December 3, 1998. That was the last time UNLV’s football program made a move this bold, when it tapped former USC and LA Rams man John Robinson to coach the team. Not to say Bishop Gorman’s Tony Sanchez, whose only coaching experience above the high school level came as a New Mexico State undergraduate assistant 18 years ago, is in anywhere near the same league as Robinson, who won four Rose Bowls and 79 NFL games before arriving in Las Vegas. But in terms of pure energy, the Rebels’ hire has locals talking, in a way they haven’t since J.R. left town 10 years ago.
Will Sanchez succeed? He inherits a team that went 2-11 this season, and lost those 11 games by a combined score of 461-242. To make matters worse, UNLV’s 2015 nonconference foes include UCLA and Michigan, brutal non-league tests for a squad that won just one game within its own Mountain West Conference this year. But anyone looking for quick results is missing the point of Sanchez’s hire. He’s onboard to create some much-needed buzz for a program that’s had almost none for the past decade.
Yes, a big chunk of the story so far has focused on possible contributions from rich Gorman boosters who wanted their man for the job. But whether or not those donations come through and improve the Rebels’ facilities, to the point where next-level recruits consider spending their college years in Vegas, the school has already succeeded in galvanizing the Valley in a way Mike Sanford and Bobby Hauck never could. Everyone wants to see if the guy who went 85-5 and won six straight state titles at Gorman can rub that same magic on UNLV.
Odds are he can’t. Jumping from high school to Division I—and straight to head coach, no less—is no easy move, anyone will tell you. But what do the Rebels really have to lose? Worst case, they lose every game next year—would that really be a tragedy after a 10-year span that’s seen them average less than three wins? If nothing else, Sanchez is almost certain to pull more players from Gorman, a school deep with college-level talent. And the fact that we’re even talking about this, that UNLV football has captured the Vegas dialogue for more than the despondency of its results, says everything about its choice, whether or not it translates to measurable success between the lines.