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Desiree Reed-Francois navigates eventful first year as UNLV athletic director

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Christopher DeVargas

UNLV Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois visits with Las Vegas Sun editorial staff to discuss her new role on Tuesday, April 18, 2017.

When Desiree Reed-Francois took over as UNLV’s director of athletics on June 1 last year, she made it clear her top priority was to listen and learn. Coming from Virginia Tech, where she served as associate AD from 2014-17, Reed-Francois wanted to take some time to educate herself on the culture at UNLV and observe how the department operated before taking any sweeping actions.

It was a nice idea, but as it turned out, easing into the role was not an option. Just a few months after settling in, Reed-Francois found herself at the Thomas & Mack Center volunteering to help victims on the night of the Oct. 1 shooting tragedy, and her eventful first year on the job continued to twist and turn from there.

Reed-Francois has steered the athletic department through a gauntlet, from the premature departure of the university president, to the signing of a joint-use agreement with the NFL that will give UNLV football a new home stadium, to the exit of a longtime athletic administrator amid allegations of inappropriate workplace conduct, to the continuation of a large-scale rebuilding effort by the school’s flagship sports program.

If Reed-Francois wanted to learn by experience, she’s got it now.

While no one could have predicted the specific challenges Reed-Francois faced in her first year, she said anticipating obstacles and maneuvering around them is part of the job description for a Division-I athletic director.

“You’re going to have problems,” Reed-Francois said. “It’s how you respond to them. As a leader you’re going to be tested, and people are going to watch to see how you respond to those challenges. It’s an opportunity for you to build even more trust.”

The biggest bump in the road was the regents’ handling of UNLV president Len Jessup’s tenure, which ended in March. Jessup was the final decision-maker in Reed-Francois’s hiring, and he was a big proponent of collegiate athletics during his three years at UNLV.

Reed-Francois acknowledged Jessup’s role in her hiring and expressed confidence that the next president would share Jessup’s belief in college sports.

“Athletics are integral to the DNA of this university,” Reed-Francois said. “Athletics are part of the DNA of this community. So whomever is hired, I would think they would understand how athletics can help serve the educational mission.”

Reed-Francois also touched on the resignation of former administrator Eric Toliver, who stepped down in February while under investigation for inappropriate behavior. Toliver worked at UNLV for 26 years, including the last 18 years as associate athletic director of compliance before the investigation prompted him to leave the university.

Reed-Francois said the incident was unfortunate, but that it gave the department an opportunity to set an example for unacceptable workplace conduct.

“When we’ve had personnel challenges, we’ve lived by our core values,” Reed-Francois said. “It sets the tone for the organization as to what’s tolerable and what’s not, and if you have abhorrent behavior, then this is what you can expect. So if anything, it helped accelerate our culture.”

Reed-Francois also played a key role in negotiating a favorable joint-use agreement for the new Raiders football stadium, which is set to open in 2020. UNLV will play its home games at the stadium and will retain all revenue from luxury suite sales, as well as club level and non-premium seats.

UNLV’s on-field product also presented challenges. The men’s basketball team improved its record to 20-13 under second-year coach Marvin Menzies, but attendance lagged as the Runnin’ Rebels struggled to attract fans wary of investing in a long-term rebuild.

In 16 home games played at the Thomas & Mack Center, the Rebels drew an announced attendance of 169,929, which works out to an average of 10,621 people per game. That represented a steep decline from just five years ago, when the 2012-13 Rebels (the last UNLV team to make the NCAA tournament) drew 15,196 fans per game.

Over the past five years, combined revenue from men's basketball tickets sales and donations has decreased by $2.25 million.

Reed-Francois understands that UNLV needs a healthy hoops program in order to thrive financially.

"Men's basketball is a high priority for us," Reed-Francois said. "Reversing that trend in revenue is critical moving forward.”

She believes that Menzies has the Runnin' Rebels moving in the right direction.

“We’re going to build a strong foundation,” she said. “I’m not interested in cutting corners. We’re going to graduate leaders. That starts with recruiting. We’ve got to recruit student-athletes who have the aptitude to be a championship player, but they also have to be good citizens and good students and do things the right way. The GPA we just had in men’s basketball, 3.4, is one of the best we’ve ever had.

"We’re on this upward trajectory," she continued. "It just takes time to build a basketball program. It’s not going to happen overnight. Marvin is going into Year 3, we’ve increased the win total, we’ve increased the GPA, he’s bringing in good citizens. I also understand we’ve got a revenue responsibility. We’ve got a championship past and wins matter. I get it. No one wants to win more than me.”

One of Reed-Francois’s first moves last year was to survey current and former basketball season-ticket holders in an effort to produce a better gameday experience. She said the results were illuminating, with the most common responses asking for more variety in ticket-pricing options, tailgates for home games at the Thomas & Mack Center and more high-quality opponents on the non-conference schedule.

Reed-Francois said UNLV basketball is committed to being better across the board, especially in the scheduling department.

“We’re cognizant that the schedule needs to improve, and we’re making some strides,” she said. “I like to schedule about four years out. We’ve got a couple series coming that I think will be appealing.”

Last week, it was reported that UNLV and Cincinnati have agreed to a home-and-home series beginning with the upcoming 2018-19 season.

Reed-Francois’ second year figures to be just as busy as her first. She’ll welcome in a new university president, oversee construction on the football program’s Fertitta Football Complex (set to open in the fall of 2019), and continue toward her “Drive for 5” goal of doubling the number of Rebel Athletic Fund annual donors to 5,000.

“I’m really proud of the 3.0 (GPA for student-athletes),” she said. “We’ve had two consecutive semesters of 3.0, we’ve raised money and we’ve broken ground on buildings, we’ve signed the joint-use agreement and all that, but really it comes down to the culture and people, and people buying into our team. We’re going to work hard to make this an athletic department that makes the community proud.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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