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UNLV BASKETBALL:

Findlay a man of few words with a large footprint

Namesake of auto empire, prep school devotes energy to charities, UNLV

Image

Justin M. Bowen

Cliff Findlay watches a recent UNLV game at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Findlay Prep House Life

Players on the nationally ranked Findlay College Prep Basketball team adjust to living together in one house.

Sun coverage

In a rare display of emotion, Cliff Findlay reads a letter over the phone from his office.

A guardian of one of the basketball players on the prep team that bears his name wrote to tell him how playing on Findlay College Prep has turned the kid’s life around.

He has learned discipline. He has learned structure. He has learned how to operate within concrete rules and ramifications that had never been a part of his life.

It was rare because Findlay is allergic to talking about himself.

For about 13 months, he turned down more than three dozen interview requests. Off to the Super Bowl with Cadillac. Sorry, heading to the Final Four. Gonna be in Africa. Nope, goin’ to China for the Olympics.

After agreeing to a Monday morning chat in his office, he canceled. A meeting with Congresswoman Shelley Berkley, on the state of the auto industry, was going to turn into a marathon.

Findlay Prep coach Mike Peck, whom Findlay calls “the John Wooden of Las Vegas,” once talked with Findlay on his cell. Sounded like he was in the next room. Cliff was in the Czech Republic.

How can a 6-foot-8 man who tips the scales at 290 pounds, who heads a sprawling automobile empire, devotes considerable energy to various charities and is one of UNLV’s most prominent boosters, remain in the shadows?

“If he could sneak in and not be seen, with no attention, that’s how he’d prefer it 10 out of 10 times,” Peck said. “He’s a prominent man, very visible. With all that he does, it’s hard for him to dodge it sometimes.

“But he’s a simple guy.”

Rebels athletic director Mike Hamrick, who sits across the aisle from Findlay at UNLV basketball games at the Thomas & Mack Center, believes Findlay should not be overlooked.

“I can’t say enough about him,” Hamrick said. “He’s very humble. Some of the things I say might embarrass him, but I don’t care. He needs to be recognized. I have lunch once a week with Cliff.

“And I always make him buy.”

The chief pilot

Pete Findlay, Cliff’s father, flew 63 missions in P-38s in the Second World War. That’s how Findlay Prep got its nickname.

The Pilots.

Cliff Findlay, 60, is fifth-generation Nevada. His grandfather owned farms and ranches. An uncle shoveled iron ore in the sticks of the Battleground State.

Pete bought a gas station. Turned the garage into a repair shop. Turned the repair shop into a used car lot. Pete’s Used Cars was born, in 1957, on Boulder Highway.

That simple shop has blossomed into two dozen dealerships in four states. Cliff’s three sons work for the auto empire.

Cancer claimed Pete Findlay, at 86, in October 2005.

Hamrick went on four-day turkey hunting excursions in Wyoming with Pete and Cliff Findlay.

“He was real quiet and unassuming,” Hamrick said of Pete. “When he spoke, it was like E.F. Hutton. People listened. A class guy and a good man.”

A visionary, Cliff told the Sun after his father died. A man of gentleness and compassion, of great honesty and integrity.

No doubt the memory of his late parents are strong when Cliff watches his prep team play.

“He’s always excited when he’s here,” said Henderson International School athletic director Michael Ostrowski. “In the stands, he’s gleaming. He has a glow on his face.

“I don’t think he wants credit for it. I’ve never heard him once say to someone who doesn’t know him that ‘I’m Cliff Findlay, the guy who sponsors this team.’ ”

The American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and Safe Nest are some of Findlay’s wide array of charitable endeavors.

“I hope people appreciate what they do. I know people who are the benefactors of their contributions certainly do,” said fifth-year UNLV coach Lon Kruger. “The climate there is service, helping others. That’s at the heart of their corporate model.”

Nationally ranked

A main reason why Ostrowski moved from Florida to run Henderson International’s sports programs was because of Findlay College Prep’s affiliation with the school.

“It’s a huge promotional tool for this school,” he said.

Henderson is a private institution whose annual tuition is about $16,000. Findlay started his 10-player prep team three years ago.

The Pilots attend the same classes as Henderson’s students and are held to the same rigid academic standards. Any missed class or assignment, or other slip-up, earns players a one-game suspension.

Findlay and Henderson share the same court, for practice and games. The Wolverines who attend Pilots games are huge fans of the future Division-I standouts.

Most of the Pilots live in a large two-story stucco home, supervised by assistant coach Todd Simon and his wife Kati, who live in the house, on Bull Lake Drive, a short walk up a hill from Henderson International.

Through one of Findlay’s foundations, his five-year commitment to the basketball program could run about $3 million.

Because Peck and Simon quit taking post-graduate, or fifth-year, players after last season, Findlay became eligible to be ranked in USA Today’s prestigious national Super 25 poll.

That has enabled Findlay to enrich its sponsorship deal with Nike, inching it closer to being completely self-sufficient.

The Pilots, who ran their record to 25-0 on Wednesday night, have been ranked No. 2 most of this season.

Peck is 57-1 in his two seasons coaching the squad, thus Findlay’s comparison to Wooden, the legendary UCLA coach who won 10 national championships.

That first title has eluded Peck. Findlay was 32-0 when it lost to Hargrave Military Academy in last season’s National Prep Championship title game in the Bronx, N.Y.

Findlay rented a stretch Hummer limousine to get the Pilots around New York.

This season, the Pilots are led by Texas-bound Avery Bradley and Illinois commitment D.J. Richardson. They are on track for a top seed in a national high school tournament in Bethesda, Md., in early April.

“He’s really behind the scenes,” Peck said of Findlay. “He doesn’t want or need much attention. It’s not about him, he’ll say, it’s about the kids, something bigger than all of us.”

Ed O’Bannon, who led UCLA to a national championship in 1995, is one of the many former athletes – like the late pitcher Bo Belinsky – that Findlay has employed.

“He can’t run his empire by himself,” said O’Bannon, a Findlay Toyota marketing director. “He has all the right people in the right positions. It’s fun to work for him. He takes care of his people. Everyone has an opportunity to learn the business and to learn how to be successful.”

The rebounding Rebel

In 1968-69, Findlay led the Rebels with 317 rebounds. A season later, he yanked down a team-high 282 boards.

On Jan. 20, 1968, Houston and super center Elvin Hayes ended UCLA’s 47-game winning streak in a 71-69 victory before an Astrodome crowd of 52,693 in the first nationally televised college game.

Hayes had 39 points and 15 rebounds against Lew Alcindor, who became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Two weeks later, UNLV played at Houston and lost, 118-97. Findlay, who played at 235 pounds, guarded Hayes.

“That was not good,” Findlay said Wednesday. “He was a little hard to guard. I’ve still got the game film but I haven’t watched it.”

At a recent NCAA tournament game, an older friend of Findlay’s told Hamrick, in front of Findlay, that it always looked like Cliff had two left feet out on the court.

“But he sure could rebound,” Findlay’s friend said. Findlay laughed.

On occasion, Findlay slips into the UNLV locker room at halftime of games. At intermission last week against San Diego State, he moved from his spot across the aisle from Hamrick to a much choicer one.

Behind the Rebels’ bench.

During practices, Findlay strolls onto the court and exchanges small talk with Kruger assistants. Before tip-off against BYU a few weeks ago in Provo, Utah, he slapped the shoulder of a writer with his huge right paw.

He meets with Peck wearing shorts and flip-flops. They’ll have a Coke or a coffee.

“A man with his prominence in his business, you would think that’s a guy you’d be nervous to be around,” Peck said. “But he’s so easy to engage. He’s like one of the guys. That’s what makes him special.”

At the NCAAs in Chicago two years ago, Findlay walked into the United Center before UNLV’s second-round game against Wisconsin wearing a red Findlay Toyota T-shirt.

“You know, one of those ‘Cheer Loud, Come Early, Wear Red’ things,” Hamrick said. “There must be 5,000 of them, a three-dollar, 50-cent thing. I have never let him live that down.

“He’s a big kid at heart, with a heart of gold. He’s well respected in the community. I know. I can tell.”

Path to Division I

In one of Findlay’s private planes, he and Hamrick flew to Phoenix to talk with Kruger about UNLV’s vacant coaching position in 2004.

Findlay and Hamrick had lunch with Kruger and his wife Barb. After an hour, Findlay poked Hamrick in his ribs. I’ve got to go to the restroom, Hamrick remembers Findlay telling him. Go ahead, Hamrick nodded.

“No,” Findlay said, “WE have to go to the restroom.”

In the lavatory, Findlay was clear. We’ve GOT to hire this guy.

“I said, ‘Cliff, we’ve been here one hour?’ ” Hamrick said. “He said, ‘I know, but we have to hire this guy.’ He was sold on Lon within the first hour.”

Findlay’s strong ties to UNLV are why he wants to stay in the background of Findlay College Prep.

Former Findlay center Brice Massamba is at UNLV. Current Pilots big man Carlos Lopez will be a Rebel next fall.

High-flying Findlay senior forward Victor Rudd has UNLV atop a list of about 15 schools. Junior power forward Godwin Okonji told the Sun he wants to be a Rebel.

Peck and Simon have both served on Kruger’s staff at UNLV.

“I’m close to those guys,” Peck said. “Anybody in America will tell you that they have an advantage. Absolutely. But in any one year, there aren’t that many available and they won’t have many openings.”

Geographically, sure, Peck said, UNLV has an edge at Findlay the way Kentucky is a step ahead of others with Lexington Catholic High.

“There will be people who have negative views for whatever reasons. They’re entitled to that,” Peck said. “We might agree to disagree. That’s OK. I just know this, that we’re doing things the right way.”

Former Pilots also are currently at California, Cal State Fullerton, Florida State, Kentucky and New Mexico.

Ostrowski said Findlay is a feeder system.

“Absolutely,” he said, “to the NCAA.”

Hamrick said Findlay knows the line he straddles with his relationships at UNLV and Findlay College Prep.

“He’s very conscious of making sure he follows all the NCAA rules,” Hamrick said. “He won’t tell you. I will. He started the program to honor his mom and dad, to help kids get an education.”

Findlay doesn’t micro-manage. He lets his people be autonomous. He’s hands off. That’s the way Findlay is with his auto empire, too, and why he is so successful.

“He told me, ‘This is your puppy,’ ” Peck said. “He doesn’t hire puppets. It’s his interest at stake. It’s his name. I know we’ll turn out a product the community can embrace because it’s done the right way.”

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  1. Great Article, Rob. Since I stay walkin distance from the school & follow local high school basketball, I've always been intrigued when I 1st heard about them last year. The curiosity of the living conditions is what I wondered about the most. The video did enough to satisfy it. I hope the NIAA continues to let them play against the local highschools. There's a lot of local players on cloud 9 that get grounded quick-fast when they play against Findlay.

  2. Absolutely Basir, re: local players getting grounded. That is a very special team. I did a little closer look at the living arrangements in a big piece about a year ago. Shouldn't be difficult to find. Type "Madi Peck" in our search box and it should pop up. Madi is coach Mike Peck's jewel of a daughter. Thanks

  3. Any word on when Rudd will decide on a school?

  4. jkw, looks like he'll finish up Findlay's regular season this month, then the Pilots have all of March off to prep for April 3, 4 and 5 in Bethesda, Md. Vic will decide in March and sign in April. UNLV seems to be in the lead of about a dozen schools, but he seemed no more definitive last night after they walloped Foothill then he was a month ago. We'll keep you posted. thx

  5. Wow, so you can't make a comment about Harrick sounding like a pompous prick without having it removed?

  6. Great story Rob.Cliff was a good friend of the family and has always been a class act!!!Go Rebels, Go Pilots