Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

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In hindsight, zany UNLV coach’s radio show may have just been ahead of its time

Radio show

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Then-UNLV football coach John Robinson, left, talks with David Cassidy during the coach’s radio show in 1999.

On Wednesday, Tony Sanchez will drive over to a PKWY Tavern and sit down with the school’s radio announcing crew to continue the fifth season of his live weekly radio show — just like nearly all of the other 129 head coaches of FBS football teams.

However, 20 years ago this fall — just a few months before Y2K fears peaked and fizzled — the Rebels’ radio offering included something a bit different than the usual football chatter. In fact, the first year of the “John Robinson Radio Show” was arguably the craziest coaches program ever beamed to the airwaves. It’s a story that includes a future gridiron hall of famer, a host of old-school Las Vegas entertainers, an on-air hypnotism and even unexpected nudity as part of the general on-air hijinks of the 1999 season.

The set-up: UNLV, which won zero games the previous season, set out to gain some legitimacy in the newly launched Mountain West Conference by hiring Robinson, a highly respected college and pro coach, to lead the Rebel rebuild. And it worked — Robinson brought national attention to the young program from the moment his introductory press conference was carried live by two national sports networks. The former national champion at USC who had also excelled in the NFL with the Rams, eventually found his way back to the Trojans before being unceremoniously let go by his athletic director through a message famously left on an answering machine. Robinson, at age 62, was not ready to let go of coaching and — after a year off — relished a move to the desert to try his on-the-field luck in the Entertainment Capital of the World.

Robinson looked to use his reputation to repair the image of his new program, which had only posted three winning campaigns since star quarterback Randall Cunningham’s senior season in 1984. Early results were promising. He did national TV ads for the NCAA, appeared on an ESPN game show and posed in front of the since-imploded Riviera for a photograph that became the cover shot of USA Today’s national college football preview.

Because the Rebels had just suffered through their first and only winless season, their new coach knew he needed to be different to get fans’ attention, and what better way than to “Vegas-up” things, including his own contractually necessary weekly radio show.

First change: Schedule the show to air after Monday Night Football for a late-night feel. Second: Stage it in a recently completed locals resort. And the biggest change: Set out to talk as little about football as possible. The program was to be more of an entertainment show with some Rebel football sprinkled in. Guests should include a celebrity each week — and preferably not from the football world.

“I had done a lot of coach’s shows over the years and they are the worst things going,” said Robinson, who continues to be involved in the sport and recently signed on as special adviser to the head coach at LSU. “The only place they work are in the Deep South, where there is nothing else to do but follow football.

“I was tired of the same old shows — and we didn’t have the best football club — so I wanted to do something that would keep people interested. The show I did when I was with the Rams won a local Emmy because we didn’t do the usual.”

Tasked with co-hosting the venture was UNLV’s play-by-play man that season, longtime Las Vegas radio man Tony Cordasco.

“At first, I thought it would be a really great show to just talk football with one of the legends of the game because UNLV football had a coach fans wanted to hear from — about the X’s and O’ and all of the history he brought with him to the program,” said Cordasco, who was on the mic again for UNLV’s season-opener vs. Southern Utah via online stream. “He told me that he wanted it to be entertaining and not about football, because he didn’t know how the team was going to be. He wanted it to be a variety show, so I suddenly realized that I was not only a host but also a booking agent.”

The debut episode — set in the entryway of Sunset Station’s now-defunct Sunset Brewing Company — looked a lot like Robinson’s vision. First up in the guest chair was former “Partridge Family” teen heartthrob David Cassidy, who at the time was a headliner on the Strip. Cassidy, to his credit, was all-in, even wearing a UNLV football jacket as he chatted up Robinson. Cheerleaders and Hey Reb were on-hand while season-ticket holders filled every seat and members of the school’s pep band played above the applause at commercial breaks.

“I’m not sure how we got Cassidy but for that first episode, the whole place was abuzz,” Cordasco said. “There were a lot of people there and it was very entertaining. I didn’t get to say much, maybe a couple of ‘Partridge Family’ references, as Coach was very charming with him on the air. I thought, ‘Huh, maybe he is onto something here with this format.’ ”

Ben Chulick, who currently runs the marketing efforts for the University of Arizona athletics department, was a marketing assistant at UNLV in 1999 and said spicing up a traditional show format fit well with the city’s vibe.

“Coach Robinson really tried to embrace Las Vegas being the Entertainment Capital,” Chulick said. “He used that platform to get some big talent and get people to pay attention to UNLV football. David Cassidy was one of the biggest stars on the Strip and Sunset Station was a new hot spot in town. What could go wrong?”

On the field, the Rebels broke a tortuous 26-game road losing skid in the opener at North Texas and then returned to the Lone Star State a week later. In the Wonder of Waco against Baylor, a miraculous 100-yard fumble return by cornerback Kevin Thomas on the game’s final play gave UNLV a 2-0 start.

The radio show, meanwhile, would soon move from the pub into Club Madrid to make use of the stage and hopefully retain some of the fans from the Monday Night Football remotes. Local musician Tommy Rocker would sit in some weeks and serve as a de facto house band, strumming his guitar during commercial breaks. The eclectic guest list included some showbiz veterans from Robinson’s youth, including one of the Andrews Sisters and Bob Flanigan from the vocal group the Four Freshmen. Pro Football Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, who played for Robinson at USC, dropped by one week, as did a Robinson fan from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

“Sunset Station’s GM, Don Marrandino, was a big Springsteen guy and he was hosting Nils Lofgren,” Cordasco said. “Turns out Nils wanted to see Coach Robinson, so he was our surprise guest that week. I’m not exactly sure Coach knew who he was, but they talked about the similarities between the music world and the sports world and preparing to perform. It was a fascinating interview and Nils was my favorite guest on the show.”

UNLV’s fortunes, however, would soon take a dip both on the field and on the air. Reality set in for the young Rebels as a six-game losing streak thinned the weekly show crowds to single digits while also proving the team was still a year away from getting enough talent to win consistently (the next year, UNLV won eight games and capped its season by thumping Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl).

As the ’99 season became a drag, so did the radio show’s guest list.

“I quickly realized that we needed to do this 12 times, so I reached out to hotels (and) checked in on anyone I saw in magazines who looked entertaining,” Cordasco said. “By the end of the year, the pickings were slim. We brought on a hypnotist and that sort of backfired. That was not the best radio ever.”

With Robinson an unwilling subject, UNLV’s new star wide receiver, Nate Turner, was invited to the stage to take part in the hypnotism but had a hard time going along with the gags in front at a mostly empty room and a no-doubt befuddled listening audience.

Reached by telephone in California, Turner claims no memory of the stage act. “I have a lot of great memories of my time with Coach Rob at UNLV but being hypnotized on the radio isn’t one of them,” said Turner, who went on to a brief NFL career before an injury pushed him into the coaching profession. “I don’t remember any of that — so maybe that guy really did clean out my memory. Maybe it did work!”

One episode the school’s staff would like to forget was the week a preceding radio show in the same space got a little out of hand and a wild Monday Night Football wet T-shirt contest featured a couple of contestants forgetting to keep their shirts on just minutes before Robinson arrived to do his program in the dimly lit club.

The most bizarre guest, however, booked on the show during its run may have been the professional juggler. Yes, a juggler — on the radio.

“I don’t remember where that one came from,” Cordasco said. “I may have owed a PR person a favor. I thought he was going to talk about his craft but he just wanted to actually do his act. Doing play-by-play of a guy juggling didn’t play too well on the radio.”

Ultimately, the Rebels won three games that season and the following year the show changed days, time slots and locations, beginning a run at the old Z’Tejas Southwestern Grill on Paradise Road.

“Larry Kahn came in from L.A. to take over on play-by-play and I moved to analyst and Coach Robinson wanted to get back to traditional football,” Cordasco said. “The shenanigans ended after that first year.”

Two decades later, Cordasco insists the unique format was just ahead of its time.

“I think Coach Robinson really enjoyed himself,” he said. “He had a passion for things outside of football and was good at digging deeper in other people’s professions. I think sometimes we spent, what, five or six minutes talking about that week’s game? It wasn’t forced. It was free-wheeling, like this city was in the ’90s. It was a blast and would be fantastic if someone tried it in today’s Las Vegas with all that is going on here now.”

Robinson, who retired from coaching after leading the Rebels for six seasons, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2009. He recently said that considering the quality of his first UNLV team, he had no regrets in eschewing the traditional radio show format when he hit town.

“People in Las Vegas are used to being entertained, so we came up with something different,” he said. “The good old days of bad radio. We wanted to have a good time, and we did!”

Mark Wallington is senior assistant athletic director at UNLV.