Wednesday, Dec. 10, 1997 | 1:07 a.m.
LET'S ASSUME the position is more than honorary and she got it via her credentials and not by hobnobbing with those empowered in the decision-making process.
Let's assume Karen Dennis deserves to be named coach of the U.S. women's national track and field team that will compete in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Now let's assume Dennis will utilize her newfound stature to lure upper-echelon recruits and improve the UNLV women's track team, which she has coached the past six years.
UNLV track team? What, you didn't know UNLV had a track team?
In a stunning announcement last week, Dennis was named head coach of the U.S. team despite the fact her accomplishments at UNLV are suspect. This meets the definition of raining on her parade but her UNLV team, you see, competes in a publicity vacuum that is at least partially her own fault.
Despite being prodded to pick up the phone and occasionally sing the praises of the young women who comprise her roster, Dennis has never followed through. Truth be told, she has spent six largely silent years in Las Vegas.
That's one reason her appointment by USA Track & Field was so unexpected. Most people in Las Vegas, even most sports-minded people, have little or no knowledge of a UNLV track team -- let alone the knowledge that the team's coach has Olympic-caliber qualities.
Dennis, who happens to be a very nice person, simply is not into promoting her team. Maybe she doesn't feel it's her responsibility, although her predecessor -- Al McDaniel -- took the opposite approach and it seemed to work for everyone involved. His input led to the occasional story about the deserving, if unsung, women he was coaching.
But that was back in the days when UNLV was proud of its women's athletic programs, not that anyone associated with the school will publicly admit they're not proud today. Yet here is the grim reality: Dennis shuns the media and therefore her team's exploits, if there are any, are completely overlooked; women's basketball under second-year coach LaDonna McClain is stuck at rock bottom; and women's volleyball under second-year coach Deitre Collins not only has continuing growing pains, it may be going nowhere and it certainly pales in comparison to the accomplishments of some other equally youthful programs in the country.
Conditions with the other UNLV women's programs aren't quite as downtrodden, although the softball team is unable to find a donor to build a new field and the swimming team -- like its male counterpart -- is badly in need of a new pool. Only women's tennis seems above the carnage.
The most basic of questions is who cares? Fact is, the school and its athletic department appears to be perfectly content to coast along, get what money it can out of men's basketball, hope that football doesn't break the bank, let the minor sports have their occasional moments of glory, and ask no more from its primary women's teams than to show up and play when scheduled.
It's show up and play and lose when it comes to basketball and volleyball.
McClain's team is 0-6, is losing to teams like Youngstown State and Middle Tennessee State and doesn't figure to improve too much on last season's appalling 4-23 record. The days of being a yearly contender for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament seem long past, while, in truth, the Lady Rebels qualified for postseason play as recently as 1994.
As for volleyball, it's easy to cut the program some slack in that it only has two seasons under its belt, yet UNLV won only two Western Athletic Conference matches this past season. Compare that to the situation at Arkansas, which has had a volleyball program for four years and has produced four Southeastern Conference Western Division championships and two NCAA postseason appearances.
The affected coaches at UNLV could counter by saying their programs are underfunded and, if honesty prevailed, perhaps glued to a treadmill that will continue to keep them something less than competitive and certainly far less than solvent. They may rightfully feel they're in exasperating situations, serving as little more than caretakers for young women the school needs for gender-equity reasons and little else.
They could say within the current environment it's hopeless, futile.
Such an admission, however, isn't apt to be forthcoming.
Besides, this can't possibly be the right time to complain about UNLV slighting its women's programs or the coaches' own failures to produce, what with one of their own selected to handle a U.S. Olympic team.