Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 | 2 a.m.
For the second straight year, UNLV football will open its season with a home game against an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), and it’s not a coincidence.
On the field, the matchups make sense for the Rebels. Last year’s opponent, Jackson State, and this year’s foe, Howard, are FCS programs that give UNLV a chance to ease into the season. The Rebels beat Jackson State, 63-13, and another such margin is expected this year, as UNLV should enter Saturday as a favorite of at least 35 points.
Off the field, there’s a reason why the HBCUs have proven to be popular guests. With large alumni associations and renowned marching bands, Jackson State and Howard draw their share of fans and create more buzz in the community than a normal lower-division tomato can.
Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Chairman Lawrence Weekly has played a big part in steering HBCUs to Las Vegas. A graduate of Grambling State (an HBCU), Weekly helped broker the UNLV-Jackson State matchup last season.
“When I became chair of the LVCVA, a lot of HBCU schools were reaching out to me as a point of contact because a lot of those schools have always wanted to come out and play here,” Weekly said. “They were talking about a game with two HBCU teams coming out here and playing. Then I remember being in a conversation with UNLV’s athletic director [Tina Kunzer-Murphy], and lo and behold UNLV had an opening. So instead of trying to host two [HBCU] teams, I said how about exploring an opportunity for one to come in and play UNLV?”
UNLV scheduled the matchup, and the game was well received. Jackson State’s famed marching band, “The Sonic Boom of the South,” performed at halftime, and the university spent the weekend recruiting potential students around the valley.
Howard, which was founded in 1867, will follow a similar blueprint this weekend. The school’s “Showtime Marching Band” will perform at halftime on Saturday and at a special alumni event on Friday night at a Cheyenne High School game against Canyon Springs.
Cedric Crear, a member of the Nevada Board of Regents and a Howard grad, has been involved in planning the events surrounding the game.
“I think one of the reasons why people like these games is that HBCUs bring a certain culture and a certain flair,” Crear said. “It’s nice to bring the bands out, which is a big part of the institutions. They come out into the [Las Vegas] community, and that’s important. HBCUs play an important role in the community, producing a large percentage of lawyers, doctors and scientists throughout the country.
“And one of the big positives to come out of this is more exposure for the HBCUs. You have a diverse group of students here who have never looked at an HBCU, especially West Coast kids, because they haven’t had a lot of exposure to HBCUs.”
UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez is more focused on the field of play than the extracurricular activities surrounding the game, but he recognizes the cultural value of welcoming HBCUs to Las Vegas.
“It’s great to bring in a team like Howard,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been playing football for a long time, and they’re over 150 years old as a university. It’s an historic university and it’s great to have them in town. It’s been a cool little thing [the last two years]. They come out early, they bring their band out … it’s great having them here.”