Some days, when UNLV football coach Barry Odom is caught up in meetings or practices, it’s easy to forget that the famed Las Vegas Strip sits less than three miles from campus. But that’s not the case when he takes recruits around during official visits.
“You’re sitting, eating lunch, and every 30 minutes the Bellagio fountains go off,” Odom said. “You can only experience that in one place in the world.”
Glitz and glamour have always been part of the pitch to play at UNLV. Now, there’s the added draw of joining in on a citywide sports renaissance. Las Vegas now boasts an NFL team, an NHL team (the Golden Knights won their first Stanley Cup earlier this month), a WNBA team and likely an MLB team — all of which have arrived within the past six years. The city hosted both the Pro Bowl and the regional round of the men’s NCAA Tournament earlier this year, and it will host the Super Bowl in 2024 and its first Final Four in 2028. It hosts the NBA Summer League’s main event and might add an NBA team in the future, as well.
“We’re sitting here in arguably the sports capital of the world,” UNLV athletic director Erick Harper said.
Yet UNLV has played in just one bowl game in the past 20 years: the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl. The last time it tallied eight or more wins in a single season? 2000. The Rebels have not had a head coach who finished his tenure with a record better than .500 since Tony Knap, who coached from 1976 to ‘81. (Knap’s successor Harvey Hyde went 26-19-1 over the next four seasons, but the Big West Conference ordered UNLV to forfeit 18 wins from 1983 and ’84 due to the use of academically ineligible players. The victories remain in UNLV record books.)
The current energy around Vegas as a sports town is one of the reasons Harper is bullish about his department, and it helped draw Odom to this job. After years of futility left UNLV in the doldrums, the environment around the football program feels different than it has for decades. What will it take for the Rebels to capitalize?
“You want to be able to have long-standing success to build an actual program,” Odom said. “I don’t know why UNLV’s been to one bowl game in 22 years. I don’t know. I think there’s opportunity here to build a program that can compete for championships and can sustain it.”