruger (2005-11), 161-71 (.694), 4 NCAA tournaments – Kruger is the only coach of the post-Tarkanian era at UNLV to reach the second weekend — his 2006-07 Rebels made the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed before losing to Oregon — and his program was consistently at or near the top of the Mountain West. Kruger likely could have remained in Vegas as long as he wished, but Oklahoma effectively doubled his salary in April 2011, and Kruger departed for Norman. “I thought Lon did a great job here,” Tarkanian told the Las Vegas Review-Journal at the time. “His teams always played hard, and they were very competitive. He also did a great job off the floor. He was good with people.”

N/A. T.J. Otzelberger (first season at UNLV) — Otzelberger, formerly an assistant at Iowa State and Washington, parlayed a 70-33 mark in three seasons at South Dakota State into the top job at UNLV.

Roundtable: What’s kept UNLV from restoring the glory?

UNLV still has a brand to college basketball fans of a certain age. Las Vegas remains a destination in every sense of the word. Knowing that, what’s been the biggest hurdle in this program’s ability to stay nationally relevant over the last quarter-century?

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: They just haven’t made the most of the talent they’ve had. And a revolving door of coaches is a factor in that. UNLV has had eight first-round picks since Larry Johnson left the program. If a handful of those players had won a few games in the NCAA tournament, I think we’d be having a different conversation about UNLV’s relevance right now. Owning one trip to the second weekend (2007) since Tark’s last Final Four team is how you become a thing of the past.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think part of it is the constant changes at both the head coach level and above the head coach, at the athletic director level. Just look at the number of head coaches since Tarkanian at the top of this piece: 13 coaches, including six interims. It’s not much better at the top of the department. There have been nine athletic directors since 1990. It’s hard to maintain consistency in goals and targets — and how to achieve them — when the leadership is shifting every couple years.

I think the other part is just the simple fact it’s not in a power conference. How many programs are truly nationally relevant outside the big leagues? The list is Gonzaga. And that’s it. The others who were on that list (Wichita State, Butler, Creighton, etc.) all joined a power conference. It’s hard to gain traction every year on a national level without the steady attention and backing of a power conference.

John Gasaway, college basketball writer: The fact that the program is still a brand to persons of a certain age is a tribute to Tarkanian. Since Tark took the Runnin’ Rebels to the 1991 Final Four, however, this program’s been to exactly one Sweet 16 in the last 28 years. So one conclusion might be that though Tarkanian’s success was extreme, the program’s futility since then has also been a bit aberrant. That futility has been a product of the factors that my colleague Mr. Borzello has identified.

How good is the job, really? What program or programs should UNLV reasonably aspire to be?

Borzello: It’s good, but it’s not great. When the job opened in March, we heard all sorts of big names: Rick Pitino, Tyronn Lue, Jason Kidd, Frank Martin. The idea that UNLV needed to — and had the ability to — hire a headline-grabbing name was prevalent. But it wasn’t all that realistic. UNLV wasn’t going to pay to hire one of those guys. The Rebels are reportedly paying new head coach TJ Otzelberger between $1.1 million and $1.5 million per year for the next five seasons; that’s not on par with the majority of power-conference schools.

That said, they do have some of the best facilities in the Mountain West, a storied history and the allure of Las Vegas — and it also helps that Las Vegas is the epicenter of summer basketball due to summer league, USA Basketball and grassroots tournaments. But it used to be the biggest game in town. There were no professional sports teams, so the Rebels were the team to watch in Vegas. That’s obviously changed with the Vegas Golden Knights and will change again with the Raiders’ move. Here’s the bottom line: The program has advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament once since Tark left. It’s not the job it once was.

Gasaway: This is the best job in the Mountain West, so that’s a superlative wrapped in a qualifier. Still, we shouldn’t overstate the qualifier. For a relatively youthful coach like Otzelberger (he’s 41), this is a great job and, more particularly, a great opportunity. True, the Rebels have little to show in terms of recent tournament success (or even appearances), but the recruiting was outstanding as recently as a few years ago under Dave Rice. It’s not too outlandish to envision a new coach in 2019 restarting that particular motor as opposed to having to build one from scratch. In terms of on-court performance, there’s no reason UNLV can’t match what a rival like San Diego State, for example, was able to get done under Steve Fisher.

Medcalf: I think it’s a good job. But it lacks the investment of comparable teams. I used the Equity in Athletics Data site to compare the budgets of Butler, TCU and UNLV, three middle-of-the-pack teams within their respective leagues last year. Their differences? UNLV has the smallest operating budget among the three schools ($1.07 million). It’s barely second within that group in terms of total amount spent on men’s basketball each year: TCU ($17 million), UNLV ($5.7 million) and Butler ($5.5 million). It also generates the lowest revenue from men’s basketball ($5.7 million) among those schools. If you’re not keeping up with Butler and TCU in the money game, your job might be an average one despite operating under a recognizable brand’s name.

Not keeping Lon Kruger in 2011, or not keeping Chris Beard in 2016 — which exit should sting the most if you’re a UNLV fan?

Medcalf: Probably Kruger, only because he was actually there. Like, Beard was at a hotel for a few days but he never coached a game. But Kruger won 127 games in his last five years in Las Vegas. Kruger and his wife, Barbara, still host charity golf tournaments for Coaches vs. Cancer in Las Vegas. He was connected to that community and, if he were still there, he would have offered the stability this program has lacked for so long.

Borzello: It has to be Beard, right? Kruger was very good in the desert, going to four NCAA tournaments and reaching one Sweet 16 during his seven seasons with the Rebels — but Beard has shown the potential to take programs to new heights. He thrives with the type of players UNLV has had success with: Division I transfers, junior college transfers, under-recruited prospects. He’s now finding ways to get top-100 recruits to Lubbock; imagine him recruiting guys to Las Vegas. Beard has won — and won at a high level — at each of his stops, regardless of division or conference affiliation. He would have done the same at UNLV.

Gasaway: I think fans in Vegas would be amenable to having gone to the 2018 Elite Eight and overtime in the 2019 national title game. Kruger’s been great for Oklahoma, but the answer to this question is Beard. What he’s been able to get done in Lubbock makes you wonder what he could have done in Vegas.

T.J. Otzelberger was successful at South Dakota State but comes in as an outsider to Las Vegas and to the Mountain West. Make a case for his success at UNLV, and give us one reason you’re worried for him.

Medcalf: Last year, I spent three days with Otzelberger and South Dakota State. Went to practices and meetings and off-the-court stuff. It was easy to see that Otzelberger has a natural bond with his players. And he’ll need that to recruit the one-and-done types UNLV fans crave. He’s been successful at every stop. The concern is he just might fail to attract the players he’ll need to reboot the program. Not because he won’t work hard but because the program’s lack of recent success has limited its appeal. But I’d bet on Otzelberger to win and elevate the program.

Borzello: On the plus side, Otzelberger coached an entertaining style and won games at South Dakota State. The Jackrabbits ranked in the top 65 nationally in tempo the last two seasons en route to 52 wins and a combined 27-3 record in Summit League play. He won two regular-season championships and went to two NCAA tournaments during his three seasons with South Dakota State. He was an excellent recruiter under multiple coaches at Iowa State, and does have some experience recruiting out West from his two seasons at Washington.

It’s fair to be concerned about how he will recruit to UNLV. Essentially his entire South Dakota State roster was built from Midwest high school kids — and he inherited Mike Daum from the previous regime. Even David Jenkins, the team’s second-leading scorer last season, spent a season at Sunrise Christian Academy (Kansas) despite being a Washington native. Otzelberger had a mixed opening few weeks, as guys like Shakur Juiston, Joel Ntambwe, Cheikh Diong and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua have remained in the transfer portal — but he was able to convince Amauri Hardy, Bryce Hamilton and Cheickna Dembele to return.

Gasaway: Unlike a high mid-major fiefdom like the West Coast Conference (Gonzaga), the Mountain West is just waiting for a coach to come in and take control of the league. Maybe Otzelberger’s a year too late and that role’s already been filled by Utah State’s Craig Smith (another veteran of the Summit League), but a program with a storied past and a Vegas address should certainly be able to compete for that prize. Right now it’s easy to say that Otzelberger won at South Dakota State with the previous coach’s players (one in particular: Daum), but that’s what people said about Bruce Weber at Illinois and things have panned out pretty well for him at Kansas State. Not to mention fans in Vegas will like a style that places a premium on a fast pace and lots of 3s. If it turns out that Otzelberger really does deserve partial credit for recruiting some of the best players at Iowa State and Washington during his stints as an assistant, the future could (finally) be bright for UNLV.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: Indiana

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