Is UNLV ready to join the Pac-12? Absolutely

The Rebels are putting together a strong resume to warrant a long look from the Pac-12 as it attempts to replace USC and UCLA.

LAS VEGAS — As the calendar prepares to flip to 2023, UNLV is looking at a potential change in athletics unlike at any time in the 66-year history of the university.

The Pacific 12 Conference is going to be shopping for two new tenants after USC and UCLA decided to leave for the Big Ten. All indications point to San Diego State as the leader in the clubhouse to replace the Bruins. That means someone else has to take the Trojans’ spot. After all, it wouldn’t be right for the Pac-12 to become the Pac-11, would it?

So why not UNLV?

There has been much conjecture over the summer and into the fall about the Pac-12’s future in the wake of USC’s and UCLA’s pending departure. There were fears other schools might follow and leave the conference’s future in serious doubt. So far, there have been no additional defections from George Kliavkoff’s league. But who’s to say something doesn’t happen in the spring or next summer?

If I’m the Pac-12 and I’m trying to fill the vacancies, I’m looking to Southern Nevada as part of the solution. 

UNLV president Dr. Keith Whitfield has been paying attention. He hears the rumors. For all we know, he has been contacted by the Pac-12 to gauge his university’s interest.

On Dec. 7, UNLV hired Barry Odom as its head football coach. That morning, Whitfield said all the right things when I asked him about conference realignment and UNLV’s place in it.

“Who knows what’s going to happen?” Whitfield said. “We love the Mountain West and the competition it provides us. If an opportunity comes up, we’ll process it like anything else.”

UNLV has had one of the nation’s worst football programs for 20 years. It has been to just two bowl games this century. Marcus Arroyo  was unable to get it done and Odom said his goal is to win immediately. A successful football program, one that can at least be competitive in a league such as the Pac-12, would be an important component of any move to that conference. If Odom, who hired Bobby Petrino a couple of weeks ago, can put an exciting offense on the field and win in the Mountain West, it would be a big step in the right direction. It might even get people to come out and watch.

“We want to get the house in order,” Whitfield said, referring to having success at Allegiant Stadium, where UNLV plays its home football games. Playing in one of the NFL’s best and most modern stadiums is certainly a plus for the school’s resume. 

So is the revival of men’s and women’s basketball. A trip to the NCAA Tournament by Kevin Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels and an encore by Lindy La Rocque’s Lady Rebels this spring would also look good on the athletic resume. Both teams excelled in the preseason, the men going 11-1, the women 10-2. UNLV has also had success both at the conference and national level in its Olympic sports, a source of pride for the Pac-12, which bills itself “The Conference of Champions” and takes sports such as swimming, tennis, golf and track and field seriously.

There’s also an academic side to this equation. When Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 back in 2010, it did so as research institutions that boasted strong medical schools among other scholastic enterprises. UNLV has a law school, a dental school, the Desert Research Institute, a top-flight hotel administration school, an award winning architecture department and most recently, a medical school which launched in 2017. That’s a far cry from the “Tumbleweed Tech” moniker critics tagged the school with back in the 1960s and ‘70s. 

Whitfield has a lot to sell the Pac-12’s presidents if and when he gets the opportunity for UNLV to gain inclusion. Ultimately, it will be the presidents’ call whether or not Whitefield’s university joins the Pac-12. 

There’s one other bargaining chip in this equation — Kliavkoff. Before succeeding Larry Scott as commissioner of the Pac-12, Kliavkoff spent 35 years living in Las Vegas and working for MGM Resorts. He has seen the city’s growth into a major league sports city and knows what’s coming. The NBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer are all potential landing spots for the city. The F1 auto race will be run down the Las Vegas Strip next November. The Super Bowl will be played here in 2024. The Men’s Basketball Final Four will be at Allegiant Stadium in 2028. 

The Pac-12 already has events in Las Vegas. Its championship football game between USC and Utah at Allegiant Stadium was a huge success with a sellout crowd and a national television audience. The men’s basketball tournament is firmly entrenched at T-Mobile Arena and the women’s tournament is also in Las Vegasplaying at Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay. 

Kliavkoff knows the value of the city. He has seen the growth of UNLV. If he needs to sell the presidents on Las Vegas, I’m sure he can.

But there is one potential fly in this ointment — a political one. 

The Nevada Board of Regents may put the kibosh on any move by UNLV to leave the Mountain West unless it includes the University of Nevada. The Northern Nevada regents in particular may insist that unless the Wolf Pack joins the Rebels, they may not support any deal to join the Pac-12.

Such a move would be short-sighted and frankly, spiteful. Why should it be UNLV’s fault if the Pac-12 doesn’t want Nevada? Why would you deny a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for one institution because the other school isn’t afforded the same?

The financial benefits for a potential move by UNLV to the Pac-12 are night and day. Fiscal projections for the Pac-12 in 2024 are $39.3 million per school. The Mountain West’s divvying up of its pie is just over $4 million per school. You do the math.

So while Whitfield is cautious when speaking about realignment, he’s smart enough to know that this would be a life-changing business decision should UNLV get the chance to join the Pac-12. 

Maybe if it happens, UNLV can pay Nevada a reverse indemnity fee, similar to what UCLA will do for California. Perhaps not to the extent of the $2 million to $10 million Cal will get annually, but maybe something, say a couple million, to ease the financial pain of the Wolf Pack remaining in the Mountain West. Perhaps part of the deal is the two Silver State schools play each other in football and basketball every year, which was the case when UNLV and Nevada played in separate leagues. 

So as we enter 2023, we do so knowing that it potentially could be an historic year on Maryland Parkway. 

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