Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Editor’s note: As he does every August, Brian Greenspun is taking some time off and is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. Today’s guest columnist is Desiree Reed-Francois, UNLV’s athletic director.
As I watched men’s basketball coach T.J. Otzelberger and his staff teach their student-athletes a defensive set recently, I thought about how this editorial mirrored what I was seeing on the floor: the future of UNLV athletics. The Runnin’ Rebels — part of a group of more than 480 UNLV student-athletes — are the future, and it is our mandate to provide the best possible experience for them as they attend our university.
When we recruit student-athletes to UNLV, we promise them an opportunity to earn a valuable degree, to compete for championships and to build a pathway to a career. As a department, this mission drives us. We’ve made strides academically the last two years, with our student-athletes earning an average GPA of 3.0 for four consecutive semesters after never having achieved that for one semester. We built our Rebels Go Pro program that positions students for postgraduate careers, and we have seen a 54% increase in student-athlete post-graduation employment, with 75% of our student-athlete graduates working in a professional field or studying in graduate school and 60% of them staying right here in Southern Nevada.
We have built a strong foundation and a department culture that expects championships despite obstacles. I look at student-athletes like Lauren Tycksen and Ty’Jason Roberts who, when life gave them challenges, didn’t make excuses, but rather embodied the Rebel spirit. Just before Christmas in 2017, Lauren was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and underwent surgery to remove the tumor. Two weeks later, she was back on the field for Salt Lake Community College and, in 2019, transferred to UNLV and helped the Rebels softball team to a record-smashing season during her first year in Las Vegas.
As a defensive back on the Rebel football team, Ty’Jason was making his first career start for UNLV last September when he broke his neck. As he lay motionless on the field, Rebel fans held their collective breaths. But after working hard through his rehabilitation, Ty’Jason returned to school for the spring semester and not only walks again, he runs! This fall, he will serve as the team’s undergraduate coach, and law school is in his future.
Ty’Jason could join former softball catcher Kiley Harrison and former Rebel Girls dancer Ashley Schobert, who both will begin classes at the William S. Boyd School of Law this fall. Or, with all of the medical procedures he’s gone through, he could join Alyssa Anderson, a former captain of the women’s basketball team and president of our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, who will start medical school in a few weeks. Knowing Ty’Jason, he will create his own bright future, work relentlessly and be like our other great young Rebels who make a difference after leaving UNLV.
Our community is a key building block on our championship journey. Last month, during a break at the NBA Summer League, Runnin’ Rebel legend Stacey Augmon and I spoke about his experiences at UNLV, and one word kept coming up: community. The Las Vegas community positively shaped his playing and college experience, and we see throughout Southern Nevada the unifying impact of sports at all levels. Speaking with coach Augmon and to golf coach Dwaine Knight about his national championship run and all the amazing golf student-athletes and coaches he’s developed, it makes me so proud and determined, and it reinforces the point that we are just stewards of our athletics programs — they belong to our community. And we cannot do this alone — we need our global Rebel family.
People will remind me that we haven’t gone to a bowl game since 2013 and that we’ve never won a regular-season Mountain West Conference men’s basketball title outright. We’ve also been told many times about the vast disparity about the “haves” and “have nots” in college sports. But I would point out that UNLV is one of only 21 schools to win a men’s basketball national championship in the last 50 years; we have a state-of-the-art football building opening on campus this fall and a $2 billion stadium going up just on the other side of the Las Vegas Strip; we have incredible students, inspirations like Lauren and Ty’Jason and hundreds more who see obstacles as opportunities and every day strive to get better. Our staff and coaches are dedicated and driven by our mission — we’re a Top Tier academic institution and we live in the world’s most vibrant community.
Like Las Vegas, UNLV athletics is competitive — we’re hardworking, we’re focused and, under pressure and trial, we get better. Competition isn’t meant to be easy. There will be challenges along the way to winning the championships we all expect, but never doubt the outcome of a committed group of people passionately dedicated to winning the right way. A group of people with a chip on their shoulder who don’t give up. After all, we’re Rebels and that’s what Rebels do.
One of the most impressive things I have learned about Las Vegas is that no one should underestimate what this community is capable of accomplishing when it works together.
Desiree Reed-Francois has been athletic director at UNLV since June 2017.