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UNLV's 'Music Man' moves on


It was hard not to get caught up in super salesman Neal Smatresk’s high-energy spiel.

Wherever UNLV’s new president spoke, the air felt overcaffeinated. Smatresk was a drum major with a remarkable gift of gab, a genuine one-man pep rally. By the time the guy finished firing up the townsfolk, they were tempted to follow him down the street like rubes from “The Music Man.”

When Smatresk said, “Ya got trouble,” he was very persuasive. Despite the obvious fiscal and political obstacles, he appeared supremely confident — even unflappable. He was so excited to lead UNLV through its economic storm and into its bright future, he couldn’t wait to get started.

That was back in August 2009.

Barely four years later, Smatresk just closed the deal on the president’s job at the University of North Texas, Denton. Las Vegas townies are still tuning up their trombones, but our music man is moving on.

In the wake of the news, the names of former UNLV President Carol C. Harter and longtime local executive and university supporter Donald Snyder have been floated as potential interim leaders while a national search is conducted.

Either Harter or Snyder would be a solid choice. Frankly, I’d prefer to see either behind the president’s desk in a full-time capacity than be exposed to another high-energy pitch from another smiling super salesman.

Harter and Snyder both understand the unique challenges to the university in this community. The best part is, they live here and plan to continue to do so. That’s important.

At the Clark County School District, Pat Skorkowsky brings many attributes to his duties as superintendent. But one of the most reassuring parts of his résumé is that it’s clear he is deeply invested in the Southern Nevada community. He has some real skin in the game.

Growing and diversifying Southern Nevada’s economy will depend on producing a highly qualified workforce in an effort to attract new industries. That, in part, will take a UNLV president capable of dramatically increasing federal grants and encouraging a variety of businesses to step up and partner with the university.

Over on Maryland Parkway, it doesn’t take a doctorate from a distant land to spot the challenges in Nevada’s university system.

They are financial, philosophical, and even cultural. Improving the system and changing the culture take time and tenacity.

All this was well known long before Smatresk arrived here in River City.

UNLV has many bright spots despite its economic challenges. It continues to mature in a town that is only beginning to recognize its important place in our collective future prosperity. But we also have trouble, apparently too much trouble for the super salesman.

So, native Texan Smatresk is off to Denton, where he will assume the presidency in February and be close enough to watch a new grandchild grow up. How wonderful for him.

Surely some will remember Smatresk as the man with the plan to rocket UNLV into the ranks of the Top 100 “Tier 1” research universities in the country as part of his long-term strategy.

Before Mr. Get-Up-And-Go got up and went, he observed, “We recognize that gaining support for our Tier 1 initiative will require us to identify clearly the significant gaps between us and our Tier 1 comparators. And then to succeed, we must engage our key stakeholders in the plan for closing those gaps.

“This initiative takes everything we have prioritized — our curriculum, our enrollment, our focus on economic and cultural development, and so much more — and consolidates it under a single umbrella. The Tier 1 initiative will drive our campus into its future, and I look forward to taking that journey with you.”

Don’t laugh. Super salesman Neal Smatresk wrote those words in an edition of UNLV Magazine.

It was published way back in the fall of 2013.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.