DALLAS - The first tear slid slowly down his right cheek, unhurried in its progress as if every speck of skin should absorb its purpose. The connection between losing and UNLV football was accepted for so long, unfeigned emotion following a defeat had over time become indiscernible.
It’s no longer that way.
Losing has become crushing.
That, more than anything else, is how you change a culture.
Three hours does not tell the story of a revived program, and it certainly can’t encapsulate the sadness a player such as junior wide receiver Devante Davis exhibited following UNLV’s 36-14 loss to North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Wednesday at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
Davis opened his mouth to answer a postgame question, and it all came rushing out in his muddled words and cracked voice and broken heart and eyes welling with tears, all the losing from past seasons, all the hard work to turn things around, all the times UNLV played a foil to another’s success.
“There’s a room full of players and coaches feeling the same way right now,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “It means a lot to these guys. It’s important to them. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here. We’re hoping that feeling becomes a little contagious in our community. That’s what we want most, for everyone in our town to understand how important this is to us and for it to be important to them, too.
“We waited a long time to get to this point. Football is an emotional game. If you don’t play that way, you don’t have a chance. Our guys are playing that way now.”
They didn’t play all that well in the school’s first bowl appearance since 2000, partly because North Texas was a better team and partly because the Rebels couldn’t do those things that keep you in any game. Couldn’t run the ball, couldn’t block, couldn’t keep the other guys off the field.
But the fact an eighth win wasn’t earned shouldn’t discount how UNLV managed seven this season, how it won five more times than in any of the previous three years. The Rebels last won at least seven games in a season 13 years ago. Apathy had taken up a permanent residence until now.
“I think there’s something that went into this year and that’s gone into this program that is going to go for a long time, and that is it’s good to have pride in something,” senior quarterback Caleb Herring said. “I think that’s what we have now. Our pride. Our work ethic.
“I think going forward for our guys, there’s plenty of people that are capable of replacing any outgoing senior.”
Some will have to if the Rebels are to continue this journey of improvement, given the nonconference schedule in 2014 includes road games against Brigham Young and Arizona. Players need to be replaced. Significant ones. Herring is gone, and if you don’t think offering a competent quarterback to fit your system is important, take a peek at all the losing programs across the country that lack one. Tim Cornett also departs as the school’s all-time leading rusher and leaves some pretty massive-size cleats to fill.
The entire offensive line returns, and there won’t be a better Mountain West receiver — and few better nationally — than Davis. UNLV’s defense loses four senior starters; and while it improved greatly in some spots under new coordinator Tim Hauck and simply wore out Wednesday after receiving no help from its offense, it’s still a pipe with several leaks.
But a major hurdle has been cleared by the Rebels. Football matters again for the first time in forever, and that’s a much bigger deal than being outplayed by a well-coached, ultra-physical side over three hours on New Year’s Day.
More important, losing matters; it’s no longer accepted without pure emotion.
“It’s bad we had to walk out of here after a game like that,” Davis said in barely a whisper. “Coach Hauck has made us a tough, nasty, physical team. That’s not going to change. Everybody coming back will be on the same page. We don’t want to feel this way again going forward.”
With that, they were off, Hauck putting his arm around Davis as the two exited a press room. Herring and Davis walked into an elevator and, as the doors closed, a talented and emotional junior wide receiver stared straight ahead.
He lifted his left hand to his right cheek and wiped away a tear, one sliding slowly across so many examples of playing the foil and yet determined to change its course for good.
It’s true. Losing is crushing now.
Translation: UNLV football has taken a major step forward.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.