Friday, Dec. 27, 2013 | 2 a.m.
When the captains for the UNLV and North Texas football teams meet at midfield on New Year’s Day for the Heart of Dallas Bowl, they will shake hands and await the result of the coin toss that starts off every football game. When they get there, the Rebels will see a familiar face while the Mean Green see one they’ll know shortly — current UNLV President Neal Smatresk said he’s going to do the ceremonial coin toss.
That thumb flick will be a sort of passing of the torch as Smatresk prepares to leave UNLV to take the same position at North Texas on Feb. 3. In the meantime, he finds himself in an incredibly unique situation as he prepares to watch his current and future teams meet in a bowl game that means a lot to both programs.
“Two football teams and one president,” said UNLV Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy.
While that’s not entirely true — retiring North Texas President V. Lane Rawlins will be in his position until Smatresk takes over — it’s certainly an interesting situation. No one has been able to find a similar example, where a university leader was able to watch his two athletic programs play each other in the middle of his transition from one institution to the other.
Smatresk, who has said he’s taking the job to be closer to his family, was named the lone finalist for North Texas at the end of November. In the week leading up to the bowl announcement, when projections changed seemingly every hour and ADs were busy calling in favors, Smatresk was one of many following every ebb and flow.
“I was totally following it every minute,” he said. “I’m a fan. I’m in it.”
About three or four days before the announcement on Dec. 8, Kunzer-Murphy told Smatresk that it was possible UNLV and North Texas could end up meeting. That was when ESPN Regional Television, which owns and operates many bowl games, started looking at moving a Mountain West team out of the Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas, and over to the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
The network made the move because it was looking to get Middle Tennessee State into a game, and it couldn’t play North Texas because they’re both in Conference USA. Since UNLV was in danger of getting left out of a bowl altogether — that hammer ended up falling on San Jose State — Kunzer-Murphy knew she was going to accept whatever offer came her way.
When all the deals eventually got worked out, Smatresk found out his worlds would collide in Dallas.
“While I probably would have preferred going to two bowl games instead of one, I think this is going to be fun,” he said.
Smatresk and Rawlins have a bet on the game. If UNLV wins, Rawlins will wear a big, fluffy Hey Reb mustache around for a day. And if North Texas wins, Smatresk will wear a Mean Green eagle hat.
“I think barbecue will be involved, too,” Smatresk said.
The wager hardly seems fair, though, when you consider that Smatresk could just hang on to that hat and put it in his new office.
Although the schools don’t have much of a history — the Rebels lead the all-time series 4-0 — Smatresk said he could see this game and his connections to both programs being the catalyst for a home-and-home series in the near future.
“From my perspective, there’s a good rivalry that’s shaping up,” Smatresk said.
If that happens, Smatresk would get a lot of credit for setting it up. Before he can ever get to that point, though, Smatresk has to get through this transition period and the bowl game linking his past to his future.
“We’ll see what color shirt he’s wearing,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck jokingly said.
When he walks out for the coin toss, Smatresk said, the plan is for him to wear a green and red striped tie. It’s a simple way of displaying an allegiance to both sides as he prepares for the move.
As soon as Smatresk walks off the field, the game will start and, being a fan, Smatresk is going to have to pick a side. And although his closet will soon be full of green, there’s only one color he’s considering.
“I’ll give the coin toss a shot,” he said, “but then I’ll take that tie off and I’m going to wear Rebel red.”