Sunday, June 23, 2019 | 2 a.m.
With Desiree-Reed Francois recently completing her second full year as UNLV’s athletic director, she sat down with the Sun for an exclusive interview about her performance, her new basketball coach, the status of her football coach, her vision for the future and more.
What progress do you feel UNLV athletics has made over the last two years?
Our priority when we got here was to provide a first-class, holistic student-athlete experience, and to create an environment where they could pursue their hopes and dreams — for Bryson Stott to be able to go play major league baseball or Alyssa Anderson (women's basketball) to go off and become a doctor. We have a lot of work to do, but if you look at our core priorities we are making strides. We’ve had four consecutive 3.0’s, which had never been done here. We had never had one 3.0, and now we’re at our highest GPA in the history of UNLV athletics, and I’m proud of that.
We have $2.04 billion in facilities projects that are going to be transformational, with the new stadium and the Fertitta Football Complex and the Excellence Center. And then we’ve been able to revitalize and refurbish locker rooms for women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, softball. We’ve also put in new scoreboards, but that’s a little more for the fans. In terms of the business enterprise, in order to provide for our student-athletes we’ve got to have a strong business foundation. We’ve been able to balance the budget, and our business office led by Marcus [Bowman] has done a really great job. We’ve grown our Rebel Athletic Fund membership by about 30 percent, we’ve achieved record corporate philanthropy, we’re up 242 percent this year alone in [new] men’s basketball season tickets, so the business enterprise has a strong foundation.
How do you think the fans and local community feel about the job you’ve done?
One of our top initiatives when we got here was to listen to people and make sure that we’re responsive. We can’t do this by ourselves; it takes an entire community. We’ve tried to be responsive to what our fans want. One thing fans told us they wanted was these all-you-can-eat plans, so we have those new ticket packages. We have the Faithful Fan initiative, and that’s been really successful. We’re up 429 percent in [new] football season tickets because of that Faithful Fan initiative. We moved the student section. We’ve created student lounges. We even brought in Chet (Buchanan, a local radio personality who returned to emcee at Rebel games after a four-year absence), and that was all because we listened to our fans.
After an offseason coaching change, how do you feel about the direction of the men’s basketball program?
I’m very enthused about trajectory of the program. T.J. (Otzelberger) has a plan, and already he has made progress on that plan. He’s assembled a great staff that has good chemistry that you can just feel. His recruiting has been successful. Our current student-athletes are engaged, and the schedule has improved and will continue to improve. The caravan went really well. We know how important it is to be out in the community. We did about 2,000 hours of community service last year, and the basketball caravan did 33 appearances in about three weeks. It was important that people got to know and see the new leader of Runnin’ Rebel basketball. There’s a lot to be hopeful about Runnin’ Rebel basketball.
Did candidates share your enthusiasm for the future of the basketball program? As you conducted the search, was this a job that people wanted?
People know Runnin’ Rebel basketball. There is strong brand equity in this basketball program. When you are hiring a high-profile coach, whether it was Justin Fuente at Virginia Tech, Cuonzo Martin at the University of Tennessee or T.J. Otzelberger at UNLV (all hires in which Reed-Francois played a role), because of the quality of the candidates that you want, there’s competition. There is scrutiny, sometimes very intense scrutiny, so there is also going to be a lot of recruiting as well. In a sense, you’re putting your family’s livelihood in their hands, and that coach is putting his family’s livelihood in your hands, so a lot of it is about fit. There has to be an alignment of values. So there’s a lot of recruiting and sharing and getting to know one another, because to be successful you’ve got to have faith and trust in one another.
Otzelberger’s entire salary is being paid from UNLV’s athletics budget, with no outside supplementation by the program’s boosters. What role did the boosters play in the coaching search?
I think that’s important. Candidly, we had to answer that question from candidates. A candidate doesn’t want to have any question as to where he or she reports. They want to have faith that they are part of the athletic department and the athletic department can afford the investment.
You’ve had a chance to get to know the sports landscape here. Can Las Vegas ever be a college football town?
Absolutely. We believe in comprehensive excellence across the board for all of our sports. I said from the very beginning when I got here, if you’re gonna keep score, you might as well win. Football has great upside here, with the Fertitta Football Complex and that new Las Vegas Stadium. Recruiting in the valley, in Southern Nevada and with the growth in high school football there is no reason why we can’t be incredibly successful in football.
What is Tony Sanchez’s status?
No one is more passionate about winning and being bowl eligible than coach Sanchez, and we’re going to continue investing in our program.
What is your relationship with Sanchez?
He knows that I’m going to work incredibly hard to give him every resource to be successful. There is no one that is rooting for these young people and this program more than me. Winning is contagious and we want all of our programs and all of our student-athletes to experience that. Our community deserves that, and I don’t think we have to apologize for expecting to perennially compete for Mountain West Conference championships and beyond.
Sanchez’s contract had been extended by the previous athletic director just months before you took over. Do you want an opportunity to hire your own football coach?
It doesn’t matter to me who selected the head coach. What matters to me is what kind of experience my student-athletes have. Like I tell all of our coaches, we need to have a plan and we need to see progress.
UNLV’s five-year apparel contract with Nike expired at the end of May. What’s the status of the new deal?
It's progressing. It's a competitive landscape, but I'm very optimistic for the future. I’m looking for something that provides my student-athletes with the best possible opportunities. The landscape has shifted and apparel companies are making less. It’s competitive, but I’m very optimistic.
Under previous leadership, UNLV was very open about its desire to join a power conference. Is that still a priority?
We always want to be prepared and position UNLV for future success, and how you do that is by making decisions based upon what’s in the best interest of your student-athletes. Have a great culture, do things the right way and success will be the byproduct. Of course, we want to win and be successful in the conference that we’re in. We’ve got to do that. We’ve got to perennially challenge for championships in the Mountain West conference.
What are your priorities for the next year?
I want to finish our final season at Sam Boyd Stadium strong. We want to evaluate the next steps for Sam Boyd Stadium, and the transition into the Las Vegas Stadium is critical. We want to continue improving our game day experience for our fans. We have the Excellence Center, which I’m really excited about developing that. We’re taking Lied (Athletic Complex) and repurposing it, repositioning it and providing a first-class, quality comprehensive space for our student-athletes, from sports medicine to psychology, to nutrition, strength and conditioning, academics — everything a student-athlete needs to be successful is going to be in the Lied, but we’ve got to reconfigure it a little bit. That’s next.
What would you say to fans who may have lost interest in UNLV athletics in recent years?
On behalf of our 400 student-athletes, thank you. We are going to work very hard to make you proud. We have good momentum and we need you to be a part of this journey.