UNLV: A victory worth shedding tears over

UNLV coach straddles the line between stoic coachspeak and demonstrative emotion after the biggest win of his life

Rebels Upset Sun Devils

UNLV upset Arizona State 23-20 in overtime Saturday night. Watch players and coaches react to the win. Get more of the UNLV-ASU game here.

UNLV upsets Arizona State

UNLV defensive back Daryl Forte (8) tackles Arizona State running back Dimitri Nance (31) in the first quarter. Launch slideshow »

Next game

  • Opponent: Iowa State
  • Date: Sept. 20, 6 p.m.
  • Where: Sam Boyd Stadium
  • Where: Las Vegas

Tom Hanks says there is no crying in baseball.

But there is crying in football. Mike Sanford showed us that Saturday night.

Malo Taumua — learn it, know it, live it, Rebels fans — still was running around Sun Devil Stadium, showing everybody what a souvenir of a game-winning blocked kick looks like on the underside of one’s forearm, when the sideline reporter with the blond hair and the blue eyes thrust a microphone into Sanford’s face.

The UNLV coach was so inspired by the Rebels’ shocking 23-20 overtime victory against No. 15 Arizona State that his voice began to crack. I thought he was going to lose it on regional TV, or whatever you call Fox Sports Az.

But there would be no losing it, not on this night — not on this day, perhaps the best ever in the 10-year history of the Mountain West Conference against its Pac-10 big brother. TCU beats Stanford, New Mexico beats Arizona, BYU beats UCLA 59-0 — and it wasn’t that close. UNLV beats nationally ranked Arizona State. No offense to Hurricane Ike and swordfish boat captains in the movies, but this was the “The Perfect Storm.”

Like his team in the fourth quarter and in overtime, Sanford held it together. Then he started to talk like a coach again. Sure, it was a big win, he said, but the Rebels had a big win last year, too, 27-zip against Utah, and they didn’t build on it. Etc., etc., etc. We gotta keep playing hard, with intensity, with our motor running, until the whistle blows. We gotta play ’em one at a time, too, beginning with Iowa State next week.

I liked it better when he was crying — or at least almost crying.

Actually, it was the perfect response on a near-perfect evening. Show ’em it was special, but that there are more where that one came from.

Sanford had to feel like Terrell Owens after scoring a touchdown. Nobody would have blamed him had he taken out a cell phone and called his many critics to ask, with all due respect to Jack Buck, do they get Fox Sports Az. on the dish and, if so, did they believe what they just saw? Instead, he did a Barry Sanders. He just flipped the ball to the referee — or at least said all the right things to the sideline reporter with the blond hair and the blue eyes.

He acted like coaches (but apparently not Washington’s Ty Willingham) tell their players to act upon scoring a touchdown. Like you’ve been there before.

And the Rebels, strange as it sounds, have been there before, most recently when they beat No. 14 Wisconsin 23-5 five years ago. I don’t remember John Robinson being in tears after that one, though. (Jim Sorgi, the Wisconsin quarterback on that rainy day in Madison, perhaps.) Maybe that’s why this one seemed different.

Winning at Wisconsin, though huge, was hardly Robinson’s first rodeo. But this was the first time in Sanford’s tenure as head coach he stayed on the bull for all eight seconds. Maybe that’s why he was choking back tears, which sure beats choking, period. Ask Dennis Erickson, who called ASU’s loss “sickening” in the papers Sunday morning.

Because there is crying, or almost crying, in football, there is no longer a “sense of urgency” where Sanford’s job status is concerned. Somebody in one of the Arizona Republic chat rooms suggested he should replace Erickson as coach of the Sun Devils, which only proves what a difference a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch by a true freshman and a blocked field goal in overtime by a true Taumua can make. Others called for Frank Kush to make a comeback. “Why is slapping a punter such a bad thing?” one of the chatters wanted to know.

Because there is crying, or almost crying, in football, Mike Hamrick, the UNLV athletic director who has been chastised and ridiculed almost as much as the football coach he hired, can say “I told you so.” Despite four consecutive two-win seasons (only three of which were Sanford’s) Hamrick kept reminding everybody the Rebels were just a one-handed TD catch and a blocked field goal in overtime away from becoming Wake Forest. Now, the Rebels have another two-win season — which isn’t bad, after three weeks.

Because there is crying, or almost crying, in football, a moratorium also can be declared on shutting down the program. Although extreme, that idea had crept into the conversation around the water cooler in the chancellor’s office, because when there’s no money coming in from Carson City, extreme ideas are sometimes called for when you still want to have an English department.

Maybe Jim Rogers’ next memo will be to Sanford instead of to Gov. Jim Gibbons, congratulating his football coach on an outstanding effort in Tempe. Rogers is on record saying Sanford isn’t the problem with the program, but who among the naysayers believes he could be the solution?

Well, a lot more today than on Saturday morning, that’s for sure.

The reason you have a football program is because at most schools, it pays the bills. The potential still exists for that to happen here. If Phillip Payne of Western High School continues to make one-handed catches in the end zone, it might even happen before the Wishbone comes back in vogue.

The second reason you have a football program is nights like Saturday.

For once, marking off the days on the calendar until the start of basketball season didn’t seem so important.

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  1. He wept.

  2. I will be making the trip from reno for Iowa State this weekend. I hope the silver bowl is packed!

  3. We don't always see eye to eye but that was one of your better articles Ron.

    Rebinreno, you're a good dude......but it's Sam Boyd Stadium. Hope to see you there homey!

    FastCamron,
    AKA RebCam

  4. Fast:

    That's OK if you don't agree, just as long as you are reading. :-)

    Hey, if everybody agreed with everybody else all the time, the world would be a boring place. And Julia Roberts would still be married to Lyle Lovett.

    Thanks for the note. Anybody who wasn't impressed with UNLV's effort Saturday night must have made the bad decision to watch Auburn vs. Mississippi State instead.