Friday, April 8, 2016 | 7 p.m.
As soon as it was official, UNLV basketball coach Chris Beard started doing things his own way.
Through two weeks of a meandering process that culminated in a more than two-hour Board of Regents meeting, Beard couldn’t say much about his new job. So when his five-year, $5.75 million contract was approved by a 9-4 vote, Beard stood up and walked around the table so that he could address the full room inside the Nevada System of Higher Education building near UNLV’s campus.
Eye contact is important to him, Beard told a crowd filled mostly with supporters that included UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez, so he wanted to see everyone and not just the regents. Then Beard started living up to his reputation as a guy who can work the room, the guy that UNLV Athletics Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said, “had me at hello.”
“I’m not sure what the vote was but I think we won,” Beard said. “… I’m honored, really excited, just lost a couple hours in recruiting, so I’ve got to get to work immediately, but I won’t let any of you down.”
Beard, who in one season at Arkansas-Little Rock went 30-5 with an NCAA Tournament victory, will make at least $900,000 his first season, although the initial three-year retention bonus effectively makes it $1 million. Built-in elevators increase his total base salary and media payments to $1.1 million by year five, and the three combined retention bonuses bring the total deal to $5.75 million before attainable ticket bonuses and also performance bonuses would kick in.
The specifics of some of the bonuses and where the money is coming from were points of contention at the meeting — more on that in a bit — but most of that is related to kinks in a new process that was elongated by a few things, including Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin turning down the job more than two weeks ago. The most important thing right now to Beard and UNLV is moving forward, not focusing on why it took so long.
“Once we got that out of the way, I just can’t tell you how excited I am to hit the ground running,” Beard said later from the Mendenhall Center. “Looking forward to getting with the players here, looking forward to getting on the phone tonight with recruits and we’ve got a recruiting period that starts tomorrow so we can get on the road.”
Beard’s hands haven’t been completely tied from the time he agreed to take the job to today’s ceremony. He’s met with the remaining players, he jumped into the mix with some transfers and junior college players and Beard reportedly has two assistants — Little Rock’s Brian Burg and Tennessee’s Chris Ogden — lined up, though he declined to get into specifics today.
But Beard calls himself a truth-teller so the work in earnest begins tonight because, “until today’s vote I didn’t 100 percent have the job,” Beard said. “Now I can tell the truth, I’m the coach here, let’s go do this.”
Beard spent 10 years as an assistant at Texas Tech under Bob Knight and then Pat Knight, but both before and after he’s been a basketball nomad, bouncing around different levels and creating instant winners at each stop. Whether it was junior college, Division II, semipro or his one season at Division I, Beard didn’t accept any situation as a rebuild, and he contended UNLV isn’t either.
This despite a roster that could have three or fewer scholarship players returning from last season, and a delayed hiring timeline that has most programs far ahead of UNLV. Beard has an extensive junior college background, so that’s likely to play a large role in his recruiting, but Beard said he’s going to use everything that’s available, including four-year players from high school and grad transfers.
“I think the combination of all those avenues and hopefully the combination of core players staying here, I look forward to putting a competitive team on the floor next year,” Beard said.
Whether it’s next year or, more realistically, a few years down the road, getting UNLV basketball to a better place was the focus of his hire. The team has finished in the bottom half of the league the past two seasons, hasn’t reached postseason play for the past three years and hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2008.
“The success of basketball here is fundamental to the success of athletics and to the success ultimately of this university,” said UNLV President Len Jessup.
While some have been concerned by Beard’s many jobs — prior to UNLV he’s been a head coach at six places, only once staying more than a season — Kunzer-Murphy saw it as a grinder willing to work his way up the ranks. If a bigger school comes after him because of the success here, she said, that’s a good thing.
“He’s going to be a great coach for us, and I think he’s been working all these different places just to come to UNLV and build our program back where we need to be,” Kunzer-Murphy said.
Before Beard could attend his coronation at Mendenhall, he first had to officially get the job. That happened after more than two hours of discussion that included 15 public comments — 14 in full support, one against using private donations for part of the contract — and 11 of the 13 regents weighing in.
In an effort to expedite coaching contract decisions, the board implemented a five-member ad hoc committee to create a template and modify that as needed in each situation. This was the first test case for that committee, and it’s safe to say there are some bugs to work out.
Regent Trevor Hayes started with specific questions about the contract and UNLV’s financial situation, pointing out that the athletics department is more than $1 million in the red for the coming year and as much as $3 million or more the following year. Kunzer-Murphy and Jessup didn’t refute those numbers, saying they’re constantly working on balancing the budget.
And since the contract calls on annual contributions of $300,000 from the Runnin’ Rebel Club and $150,000 from additional private contributions to supplement $750,000 from UNLV, Hayes asked if those agreements were legally binding. Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs Brooke Nielsen said they would be if they’re specific gift agreements, but that “ultimately it’s the university’s responsibility.”
Other than where the money is coming from, most of the consternation centered on the athletics ad hoc committee’s decision to remove a bonus related to meeting the minimum Academic Progress Rate score and, in the future, to use the four-year rolling average as opposed to the one-year scores.
In the agenda notes they explained removing the bonus because maintaining a satisfactory score should be expected, and using the same four-year standard as the NCAA and Mountain West was beneficial two-fold: It de-emphasized an annual standard that could lead to cutting corners, and all of the recent roster departures would negatively impact UNLV’s score.
“It is the University’s view that it is not fair to penalize a new coach for such in the event of an inherited, low APR, particularly given that the University chose a turn-around coach for just such a situation,” the committee wrote.
They also explained that $135,000 of Beard’s possible $160,000 nonticket bonuses are related to the postseason, which requires the program to maintain APR standards anyways. That point was misconstrued a couple of times, and even when laid out, the fact that there were any changes at all made to the APR requirement didn’t sit well with many regents.
“That APR was the breaking point for me,” said Regent Jason Geddes.
When the roll was called, Geddes, Robert Davidson, Allison Stephens and chair Rick Trachok voted against the contract. The other nine voted in favor, and when it was done everyone stood up and applauded for UNLV’s 12th full-time basketball coach.
Beard said all of the right things today, and he seemed overjoyed just to be able to talk about the job he’s effectively had for two weeks. The recent history at UNLV hasn’t been great but Beard doesn’t see it as bad, and the program’s more prominent accomplishments aren’t something he’s going to shy away from either.
“The history of the program means everything to us, but we can’t let it define the future,” Beard said. “We have to take our own journey.”
That journey, finally, starts now.