Opinion: UNLV Football at a Place Lower than Rock Bottom

Source: John Locher/AP

Bottom of the barrel. Rock bottom. That was already some of the phraseology being used to describe UNLV Football. The program and its losing ways have had a decades-long courtship at this point. The sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and UNLV is bad at football. It’s the kind of futility you can set your clock by. When you’re a mainstay within the deepest recesses that the sport has to offer, it’s almost impressive that the Rebels have stooped to new lows. But that’s where UNLV is at right now.

Marcus Arroyo is 0-11 since he took over as head coach. The Rebels have had some stinkers roam their sidelines in the past, so this isn’t exactly uncharted territory for them. Harvey Hyde went 8-37-1 between 1982 and 1985. Jim Strong and Jeff Horton went a combined 30-67 between 1990 and 1998. More recently Mike Sanford went 16-43 in four years at the helm, while Bobby Hauck saw just 15 wins out of 49 tries. Tony Sanchez came up from the high school ranks to go 20-40. Even Hall of Fame coach John Robinson only managed a .400 record in Las Vegas as the head coach at UNLV.

Excuses can be made for each and every coach that was just mentioned. UNLV spent a great many years playing at Sam Boyd Stadium, which isn’t exactly an ideal place to call home. It’s nine miles from campus, the locker rooms were akin to a neglected dog kennel, the area around it is a dustbowl that smells of sewage more often than not, and honestly, I have to stop listing the cons of the place, otherwise, this article would turn into a novella. Suffice to say that no one could recruit effectively or build a program with the facilities UNLV had back then.

Fast forward to the here and now, and those excuses are older than Harvey Hyde (who is 82 currently, for those wondering). UNLV now plays in a $2 billion state-of-the-art NFL stadium. They practice and run their program out of a $35 million top-of-the-line football facility. Arroyo is also being paid the 3rd highest contract in the MWC. His 5 year, $7.7 million contract is almost exactly the same that Boise State pays their head coach, Andy Avalos ($7.75 million). The same Boise State that has been perennially ranked, a MWC contender every year, and has made noise on the national stage since 2007.

To their credit, UNLV has invested. They have top-notch facilities, they’re spending equivalent money as the flagship program in their league on a coach, so where’s the ROI?

The one positive and undeniable thing about Marcus Arroyo is his ability to recruit. Since he took over at UNLV, he’s landed the 2nd-best class in the conference two years in a row. His 2021 class was a top-70 class nationally, and he has landed the Rebels three of their five highest-rated recruits in program history (according to 247 Sports). In that regard, Arroyo has done his due diligence.

College football recruiting is something that requires patience. This I will also give Arroyo. In college basketball, one or two recruiting classes can turn a program around. You bring in a couple of 5-Star kids, and all of a sudden, the NCAA Tournament is a real, tangible thing. With college football, it’s extremely rare that freshmen and sophomores can come in and turn things around and make a team a bowl game contender, particularly at a historically dismal place like UNLV.

That being said, Arroyo didn’t exactly inherit UNLV when they were at their worst. Tony Sanchez may never have gotten the Rebels to a bowl game, but he was able to win four games each in his final two seasons. That’s not good by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s not exactly winless. Still, no one was happy with that kind of mediocrity. In fact, when you go 4-8 in back-to-back campaigns, you get fired. And Sanchez was let go for his failings. But, seeing as though UNLV was on the cusp of said mediocrity, it stands to reason the next guy should be able to elevate things.

That has not been the case. In fact, there’s been a tremendous backslide. Granted, Arroyo’s first year was a very strange one, indeed. After a lot of back and forth about whether or not there would even be a season, the powers that be decided on a shortened schedule because of Covid-19. Arroyo didn’t even get spring football to implement his system because of the pandemic, and the six games that he did get to coach were after an abbreviated camp where he was forced to use a roster that was constantly in flux because of players contracting the virus or opting out because of it.

I don’t think anyone can or would argue against Arroyo basically geting a pass for year one because of that set of circumstances.

Even though year one can be viewed as a wash, it’s not as though there weren’t things to take away from it. One of those things was the bizarre way the quarterback situation was handled. Arroyo has a pretty sterling reputation when it comes to quarterback development. In his career, he has worked directly with or recruited NFL standouts like Justin Herbert and Jared Goff.

When hearing that Arroyo would be leaving his position as offensive coordinator at Oregon to take over as head coach at UNLV, that was definitely one of the things that stood out as a positive to UNLV fans. Many hoped he would be a QB whisperer for the Rebels like he seemed to be elsewhere. Instead, the Rebels used four different quarterbacks in those six games, none in any kind of meaningful way.

Come year two, everyone expected the quarterback position to stabilize. Arroyo did get spring football this go around. His players are now very familiar with his scheme. And more than that, the players brought in to compete for the QB job were highly touted guys. Justin Rogers was at one point a 5-Star recruit who could have gone to LSU, Georgia, Texas, Oregon, or pretty much anywhere else he wanted before he opted to go to TCU. Even Doug Brumfield was courted by Utah, Rutgers, UNR, and Kansas before signing on to play at UNLV.

Then there’s the much-maligned Tate Martell, the former Gorman Gael star. Martell’s story has been well documented. He originally committed to Washington way back in 2012, but decommitted. Then he pledged to Texas A&M, but decommited. Then he actually enrolls at Ohio State after committing to them, but transferred. He then ended up at Miami but transferred from there too. Then, nine years after he first committed to a college, he ends up right back where he started in Las Vegas, walking on at UNLV.

All three of those kids (Rogers, Brumfield, and Martell) have taken snaps during UNLV’s current 0-5 start to this season. But much like Arroyo’s precarious first season, there’s been a fourth QB: freshman Cameron Friel. There’s a lot of adding to be done, but if you can somehow keep it straight in your head, that’s six different QBs who have played in Arroyo’s 11 game stint as coach at UNLV. Some of the musical quarterbacks that has been happening with the Rebels has been due to injury, but a lot of it has happened with little rhyme or reason attached to it. Most of it looks more like throwing the proverbial football at the wall and hoping it sticks.

When UNLV does throw one of its half a dozen quarterbacks out there, they have only managed to score 17 points a game. Let’s not forget Arroyo is also the play-caller as well as the head coach. Compare that to the 37 points a game Arroyo’s defense has given up in their 11 outings, UNLV Football is getting trounced by almost three touchdowns every time they take the field.

Looking for moral victories? I guess there are three to be found. In three games this season, the Rebels only lost by one score. That’s where this program is; somewhere at a place that’s lower than rock bottom. A place where you have to look at games where the team was competitive to find some sort of silver lining.

UNLV is at a crossroads in general with its athletic programs. Texas and Oklahoma shifted the balance of power within the collegiate athletic landscape when they opted to join the SEC, abandoning the Big 12 for the monetary benefits of playing in college football’s most prestigious league. That then forced the Big 12’s hand, and they ended up poaching the AAC’s Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, and bringing in football independent BYU.

The Pac-12 (UNLV’s preferred landing spot) went in a very different direction. They banded together with the Big 10 and the ACC, forming a powerful alliance that rivals, if not trumps, what the SEC did in bringing in the Red River rivals. That left many schools on the outside looking in when it comes to conference realignment. Even schools like Memphis, San Diego State, and Boise State, who are actually very good on the gridiron, were left out in the cold.

It turned out that UNLV’s circumstances were even more dire than that. When the AAC grew desperate after being poached by the B12, they made a play for Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State, and Air Force. The Rebels’ name wasn’t even mentioned for a lateral move (that the other MWC schools have since declined).

Many will argue that Arroyo should be given time. Considering that his buyout is astronomical (Arroyo would be due the remainder of his salary if he were to be let go, which is $4.7 million if anyone is curious), that’s probably sage advice for an athletic department that is and has been operating in the red for a long, long time. Let him finish out his contract and see if his solid recruiting pans out over that timeframe. That’s the logical thing to do.

We however do not live in logical times. We’re living in an arms race to get to the Power 5. I personally think that ship has sailed for UNLV, but as I mentioned above, UNLV has invested, and invested a lot, in making their football program relevant. They want a winner, and they want one now. Not only that, but UNLV is also going to be hiring a new athletic director in the very near future. To be an AD is to want your own, hand-chosen coach running your flagship programs.

The sun rises in the east, sets in the west, and AD’s want to hire their own football coach. And when UNLV’s new AD takes over, they’re not going to be looking at minute progress during Arroyo’s tenure, nor will they be looking at any perceived moral victories. They’re going to be looking at the goose egg in the win column next to his name. They’ll be looking at a coach who is winless (regardless of circumstances) in his first 11 games.

It can’t be enough to bring in a new AD. It can’t be enough to bring in a new coach. UNLV has been on that merry-go-round for 40 years now. It’s the definition of insanity. Over and over, they go round and round. If UNLV wants to scrape itself off the pit from which it resides, it’s going to take a united front. What does that mean? It means that everyone from the president to the AD, to the coach, all the way down to the team manager who cleans the team socks, everyone involved has to have the same vision. They all have to want the same exact thing for UNLV Football.

To me, that means no more experimenting. No more being cute with the new hire. It can’t be the hotshot FCS coach, the up-and-coming coordinator, or the high school coach from the loaded high school program. UNLV Football has tried every variation of that same old same old, and the results have been cellar-dwelling, historic losing. No, what UNLV needs to do now is continue what they have been doing, investing. But don’t stop at Boise State-level spending. That won’t cut it for UNLV Football. Boise is tried and true. They don’t have anything to prove. They can spend what they spend and keep on trucking. UNLV on the other hand needs a proven FBS coach to come in and right their ship. And only proven FBS style spending can bring in that kind of coach.

I hear the bellyaching and the naysaying already as people read that last sentence. “No proven coach would ever come here.” It’s not a bad argument. It’s just not an entirely thought-out one. You’re thinking in terms of UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium. You’re thinking in terms of the locker rooms that were like dog kennels. The stadium with the unpaved parking and the smells of excrement in the stands. You’re thinking of the UNLV before Allegiant Stadium and before the $35 million football complex. No coach would ever come to the UNLV that existed at Sam Boyd. There’s not enough money in the world to coax someone into that. A very well-paid coach on the other hand will come coach at Allegiant Stadium and the Fertitta Complex.

My proposal is this. Get your president and AD on board to find 5 years, $15 million for a Clay Helton type. Helton could never live up to the unrealistic expectations at USC. I’m not even sure Pete Carroll could go back and live up to them. But Helton won the Pac-12 South three different times at USC. He won a Rose Bowl while he was there. He went 36-13 in conference games while he was at it. If anyone won the MWC West three times at UNLV, won a bowl game, and won 73% of their conference games, they’d get a statue in Las Vegas. At USC, he’s chopped liver.

That’s the only kind of coach that can get UNLV going. If they keep up with the Hauck’s, the Sanchez’s, and the Arroyo’s of the world, you might as well just put the program out of its misery. Drop it to FCS or whack it mob-style and bury it for dead in the desert outside Sam Boyd. But UNLV has invested too much for that. So, instead, invest a little more and do it right. For once.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion: UNLV Football at a Place Lower than Rock Bottom”

  1. Daniel J Tarkanian

    What a ridiculously misleading article. Harvey Hyde won big at UNLV with great stars, many of them but two of greatest, Icky Woods and Randall Cunningham. The record you state was because the NCAA ruled a inconsequential player was ineligible. The true wins and losses on the field was tremendous. If you really wanted to be fair you should have at least mention the record
    was a result of forfeitures

  2. I completely agree with Danny (Hyde’s RB was Kirk Jones, Woods ran for Nunnely), but this team, this year is far better-far better-than last year…they have some fight, grit and moxie, especially on D that hasnt seen in years. The only fair crticism for Arroyo has been at QB…Brumfield and Friel should have been the 1-2 since July-from what we see now-and he missed that, but lots can happen in four months time with college kids. Emphasis on kids.

    Also what is the point of this article? You give Arroyo the short hook and what message do you send to recuits and future coaches? As you correctly say they, literally, cant afford to fire him and his two classes still have four years of playing eligibility left. So why fire him? A couple more years to see what he can build is not only fair, there is no other choice. More importantly, the futility of the program is well documented, so a couple more years trying to build cant hurt…other than seeing more articles like this.

    PS: If UNLV wins three or more games this year, do you take this one back???

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