Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2022

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Guest column:

A successful sports program benefits both the university and our community

As our Runnin’ Rebels open the 2011-12 men’s basketball season, UNLV is on display throughout the entire valley, and we have an opportunity to showcase our great basketball program and the strengths of our academic programs to the community.

UNLV has once again established itself on college basketball’s national scene. We have averaged more than 25 wins a season over the past five years and are regulars in the NCAA Tournament. Home attendance has reached its highest mark since coach Jerry Tarkanian’s final season at UNLV in 1991-92, and our attendance record has been in the national Top 25 each of the past three seasons. In fact, we ranked first in attendance on the West Coast, ahead of schools such as UCLA, Cal, Oregon, Gonzaga and Washington.

This kind of success creates opportunity.

For many in the community, college athletics are the gateway to UNLV. Sports and academics can and should strengthen each other. The Runnin’ Rebels promote UNLV nationally and are a powerful community outreach tool for showcasing our academic programs.

Success breeds success. The impressive performance of our men’s basketball program draws people to our institution. We saw a large increase in applicants after our recent Sweet 16 appearance. Alumni reconnected with the university. Some of our biggest fans have become our biggest donors. Our new Mendenhall Practice Center is a prime example of how athletics engages our supporters, and it doesn’t stop with giving to athletics. Donors attracted to UNLV through athletics fund academic scholarships, like the Engelstad Scholars Program; faculty and academic programs, like the Lee Business School; and support our educational and scholarly mission. So our athletics program is “the front porch” of the university and leads our community through the door to our outstanding educational programs.

Athletic Director Jim Livengood is famous for saying, “My shirt says UNLV, not UNLV Athletics.” Our new basketball coach, Dave Rice, is a great example of how athletics and academics work together. In addition to playing and coaching at UNLV, Rice earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees here, and was a Rhodes Scholar candidate. Rice and all of our coaches are passionate and persuasive advocates for our academic programs.

Just a few weeks ago, I experienced a wonderful example of the synergy between athletics and academics in the service of this community. I was at center court of the Thomas & Mack Center with Clark County School District Superintendent Dwight Jones in front of 7,000 Clark County fourth- and fifth-graders attending the Rebel Reading Challenge kickoff. We used a sports setting to promote reading to these young students. They came to campus. We got them thinking about college and imagining themselves as college students for the first time. For one day, they got to experience the excitement of campus life. There is a good chance that for many of these students, this will fuel their higher education aspirations.

There are other examples of how UNLV is making a difference in Southern Nevada through athletics. Adopting at-risk elementary schools, Tickets for Teachers, college rallies and alumni tailgates are just some of the many opportunities created by athletics to engage and connect UNLV and Southern Nevadans.

But like any high-performing athlete or scholar, we can do even better. We are committed to developing a new stadium with on-campus housing, shopping and entertainment options for our students. We hope Bobby Hauck and our football team can come back to campus, so we can maximize opportunities for students, alumni and the community to gather and connect. This project has the power to transform our campus, attract the best and brightest students to Nevada, and create a richer, more vibrant college experience. So we hope you will join us up on “the porch” and become part of our Rebel family. You will find that there is a world of opportunity inside.

Neal Smatresk is the president of UNLV.

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