A fresh attack: Cosmetic changes could only be the start of Coach Tony Sanchez’s new Rebel era

Photograph by Nick Coletsos. Filmed/photographed with permission at the Neon Museum, Las Vegas, Nevada.
Adam Candee

Tony Sanchez watched UNLV’s final 2014 home game from the stands at Sam Boyd Stadium in possession of the town’s worst-kept secret: The Rebels wanted him to leave his safe home to scramble up the sheer face of the state’s highest football mountain.

Don’t ask who won that night. In fact, let’s toss all we know onto the table: UNLV loses in football, you don’t go to the games, and Sanchez is just the fourth head coach to jump straight to the college game from high school.

The aggressive rebranding of UNLV’s downtrodden football program began in Sanchez’s head that autumn evening, two weeks before his official introduction as head coach. Sanchez envisioned a marketing strategy to sell Vegas flash: countless revamped uniform combinations, tricked-out turf and a beefed-up social-media presence.

“We’re sitting in the stands and that’s all [I’m] thinking about—a real opportunity to be in charge of this, here,” Sanchez says. “It’s kind of a surreal experience.”

No new UNLV football coach inherits the luxury of selling tradition or success. The Rebels own just two winning seasons since 1995. Neither Sanchez nor his bosses expect many victories this year, either, with a brutal schedule looming that features UCLA and Michigan. So while they pray recruits love the inviting hype of “The New Era” marketing, they also want fans and students to get excited without much hope for improvement right now. It’s risky but necessary.

2015 UNLV Football Media Day

“In order to communicate to the public that something is a big deal, you have to treat it like a big deal,” says Randy Walker of New Chapter Media, a New York City-based sports marketing company. “So the rebranding, the new uniforms and the new attitude reflect that and can be effective.”

The man in charge of marketing for UNLV athletics simply wants the football team to eliminate the apathy that drowns it in Southern Nevada. “In order for our football program to be successful, it first has to be relevant,” says Darryl Seibel, the university’s deputy director of athletics for external relations. “Because we have gone through a period of, at best, intermittent success, we have lost a great degree of relevance.”

Relevance proved no challenge for Sanchez at Bishop Gorman High School. Hours before that November UNLV game, Sanchez’s Gaels won by 50 points en route to their sixth consecutive state championship. Marketing helped transform Gorman into a national powerhouse, as Sanchez oversaw the production of glitzy hype videos and slick websites that attracted elite players and media attention. Sanchez borrowed liberally from that experience to shape his pitch to UNLV.

“From the design of the uniforms, to the new field, to our ‘New Era’—that was all stuff that I came in with into that interview,” Sanchez says. “This is how we’re going to market the entire thing. It’s something that was thought out well before. In my time at Gorman, I was exposed to a lot of high-level marketing.”

The philanthropic might of Gorman’s donors creates unending access to the top shelf of everything. Sanchez didn’t need the marketing expertise of friends like UFC leaders Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White to sell the high school’s new 41,000-square-foot training center that instantly became the envy of UNLV and many other college programs.

UNLV football offers few such advantages to help Sanchez entice recruits. Short on recognized talent, the Rebels are predicted to finish last in the Mountain West Conference’s West Division. Their facilities need an infusion of cash. They play in a stadium flung far into the desert east of the city, contributing to a 2014 average home attendance—15,674 per game—that ranked 112th among 125 teams at the FBS level. The Runnin’ Rebel basketball squad averaged 11,757 fans per home game last year, barely missing the national top 30.

“We’ve been known for Runnin’ Rebel basketball, but football is a big animal,” UNLV Athletics Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy says. “We needed to be in the game. We weren’t relevant in Las Vegas.”

2015 UNLV Football First Regular Practice

Make no mistake, though, Sanchez will sell whatever is within reach, a necessity with UNLV short-staffed in its marketing department. “It’s funny—on one hand, you hear people say, if you want us to support you, you’ve got to win first,” Sanchez says. “And you go, well, maybe so, but if I’m going to open a restaurant and I find a great location, I don’t just open the door and start cooking. I’ve got to invest.

“We’ve got to make this place look pretty cool so people really want to be a part of it. And then we’ve got to do our job on the field.”

The energetic 41-year-old Sanchez emphatically reversed former coach Bobby Hauck’s social-media blackout, reopening a vital line of communication to recruits through his active Twitter account. Sanchez spent dozens of hours courting Little Leagues and Rotary clubs, glad-handing with donors and entertaining national media fascinated by his move.

Inside the program’s walls, Sanchez coated fresh paint in the most kid-relatable way he knew. To grasp the importance of new uniforms and helmets, spend a few minutes with UNLV quarterback Blake Decker as he pulls out his iPhone and scrolls through photo after photo of the “sick” threads.

“It’s a sense of belonging to college football,” Decker says. “It’s revolutionizing, and it’s moving forward. I think Coach Sanchez just epitomizes that. You saw the swag he had at Bishop Gorman. I think they had, what, 90,000 different uniform combinations? It’s fun.”

Yet even the young quarterback understands that fun goes nowhere without an improved product. “It’s not just getting the uniforms or getting people behind us,” Decker says. “That takes you to a certain extent, but ultimately you have to win games. You can’t have a community back you and have a two-win season year in and year out.”

Sanchez, too, recognizes he can’t rebuild the preseason hype if his team falls flat. “You get one shot at it,” Sanchez says. “We could say, oh, well, we’re going to gradually get better, we’re going to work toward success. Ahhh, to hell with that—here you go, here’s the chips.

“The hype, the uniforms are great and all that, but are you winning football games?”

UNLV Football at Northern Illinois September 5, 4:30 p.m. TV: CBS Sports Network; radio: ESPN 1100 AM. Betting line: UNLV +22.5.

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