LAS VEGAS — The timing may have been a little odd but the decision to make a change in the head coach for UNLV’s football program wasn’t.
Marcus Arroyo had to go.
Athletic Director Erick Harper said Monday after Arroyo’s dismissal following a 5-7 season and an overall 7-23 record in three years with the Rebels, that he came to his decision based on Arroyo’s body of work. That’s AD-speak for “It’s about more than wins and losses.”
Was there a disconnect between coach and AD? Was there a fracture between Arroyo and the most notable boosters who were helping pay his $1.6 million annual salary? Had he done enough to improve his relationship with Las Vegas’ high school football community and with the media who covered his team?
More than likely, there wasn’t enough progress for Harper, a former football player at Kansas State, to keep Arroyo on the job.
“These decisions are never easy,” Harper told reporters at a hastily-called press conference at the team’s Fertitta Football Complex just minutes before the players were to head to a ceremony to paint the Fremont Cannon red after the Rebels defeated in-state rival Nevada 27-22 Saturday at Allegiant Stadium. “We came to the conclusion that it was time to make a move.
“We had some success at the beginning of the season. But then we stalled out for six weeks and we had a very struggling game against UNR. We did not see a trajectory of the program to where it was winning championships.”
Harper said the decision was made with the full support of university president Keith Whitfield.
Harper was willing to give Arroyo a pass on his first season, one where the Rebels went 0-6 in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite more than doubling the program’s win total of two in 2021 with five in 2022, something seemed amiss.
Whatever it was, Harper wasn’t saying. But he did say that should UNLV be invited to participate in a bowl game next month, the school would accept a bid. In the meantime, Kenwick Thompson, the team’s associate head coach and linebackers coach, will be the interim head coach. UNLV is still in the mix for one of the final three open bowl spots despite having fewer than the requisite six victories. The school’s Academic Progress Report score is second only to Rice among teams being considered to fill a vacancy. A lot of things would have to break right for the Rebels to keep playing but the school apparently will be ready in the event the call comes later this week.
As for Arroyo, he is owed $2.3 million by UNLV for the final two years of his contract. He was not made available to the media and when Harper was asked how Arroyo took the news, he said, “You’ll have to ask him.”
Harper said there was no specific timetable for hiring a coach. He said the funding will be in place to hire the right person and he said it will depend on the depth of the candidate pool to determine who and when UNLV hires its coach.
Harper said it is important to hire someone with head coaching experience. Could that someone be Gary Patterson, who rebuilt TCU’s sagging football fortunes and over 22 years won six conference titles and went 181-79 before stepping down after the 2021 season? Patterson is currently at Texas serving as a special assistant to head coach Steve Sarkisian.
Does he want to return to the sidelines as a head coach? Could UNLV afford Patterson? Is Patterson interested? Or are there others whose names are familiar that might be targets for UNLV?
Whoever that someone is will not have a lack of facilities to work with. The Rebels play their home games at 65,00-seat Allegiant Stadium, one of the NFL’s best buildings and home to the Raiders. The $10 million Fertitta Complex on campus is as good a facility as there is in the country.
“Consistency and support; There’s been a lack of consistency,” Harper said. “There’s been turnover at the athletic director’s position. There’s been turnover at the president’s position. There’s been turnover in other areas in the department and we need to stop that turnover. The revolving door has to stop. And to do that, we have to be in lockstep together at all times, across the board, in all our sports.”
The same is true with the head football coach. Since 1982 when Harvey Hyde was in charge, only one head coach has lasted longer than five years — Hall of Famer John Robinson, who served six years at the helm. Tony Sanchez, Arroyo’s predecessor, lasted five years as did his predecessor, Bobby Hauck, and his predecessor, Mike Sanford.
So here we go again. Another coaching search. Another chance to try and get it right. This will be Harper’s first major hire since he took over as AD a year ago after Desiree Reed-Francois left for Missouri in August 2021. She was the one who hired Arroyo in late 2019.
Now, with Harper in charge and the school trying to position itself for potential conference realignment — hello Pacific 12? — he has to find the right person who can not only win in the Mountain West, UNLV’s current conference, but have the program be able to compete should it leave for the Pac-12 or elsewhere.
“Realignment is still up in the air,” Harper said. “How it factors into the hiring process, who knows?
“We know we have to hire the right person. I know this is the biggest hire and this is the time for us to do that.”
In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see the transfer portal flooded with names of Arroyo’s players. They probably won’t be as patient as Harper. But here’s his chance to put his mark on a program that has been floundering in the desert for the majority of its existence. He can’t afford to miss.