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August 21, 2017

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Ray Brewer: From the Pressbox

ray brewer:

UNLV is the Gonzaga basketball of college golf, and it’s thriving because of Dwaine Knight’s hustle

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L.E. Baskow

Dwaine Knight has been the golf coach at UNLV for more than 30 years, including a national championship season in 1998.

Dwaine Knight’s first office at UNLV was a converted utility closet inside the Thomas & Mack Center. The door opened the wrong way and there was barely enough space for the golf coach to maneuver.

“It had a chair and table to put a phone on,” he recalls.

He’s moved a few times during his 30-year UNLV career, including two years ago to a new space inside the Lied Athletic Complex that is more spacious. The office is decorated from floor to ceiling with awards documenting the program’s rise, everything from the 1998 national championship trophy to a framed certificate for each All-American. There are so many of those certificates that they line the office walls.

From under some papers on his desk, Knight pulls out a notebook. It’s been with him every step of the way — from New Mexico, where he coached before coming to Las Vegas in 1988, to the corner office at the Thomas & Mack Center and now into a bigger office fitting of the school’s best all-time coach not named Jerry Tarkanian.

The notebook holds one of the keys to his coaching strategy: To play at UNLV, you have to earn it.

Before the Rebels leave for a tournament, the squad’s eight players have to qualify for their spot on the trip. Knight doesn’t care if you’re an All-American or a golfer who walked onto the team, everyone is on equal footing for the five travel positions. The notebook, with decades of results hand written by Knight, lists the scores of each golfer’s round. Three qualify for each trip in the system; Knight selects the final two.

He flips through the notebook to point out golfers from yesteryear and what they scored in qualifying. There are college national champions Warren Schutte (he beat Phil Mickelson) and Ryan Moore, PGA Tour great Adam Scott and four-time All-American Chris Riley. The system has worked — the Rebels have 12 top-8 finishes at the NCAA finals in Knight’s tenure.

“If you earn it, you don’t have to worry about being picked,” he said.

Many of his former golfers credit the qualifying philosophy in helping them in the next phase of life. After UNLV, most attempt to qualify for the Tour. And when they are finished golfing, they are competing for a spot in the corporate world.

They are following Knight’s lead as someone not willing to settle for being ordinary. He’s proven to be more than UNLV’s coach, willingly taking on the role as the program’s primary fundraiser and constantly working behind the scenes in the community to get players more, whether that’s access to top facilities in town or resources to excel in the classroom.

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Charley Hoffman, part of UNLV golf's 1998 national championship team and a top PGA Tour player, poses for a photo with Rebel coach Dwaine Knight during a media for the 2010 Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

•••

It’s Sunday afternoon and Knight is in a familiar spot: at home watching former players on television in the final round of a Tour event.

As Charley Hoffman, part of Knight’s 1998 national championship team, was in contention at the RBC Canadian a few weeks ago, Knight started to feel the rush of excitement that keeps him coming back each season to coach the Rebels.

There’s no better feeling than the hunt of winning a golf championship, Knight will tell you. No bigger challenge, either.

Knight has led UNLV to the NCAA Regional Tournament in every season he’s helmed the program, building UNLV into a perennial power and one of the most respected brands in college golf. It’s not a one-year wonder: Knight, 69, is going on season No. 31 at UNLV.

In the next five years, Knight doesn’t hesitate saying, his program can win another national championship. They were close last spring, leading nationals after the second day and qualifying for the eight-team match play that determines the champion. They finished tied for fifth.

The comparisons to the mid- to late 1990s, when UNLV was a regular top finisher, are obvious. Those teams produced many players still on the PGA Tour — household names such as Hoffman, Scott, Moore and Chad Campbell who continue to thrive. The current roster is loaded with golfers John Oda, Shintaro Ban and Harry Hall, whom Knight says also have the potential to be great. The group last season led the Rebels to Mountain West and NCAA Regional championships and finished second overall in four others events.

Hoffman led virtually the entire PGA tournament but stumbled late and lost in a playoff. Knight, like he has done many times before, messaged Hoffman to let him know how proud he was, even in defeat. He sends a similar message each tournament to multiple former players.

After Scott won The Masters in 2013, Knight coordinated to have a congratulatory message on the video billboard outside the Thomas & Mack Center on campus. Here’s how Scott responded to the gesture:

“Dwaine. This is amazing :),” he said in a text message. “I can’t believe how this has been received. Thank you for sending this thru. UNLV is part of the journey that I am on and taught me so much. I am a proud Rebel! Got a couple of lap credits for the birdie up 18!!!! Thanks.”

•••

It’s one thing to compete against Power 5 Conference schools, which in golf include the likes of Arizona State, Oklahoma State and Texas. It’s another for those schools to model themselves after you.

That’s the spot UNLV is in. It’s the Gonzaga of basketball, the mid-major school seemingly out of place on the big stage but so tough to knock off its pedestal.

Other programs can offer an on-campus golf course or driving range, charter airplane to travel to events and state-of-the-art training and rehabilitation facilities. UNLV — unless Knight convinces a casino owner to let the team borrow a plane, which he has repeatedly done because it allows golfers extra time in class — travels coach.

Knight raves about the generosity of Southern Nevadans and how they love to support winners, especially his program. Steve Wynn, for instance, allowed the Rebels to play at Shadow Creek, a better course than any on-campus facility at other schools. The Rebels’ home course is Southern Highlands Golf Club, another award-winning facility that proudly opens its doors to the team.

The Rebel Golf Foundation, with a $1.2 million donation from booster Christina Hixson, allows Knight to keep the program relevant. It helps closes the gap between mid-major UNLV and Power 5 schools.

“We aren’t going to have some of the things of others schools, but that’s OK,” he said. “We like what we can offer.”

•••

Knight has no intentions of slowing down. He could easily retire and enjoy golf from in front of his television on Sundays. The thrill of competition in following Hoffman, Scott and Moore would keep him occupied.

The chase for another championship consumes him. Forget about winning it next year — Knight says the Rebels are lined up to contend for the next five seasons. Sure, he’ll have to continue to raise money to compete with the haves of college golf who don’t have the obstacles of a mid-major conference school.

He’s confident he’ll continue attracting top junior golfers to Las Vegas, because those players’ families see what he’s built. When he tells them their son will leave with a degree and the tools to compete on Tour, he’s got decades of proven results to back it up.

It never comes easy. In 1996, two years before the championship, the Rebels faltered late in nationals and lost by three strokes. Coming so close, similar to the ending last spring when the Rebels led after the second day of the finals, adds to Knight’s obsession.

“That was a crusher,” he said of the 1996 collapse.

The Rebels had the nation’s best team for most of the season the following year but fell flat in nationals and finished 22nd. The following year, they were finally champs.

This time, Knight hopes he doesn’t have to wait two years to win another. While every corner of his office appears to have an award documenting a Rebel win, there’s always space for more, he jokingly said.

“I love the game of golf,” he said. “I get to teach it. Winning is so difficult, it is so hard. I love having the chance. I love the chase.”

Ray Brewer can be reached at 702-990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21

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