Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016 | 2 a.m.
Tony Sanchez arrived at the Lied Athletic Complex during his initial days as the UNLV football coach in late 2014, looked around at the outdated facility and immediately started working on the transformation. He insisted that to consistently win games, the program’s infrastructure needed a massive overhaul.
Sharing the rundown Lied — complete with stained carpets, dusty furniture and dirty walls — with nine other UNLV teams, and playing games miles from campus at Sam Boyd Stadium was unacceptable. He was determined to change the situation, a near-insurmountable goal when considering UNLV plays in the subpar Mountain West, many times struggled to two-win seasons, and operated with a tight financial budget.
Sanchez, thankfully, didn’t buy into that narrative.
Fast forward nearly two years: Sanchez is sharing the stage with Gov. Brian Sandoval and Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis at a rally on campus, passionately clapping and singing the school’s fight song in a program-changing ceremony. Sandoval signed into law $750 million of state funding toward building a $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat domed stadium where the Rebels will play.
“If that doesn’t get you pumped up, what will?,” Sandoval asked after the Rebel band finished playing the fight song.
The Raiders should play at the stadium, too, and that’s why Sanchez was able to check getting a state-of-the-art stadium off his wishlist. But don’t think Sanchez sat behind the scenes with his fingers crossed hoping the deal would be approved. He actively participated in the planning, helped wine and dine Davis to bring his franchise here, and insisted UNLV’s local players spoke to decision-makers in tourism-related meetings.
It wasn’t UNLV’s money, but because of Sanchez’s forward thinking, they were a massive part of the planning. They were the linemen, a football team’s unsung heroes, in the process.
“I am involved in a football program that has been struggling for a long time, 25 or 30 years — had some blips but have never been real consistent,” Sanchez said. “A lot of it has to do with the fact we have never addressed any our infrastructural needs. Having a world-class stadium close to campus, close to the Strip, makes it such a unique venue that is going to be attractive when we recruit. Also building the on-campus football facility. Those two things combined can change the history of our program.”
I’ve written this before: When UNLV hired Sanchez, they hired more than a coach. He was ready and willing to promote the program. For decades, the Rebels have tried to get out of Sam Boyd Stadium, where students barely attend games, and the locker rooms are small and aged. Sanchez saw an opportunity to get out and was smart enough to become active in making sure it got done.
And guess what? He’s not finished. Remember, Sanchez thinks out of the box. He’s more than a dreamer. He’s a visionary who knows how to execute.
The stadium, Raiders or not, is the next phase in his plan to make the program relevant.
“It has always been the Raiders will come and they will fill (the stadium) up, and UNLV will have a cool place to play and put our 25,000 (fans),” Sanchez said. “That is not the case. We get into a Power 5 conference and on Saturdays, it’s UCLA against UNLV and that is happening every year. It’s UNLV versus a Baylor or something like that. It’s 60,000. We are going to get our butt going and win ... All of a sudden you might have a sold-out Raider game on a (Sunday) and a sold-out UNLV game the next week on a Saturday.”
UNLV was quickly rejected this summer when attempting to be part of the Big 12 Conference’s expansion. You could easily argue that of the nearly 20 teams who expressed interest, UNLV had the least working for it. The feedback from the Big 12 reaffirmed the obvious that UNLV’s infrastructure, among other downfalls, was an eyesore.
Just not for long.
The program’s home at the Lied will soon be replaced with the roughly $25 million Fertitta Football Complex, a 73,000-square-foot, two-level complex where construction is expected to begin in spring. Sanchez was the key fundraiser in the project, which included the biggest donation in program history — $10 million from the Fertitta family.
The Rebels need to do the rest on the field. They have never participated in consecutive bowl games and have never been a contender in the lowly Mountain West, which is mostly dominated by Boise State. They need to beat visiting Colorado State on Saturday in a must-win game if they hope to get to six wins to become bowl-eligible. Next year, they need to become bowl-eligible again.
Sanchez promises the Rebels won’t sit around and be complacent. The program is completely different from when he inherited it, everything from the stadium and training complex to new uniforms, and national media attention. Can you imagine where they’ll be in the next two years, especially if the "stars align" again like they did when the Raiders got involved to get the stadium built?
That’s something only Sanchez the visionary knows. He doesn’t go a few minutes in an interview without talking about recruiting and has long eyed keeping the best local players at home. He’s surely already mentioned these two new buildings in his sales pitch.
“You better believe in yourself or no one else will,” Sanchez said. “Twenty-five years from now when I am old and retired, and when me and the old players come back, we won’t recognize the place because of the success it had.”