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Ron Kantowski:

Chewing over UNLV’s search for an athletic director

Wisely or unwisely, regent asks opinion of sports writer



James Dean Leavitt, chairman of the Board of Regents, which governs the Nevada System of Higher Education, gives an interview in January 2007.

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Other than the night during March Madness a couple of years ago when a bunch of fellow scribes and I shamed Mark Alden into buying us a sack of White Castles after the bars closed in St. Louis, I couldn’t remember the last time I broke bread with one of the Nevada system regents.

Much less the chairman of the board.

So when James Dean Leavitt called the other day with a lunch invitation, I was at once flattered and skeptical — skeptical, because when a regent asks a sports writer to lunch, the first thing that usually comes to mind is Darrell Royal, the old Texas coach, describing the forward pass:

You know that when you pass, three things can happen, and two of them are bad.

My sense of dread was temporary alleviated when James Dean — which is how a lot of people I know refer to him — picked me up outside his office in his Porsche 550 Spyder and I noticed there were about a month’s worth of newspapers scattered across the passenger seat and floorboards.

(Actually, it wasn’t a Porsche Spyder but some big red boxy thing with a license plate that reads UNLV-UNR and all the options, the sort of car you expect a successful defense attorney to drive, and since there were no head-on accidents between his downtown office and the nearest Tony Roma’s, it really didn’t matter all that much how we got there.)

“Man, we could use a few more like you,” I said, impressed that James Dean Leavitt, chairman of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents, still acquires his news the old-fashioned way.

He told me he had a hockey background, mostly because he grew up in Calgary, where they have a fine organ-I-zation. Maybe Scotty Bowman’s gonna be the new UNLV athletic director, I thought.

Leavitt also said he was schooled at Brigham Young, and I said I wouldn’t hold that against him. Then he ordered a burger without the bun and I ordered a chicken salad without the chicken.

Then he interviewed me about who I thought should be the new A.D.

Whoa! Like Texas quarterback James Street’s bomb on fourth-and-short against Arkansas in ’69, I never saw that coming.

The songwriter Warren Zevon was fond of saying, “I’m not namin’ names,” and I’m not going to single out any here, only that I think highly of Tina Kunzer-Murphy, the Las Vegas Bowl executive director; and Steve Stallworth, the general manager of South Point arena; and Jerry Koloskie, UNLV’s interim AD, and that any of those locals would be a big improvement over what we’ve had to endure recently. That’s basically what I told Leavitt.

And like I’ve been writing all along, I told him I thought the job should go to a local this time, because Manny (Jim Weaver), Moe (Charlie Cavagnaro) and Jack (Mike Hamrick) were outsiders whose main accomplishments at the end of the day were overcharging for labor.

But I never was very good on the other side of the tape recorder, so eventually, I took it back from James Dean Leavitt and told him it was my turn, and that the little red light was on.

The first thing he said was that as much as he and his fellow regents want to be involved in the process of identifying the candidates and hiring the new athletic director — and even though technically they’ll have the last word when it comes to ratifying his or her contract — the decision would be Dr. Neal Smatresk’s and his alone, because that’s what university presidents get paid to do.

“Ultimately, the regents will approve the contract once the decision is made by President Smatresk,” Leavitt said.

“The board clearly recognizes the value that the athletic director brings to the institution is very similar and comparable in some ways to the academics that lead the institution. We’re hoping that whoever is selected has the knowledge and the personality and those dynamic qualities that can engage the entire community.

“That’s what we need for UNLV athletics to continue to improve and be at the highest level.”

I say UNLV needs to concentrate on beating New Mexico and TCU and raising a little money and forget about the highest level, and that a local guy or gal should be anointed as Fearless Leader, but, as I say, I already had my chance to talk, and now it was James Dean’s.

“I think we are going to be in a situation here where we have several credible local talented candidates. But I believe Neal also wants to open it up and make (the search) national and as competitive as it should be.

“President Smatresk has indicated that he will get going seriously on this in the spring, but I believe that even as we speak he is certainly talking to the boosters, to the alumni and to the professionals in the field.”

If nothing else, by inviting me to lunch and picking my brain (no poleax necessary when one of those toothpicks at the cash register will do) about who the new athletic director should be, James Dean showed he’s a Rebel With a Cause. (Of course, he left that afternoon for South Bend, Ind., where he’d watch the Wolf Pack play Notre Dame.)

He’s willing to roll up his sleeves and his pant legs and get knee-deep in the process, if that’s what it takes to help the president make the right call.

I find that refreshing.

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  1. Tina Kunzer-Murphy No thank you. She worked for U. N.L.V. and University of The Pacific and got fired at both places.

    Steve Strip Stallworth would be a great fit on Maryland Park Way in my opinion

  2. Where's the luv, Ron K?

    You forgot to mention the brilliant but anonymous internet poster, the one and only NYR, who may be the most qualified of the bunch?

    Thanks a lot, buddy!

    I was going to take you out for a nice lunch (better than Tony Roma's) to celebrate when I was hired, but now I guess I'll have to make YOU buy at my favorite restaurant when I'm hired!

    Fortunately for you, that would be Del Taco!

  3. Hey William you forgot to mention that Stallworth got busted and let go from the athletic department already for trading out tickets for free laser eye surgery for himself. Just the kind of things you want your AD to be doing...

    Oh and since the job is in Higher Ed it would be nice if he had a masters degree.

  4. This is a little ridiculous. With all of the problems in Higher Education, the chair of the board is taking a sportswriter out to lunch to get his thoughts on who the AD should be, when in fact, it is none of the Regents business. That is a decision that should be left to the president.

    Why don't the regents, especially Leavitt concentrate on education and leave the choice of who the new AD should be to the president. After all, that is why you hired him!!

  5. Thank you regents.

    Finally it looks like the decision makers are realizing how important sports (and therefore the AD position) are to a university.

    This UNLV graduate thinks it's about time we hit one out of the park with an AD hire.

    The more input from knowledgeable people, the better.

  6. These are the only 3 people I have heard about. We should not limit our sights. I have heard nothing about Christopher Hewett. We would be incredible.

  7. rebelz, the laser surgery was approve by Stallworth's immediate superior at the time. He wound up paying for it out of his own pocket, when it was questioned and his boss looked like a ... fill in the blank.
    A master's degree is not required for the position, that's from multiple UNLV officials who know about such details.

  8. Rob,

    So basically after he got caught - he paid for it- sounds highly ethical. You guys are so gullible. Someone spends 3 hours with you in their backyard and you are ready to make them the next AD.

    Your right - you might not need a Master's Degree to be an AD, but it certainly helps. Considering the academic goals of UNLV and it's attempt to be a research institution. I don't think settling for a guy with minimum qualifications is really what is best.

  9. "Got caught"? Uh, his boss recommended it and green-lighted it. Gullible? Bold words, rebelz. The look at Stallworth was just that, a look at someone who is in the mix for that job. We've looked at Jerry Koloskie and will look at Tina Kunzer-Murphy, too. And a few others who will wind up on that list who do not live in town.
    Oh, and it's "you're ..."

  10. @ Rob

    Don't get too upset, he can't even spell "rebels".

    Why would someone need a masters to be an athletic director. He doesn't teach any classes at the university nor does he have any say in academic policies at the University. An AD needs to create new relationships with other ADs and those with money and stroke current and long lived relationships with the same. I don't care if the AD has a GED, if he can bring in money to the University via athletics then he/she should be hired.

    P.S. When universities are evaluated for the academics by the US News and World Report they don't spend one milli-second looking to the institution's athletic programs or leadership. Even if UNLV's academic aspirations are geared towards research, an AD without a Master's Degree would not harm or detract from that goal at all.

  11. touche

  12. p.s., Stallworth was not involved in a "trade-out" involving tickets for laser eye surgery. A doctor paid for his testimonial, which Stallworth's boss OK'd.

  13. NYR -- Del Taco sounds pretty good after the press meal I had at the Sac State game. :-)

    All jokes aside, UNLV should have stopped feeding the media and other freeloaders years ago.