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Former UNLV president Len Jessup still believes Power 5 move is ‘inevitable’


L.E. Baskow

UNLV President Len Jessup greets the crowd during a ceremony to unveil a new Rebels logo at the Thomas & Mack Center on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.

During Len Jessup’s three-year tenure as UNLV president, he made it clear that athletic success was a key part of his vision for the university. One of his main goals was elevating the sports programs to the point that UNLV would be an attractive option for a Power 5 conference looking to expand, and while Jessup left UNLV in April to become president at Claremont Graduate University, he still believes the Rebels’ plan should remain the same, and that by staying the course, UNLV’s jump to a Power 5 conference will be “inevitable.”

The Big 12 and the Pac-12 conferences seem like the most natural fits if UNLV continues to eye P5 possibilities. The Big 12 solicited applications from schools during an exploratory look into possible expansion in 2016, and UNLV’s bid was turned down.

Jessup thinks UNLV has come a long way since then, and that the university is getting closer to Power 5 status.

“I think we’re not that far away,” Jessup said. “But the thing that is far away is that it’s going to be dependent on when those conferences are in the mood to seriously talk about bringing somebody in, and that’s probably not until they’re getting closer to the renegotiations of their television contracts, and for those two conferences that’s still a few years away. And that’s fine. I think UNLV needs that time to continue to evolve. I’m still pretty bullish on that. I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen if UNLV stays on the path that it’s on.”

Jessup said UNLV still has to improve its standing athletically, academically and financially before power conferences can look at the school as a serious candidate. He points to the school’s ranking in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Learning as a Research Tier 2 university as an impediment for now.

“By the numbers, it’s very close,” he said. “If you think about either the Big 12 or the Pac-12, ultimately it will be those university presidents that make that decision, and they make the decision based nearly exclusively on academic factors, like whether or not your institution is ranked in the Carnegie R1 level. With grant funding getting up now into the $70 million range, most of those institutions are kind of $100 million-plus, so we’re making steady progress toward that. As the medical school continues to grow and advance, it will begin bringing in more and more grant funding on its own, just as an example, and that will tip the grant funding scale over in favor of Carnegie R1 and that’s not that far away.”

Jessup said he was personally invested in the success of the Rebels’ sports programs during his time at the school and will continue to be a fan. Jessup praised the work director of athletics Desiree Reed-Francois has done in her first year on the job, crediting Reed-Francois for balancing the budget and contributing to standout academic scores across the department. Jessup also said he believes the Rebels have the right men leading their two flagship programs in men’s basketball coach Marvin Menzies and football coach Tony Sanchez.

Jessup said the success of the football and basketball programs will largely dictate the fortunes of the UNLV brand going forward.

“I believe we’re in the midst of turnarounds in the two revenue-generating sports in football and in men’s basketball,” Jessup said. “I’m a huge fan and a big supporter of both Tony and Marvin, and I believe we are in the midst of turnarounds in both of those programs. I would have loved to continue to watch it as president, but I’ll certainly continue to watch it evolve as a big fan.”

And while he believes the Rebels’ best path forward long-term is with a Power 5 conference, he ceded that the Mountain West can work for UNLV — as long as the Rebels win.

“I think [a move to a Power 5] is inevitable, but it’s not necessary,” Jessup said. “It doesn’t have to happen. The Mountain West is a great conference. Among the Group of 5, I know I’m biased, but I consider it to be the best in the Group of 5, and that’s a good place to be. There are great schools, great presidents, like the commissioner, Craig [Thompson] and his team, it’s a good conference. There would be nothing wrong with UNLV staying in the Mountain West and just becoming more dominant within it.”

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

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