Star-Bulletin Sports

Monday, April 19, 1999

C O L L E G E _ F O O T B A L L

By Steve Spatafore, Special to the Star-Bulletin
John Robinson may be the "name coach"
to turn UNLV around.


John Robinson and some
generous spending may take
UNLV football to
the next level

By Paul Arnett


He is the coach of a program that had a head-on collision with rock bottom.

He is charged with turning around a football team that didn't win a game last season.

He was once a head coach in the National Football League, but decided being the big man on campus was the life for him.

He and his wife love Hawaii. So much so, they plan on spending their golden years gazing at golden sunsets off Maui.

He helped popularize a style of offense that became the staple of his playbook.

He was given the keys to a city that opened doors locked long ago.

He is an established commodity that doesn't mind getting his hands dirty.

He believes he can beat the odds, house rules be damned.

He could be Hawaii head coach June Jones. But he is not.

Instead, he is John Robinson at Nevada-Las Vegas, who would have come to UH for an interview, if the Rebels hadn't placed a call to his home first.

'He is a name-brand coach
that people identify as a winner.
But It's not enough just to hire the coach.
You've got to make a commitment at
every level. These days, you have to
spend money to make money.'

Charlie Cavagnaro


"Hawaii contacted me, but I was already committed to this job here," Robinson said in an interview with the Star-Bulletin. "My wife and I love Hawaii. We will probably retire there some day. If I called her right now on the phone and told her we were moving to Hawaii. She would say, "Great, when do we leave?' "

Not that the 63-year-old Robinson plans on packing his bags anytime soon. The man - who won a national championship at USC in 1978 and took the Los Angeles Rams to the NFC title games in 1985 and 1989 - has a master plan.

A year ago, he interviewed Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder as part of a Playboy All-American show in Arizona. Little did he know, Snyder's answers would play a part in Robinson's efforts to snap the nation's second-longest losing streak at 16 games.

"Do you believe in miracles?" Robinson asked, a twinkle in his eyes. "We do here, or I wouldn't have taken this job. We're in it for the long haul because you can't turn around a program overnight."

Of course, Robinson will try. He already has seen a commitment from UNLV athletic department officials, helpful fund-raisers, wealthy boosters with deep pockets and city officials longing for a competitive football team.

Old Sam Boyd Stadium is in the midst of an $18 million face-lift. It was needed. This dusty bowl along Boulder Highway has been one of the worst among Division I schools.

Another $10 million was spent on a state-of-the-art athletic complex that Robinson feels is the best in the West. Apparently, so did many of this year's high school and junior college prospects. Despite starting in December, recruiting went well for Robinson, who even now is wooing former USC quarterback Jason Thomas.

The Prep Football Report magazine, run by well-respected analyst Tom Lemming, rated UNLV's class the best in the Mountain West. Robinson not only did well in Southern California, he also landed recruits from as far away as Mississippi.

"Timing is everything in this business," Robinson said. "I came here when everybody was sick and tired of losing. They were ready to do what was necessary to put UNLV on the map in football.

"This is a great city. People from all over the country want to come here. We've upgraded our facilities, our practice fields are as good as anyone's and we're turning Sam Boyd Stadium into a place that will attract big-time football programs."'

Robinson also believes that the Mountain West is a big-time conference in the making. BYU, Air Force, Colorado State, Utah, Wyoming and New Mexico have had highly successful football teams this decade. Robinson is ready to add UNLV to that list.

"He is just what we were looking for," UNLV athletic director Charlie Cavagnaro said. "He is a name-brand coach that people identify as a winner. But it's not enough just to hire the coach. You've got to make a commitment at every level. These days, you have to spend money to make money."

Former Hawaii assistant coach Don Lindsey, who was the Trojans' defensive coordinator that national championship season, took a similar approach to Robinson's. He studied Snyder's plan at Kansas State, put together a proposal for UH athletic director Hugh Yoshida and never heard another word about it.

"I think Hugh put my proposal in the trash can," Lindsey said. "Right on top of Fred's (vonAppen) 30-point plan. They just don't get it here."

That may be changing, however slowly. Hawaii was willing to spend $2 million on Jones over five years. The Rainbows also have built a respectable weight room, a modern locker room, and promise to redo the grass practice fields.

The $3.5 million academic complex located in the Stan Sheriff Center has come to a grinding halt due to contract problems. And there is much more to be done in other phases as well. Fund-raising is one area where UNLV excels. And like Jones, Robinson isn't afraid to lend a hand. His just-completed golf tournament helped raise $120,000.

"You're about to see some big changes in college football," Robinson said. "And if you're not willing to do what it takes to run with the big Division I programs, you're going to be left behind.

"What I got from Coach Snyder is this: They decided what it would take to make it work and never deviated from the plan. There are many steps in becoming a Top 25 program. We've only taken the first few."

Perhaps a few more than UH, a program comparable to UNLV's. It will be interesting to see which team turns the corner first. What's unfortunate is the earliest date these two teams could meet is 2005.

"I can't see any reason why we shouldn't be playing each other every year," Robinson said. "Maybe, we can get together and hammer out a deal. Obviously, we have a lot in common, and it makes good sense for Hawaii and us to play as often as we can."

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