Can Erick Harper keep Barry Odom in Las Vegas?

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
UNLV's athletic director knows his football coach and his staff are a hot commodity after turning around a perennial losing program in one year.

LAS VEGAS — He stands in the back of the interview room, listening to the coach he hired nearly a year ago and the players speak. He deserves platitudes but doesn’t seek any.

You can make the case that the most important person connected with the turnaround of UNLV’s football program isn’t head coach Barry Odom. It’s not the coordinators and assistant coaches. It’s not the players. 

It’s Erick Harper, the school’s athletic director.

The former Kansas State football player who was smart enough to move on from Marcus Arroyo a year ago, then hire Odom away from Arkansas, where he was the associate head coach and defensive coordinator, looks downright brilliant right now with the school posting its first winning season in a decade, expecting to participate in the conference championship game and headed to a bowl game next month. But Harper faces a challenge he anticipated later rather than sooner.

The challenge? Keep his head coach and his staff on Maryland Parkway.

And if you think that’s going to be easy, you don’t know your UNLV football history.

In 1994, the Rebels beat Central Michigan 52-24 in the Las Vegas Bowl to cap off a 7-5 season. Jeff Horton, the head coach who had left rival Nevada to coach UNLV, was the Big West Coach of the Year. Horton had built a really good staff and they did an amazing job.

But when the vultures circled to pick apart his staff, Horton went to his athletic director. Charlie Cavagnaro was sympathetic. But he wasn’t able to get the funding needed to keep the staff together. By 1998, the Rebels were 0-11 and Horton was shown the door.

In 1999, UNLV somehow talked Hall of Fame coach John Robinson into being its head coach. Robinson turned things around quickly, going 8-5 in his second year, including a 31-14 win over Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl.

And even though he held the dual role of athletic director after dealing with Cavagnaro his first couple of years, Robinson was unable to generate the funding to keep together that staff he had built. By 2004, he stepped down as coach after a 2-9 season.

I’m sure Harper is acutely aware of that. I’m also guessing he has already begun to put things in motion to keep Odom and his staff here. 

Yes, there’s hefty buyout for Odom should he move on. But he’ll be the first to tell you that if not for his staff’s ability to teach, motivate and work with the players, UNLV would not be in this rarified air it currently enjoys.

And even a loss such as Saturday’s 37-31 defeat to San Jose State at Allegiant Stadium didn’t diminish what has been accomplished to date. UNLV is 9-3. The Rebels are expected to play in the Mountain West championship game Saturday, possibly at home against Boise State, maybe on the road at San Jose State. We’ll know officially come Sunday morning when the computers sort out the three-way tie between the Rebels, Spartans and Broncos, all who are 6-2 in conference play.

”I hate that we lost the game,” Odom said. “But we’ll play wherever they tell us.

“I don’t want to minimize what this team has done. To be 9-3 is a tremendous accomplishment and we’ll have more opportunities to build on what we’ve already done.”

As Harper listened to his coach, he knew that his role in all of this hasn’t changed. If anything, it became even more important going forward.

He has Odom under contract through 2027. Odom made $1.75 million this year. He’s hit a couple of bonuses already worth an addition $100,000. His name is being bandied about for openings, such as Texas A&M’s. His assistants are being sought out. Brennan Marion, the Rebels’ offensive coordinator and architect of the “Go-Go Offense” reportedly talked to San Diego State about its head coach vacancy a few days ago.

Harper said Odom has not been offered another job elsewhere. But he knows he has work to do if he wants to keep him.

“It means we hired the right people,” he said when UNLV’s coaches find themselves in demand elsewhere.  

Like many schools, UNLV has set up a group to help generate funding for its student-athletes’ NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) program. We’re talking millions of dollars in order to compete with other schools and conferences for recruits. Perhaps Harper can gain the group’s help for his head football coach and the staff.

Ultimately, it may not be enough to keep Odom and Marion in Las Vegas. Same for defensive coordinator Mike Scherer, special teams coordinator James Shibest and staffers like Jeff Fish, the team’s strength and conditioning coach. What offers they may get could be too enticing to turn down.  

Could the boosters find a way to write the necessary checks to keep Odom and his staff here? You’d like to think so. Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into the program over the decades with barely nominal results. Now, with success achieved  so quickly, it would be criminal to allow it to slip back to the losing ways of the past.

Harper knows this. And he is being proactive to ensure what he built doesn’t fall apart. 

“I talk to Dr. Whitfield (UNLV president Keith Whitfield) all the time,” Harper said. “We’re proud of what we’re building here.”

But it is also a test of Odom’s loyalty to UNLV. He had been itching to be in charge again ever since Missouri let him go in 2019. I know he has been well received in the community and he has spoken to that several times since his arrival. If he says he likes living here, I’m going to take him at his word. Because if there’s one thing Odom has been since the day he was named UNLV’s head football coach, it has been his honesty. If he says something, you can take it to the bank.

Ironically, the guy he coached against Saturday — Brent Brennan — faced a similar situation at this time a year ago. He had gotten San Jose State back on track, going 7-5 and going to a bowl game. Suddenly, his name was being bandied about for various vacancies. But he stayed with the Spartans and they are going to their third bowl in his seven years at San Jose State after a 1-5 start this season and may possibly be playing for the Mountain West title again if the computer spits things out San Jose’s way. AD Jeff Konya is squarely in his coach’s corner.

So Harper, the man who hired Odom, is going to do everything he can to keep him in Las Vegas. He needs to. Because who’s to say lightning will strike twice if Harper loses him?