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UNLV Basketball:

Reed-Francois: T.J. Otzelberger hire was a year in the making

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Steve Marcus

T.J. Otzelberger, UNLV men’s basketball coach, heads into the Thomas & Mack Center with UNLV Athletic Director Desiree Reed-Francois for a news conference Thursday, March 28, 2019.

As Desiree Reed-Francois worked in her office on March 15, 2018, she found herself increasingly distracted by a first-round NCAA Tournament game that was on television.

One of the teams played with such verve that Reed-Francois began keeping track of their hustle stats and taking notes on the coach. That underdog South Dakota State squad eventually fell to No. 5 seed Ohio State, 81-73, but head coach T.J. Otzelberger had made the list.

The list, as Reed-Francois describes it, is an ongoing collection of thoughts and notes about people she deems as having professional potential. The UNLV athletic director keeps one for every sport, and although she wasn’t in the market for a men’s basketball coach at the time of that South Dakota State game, she wanted to remember Otzelberger.

“I have been watching him for a year and a half,” Reed-Francois said. “I was watching Ohio State and South Dakota State, and I remember I was bitter at the time because we weren’t in the tournament, and I knew how big that was.

“All of a sudden I look up and I see the way this South Dakota State team is playing, so I started watching the coach and said, ‘Who is this T.J. Otzelberger?’ I wrote his name and put it in a drawer.”

One year later, Marvin Menzies was out and Reed-Francois was set to launch a high-profile coaching search that carried vast ramifications for UNLV athletics. So she turned to her list.

Otzelberger wasn’t the only name on the list, but after looking into his background further, Reed-Francois found herself intrigued by his accomplishments at such a young age for a head coach.

Reed-Francois wanted to make sure the man measured up to the résumé. So she sent a spy.

Her husband works for Daktronics, a scoreboard manufacturing company that is conveniently headquartered in Brookings, S.D. — the same town as South Dakota State. The next time her husband visited HQ, Reed-Francois told him to ask around town and gauge the local opinion on Otzelberger.

The report she got back from supermarkets, hotels and barbershops was that Otzelberger was the kind of coach she wanted at UNLV. The problem was, Otzelberger didn't feel the same way about UNLV initially.

When Reed-Francois reached out by phone, Otzelberger initially rebuffed her inquiries, with his agent relaying the message that he was happy at South Dakota State and not interested in the Runnin’ Rebels job.

Reed-Francois believed in her list, however, and kept pushing. She pleaded for just 15 minutes on the phone with Otzelberger. He relented, and that 15-minute conversation turned into a lengthy brainstorming session on what it takes to lead a program like UNLV.

“He initially wasn’t interested in talking to UNLV,” Reed-Francois said. “His agent told us they weren’t interested. But I have a couple friends in common and I thought, ‘I’m not buying that.’ I said, ‘Ask him if I can have 15 minutes.’ So we did talk and that first conversation ended up being an hour and a half.”

After that introduction, Reed-Francois narrowed her sights on Otzelberger as UNLV’s next head coach. To seal the deal, she wanted to interview him in person.

To keep the meeting off the media radar, Reed-Francois arranged a face-to-face with Otzelberger in San Francisco. She drove from Las Vegas and stayed at her parents’ house in the Bay Area to avoid leaving a paper trail of her travels. A bit clandestine, maybe, but Reed-Francois didn’t want any snags as the Otzelberger courtship entered the final stages.

Reed-Francois was joined by UNLV athletics chief financial officer Marcus Bowman for the final sit-down with Otzelberger.

“I picked T.J. up at the airport and we ended up spending about four or five hours with him,” Reed-Francois said. “I knew him as a résumé at that point, but we’re putting our livelihoods in each other’s hands, so I wanted to get to know him as a person. In the end, I thought, ‘This is a person I would want coaching my son.’”

After returning from that face-to-face in San Francisco convinced that he was the right choice, Reed-Francois called Otzelberger to offer him the job.

“I said, ‘Are you ready to go on this journey with me and lead our young men?’ And he said, ‘Heck, yes.’ He didn’t even ask the salary.”

Two days later, Otzelberger arrived for his introductory press conference at the Thomas & Mack Center via helicopter.

It was exactly 378 days after Reed-Francois wrote his name on her list.

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

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