Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018 | 2 a.m.
In the early 1980s, UNLV football practiced on what then-head coach Harvey Hyde described as a “parking lot.”
Hyde said players were hesitant to go to the ground during practice for fear of injuring themselves on the rocky field. Eventually, Hyde persuaded the university to build what is now known as Bill Wildcat Morris Rebel Park, with practice fields that rivaled any program at the time.
Two turf football fields flanked by a grassy area where kickers booted balls through a goalpost and linemen pushed sleds.
Tuesday afternoon, current UNLV coach Tony Sanchez plunged his chrome shovel into the dirt in that grassy area, marking the groundbreaking of the Fertitta Football Complex.
It’s the culmination of the tireless hours Sanchez has put in over the past three years — not in the film room or on the football field, but in restaurants and meeting rooms to raise funding for a $28 million facility to match programs around the country.
“It’s been three years and a lot of hard work with blood, sweat and tears spreading the word throughout the community,” Sanchez said. “It’s exciting and I’m really happy for our current and future players.”
Sanchez was joined by UNLV President Len Jessup, Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois and the Fertitta family, who donated $10 million toward the facility.
The complex is expected to open in early 2019 and will overlook the Rebels’ practice fields. Hyde saw what a new facility did for his program in the '80s and was there for Tuesday's ceremony.
“It’s a big tool because the only way you get better is by practicing hard,” Hyde said. “If you can’t practice hard because you’re afraid of getting hurt or twisting an ankle, then you’re never going to get better.”
While current UNLV players don’t exactly have to worry about stepping in potholes on the field, they aren’t afforded the luxuries of players at major Division I programs around the country. The Fertitta Football Complex changes that.
The 73,000-square-foot facility will include a state-of-the-art weightlifting area, medical facility, full kitchen, study areas, coaches’ offices and locker rooms.
“Every major university that isn’t a pretender is building one of these things because it demonstrates that football is important,” Hyde said. “Right now when the (recruits) go to other schools and see their facilities then you have to live up to that to compete.”
If nothing else, Tuesday’s groundbreaking ceremony proves UNLV’s investment to the football program.
“This building is more than a building,” Reed-Francois said. “It’s a symbol of faith and a symbol of support for our football program.”
Sanchez has yet to guide UNLV to a bowl game in his three seasons at the helm, but he has improved the team’s win total each year.
“We haven’t had a lot of investment, but it’s so inspiring to see that a completely community-funded project can happen in a program that really hasn’t had any success,” Sanchez said. “We’ve done some good things, but this is a project based on belief.”
Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, who received commemorative UNLV football jerseys at the ceremony, have believed in Sanchez since his time at Bishop Gorman.
“At the end of the day you invest in people you believe in,” Lorenzo Fertitta said. “Tony Sanchez has an incredible track record. He came to Bishop Gorman and took that program to a place where no one thought it could go. Ten years ago no one was talking about a (high school football) team in Las Vegas winning a national championship, and here we are today winning three in a row.”
The Fertittas helped build Bishop Gorman’s spectacular stadium and practice facility, which has allowed the program to soar to the top of the high school football world. Now they hope to do the same with UNLV.
“We believe in the university and we believe that athletics makes the university great, and when the university is great it makes the community great,” Fertitta said. “There is a lot of momentum, and he’s doing a great job on the recruiting trail. Quite honestly, it’s been done with inferior resources, or no resources, so now with this and the stadium we think it’s going to be able to take the university and the program to the next level.”
The facility will be only a few hundred feet from UNLV’s tennis complex, which is named after Lorenzo’s parents Frank and Vicki Fertitta.
“It feels great,” Fertitta said. “We are invested in the community and we thought this was a great project and the right time to do something like this.”
Sanchez’s fundraising efforts have raised millions aside from the Fertitta donation, including $1.5 million for the Michael Gaughan Training Table, $1 million from the family trust of the late Geraldine K. Howard and $500,000 from George Maloof Jr., a former Rebel.
“You wake up in the morning thinking about how raise money as much as you do about how to win ball games,” Sanchez said. “Right or wrong, it was what the program needed moving forward, so it will be good to have a little bit of that burden off my plate.”
The new facility, coupled with UNLV football’s future use of the Raiders stadium, will undoubtedly lead to increased expectations on Sanchez.
“If you’re going to win you have to invest,” Sanchez said. “The pressure was there since day one. When it’s completed then there’s pressure because you have all the pieces to the puzzle.”
That location, just off the corner of Harmon Avenue and Swenson Street, has come a long way over the past few decades. From a “parking lot” of a practice field in the early 1980s where Hyde planted a sign reading “Future home of the UNLV Football practice facility” as a joke to attract recruits, to a soon-to-be constructed state-of-the-art facility.