Back on Mountain West Conference media day in July, UNLV running back Tim Cornett was not pleased when the freeloaders in the press box predicted the Rebels would finish fifth among six teams in the newly minted Western Division.
“I feel they disrespected our team,” said Cornett, who, respect him or not, is a pretty good running back.
Cornett also said the media “had no other choice than to pick us like that.” This was more to the point, if you’ve been watching UNLV play football the past 26 years.
On Oct. 4, 1987, the medians on Boulder Highway were not landscaped as they are today. They were lined with broken beer bottles and broken dreams.
I didn’t notice the broken dreams. Driving into town from the Arizona badlands, I noticed only that a gallon of gas at ampm on East Fremont Street cost 78 cents.
On Oct. 3, 1987, the UNLV football team had beaten the UNR football team 24-19 in front a crowd of 25,584 at the little football stadium I had just driven past. Six days later, I was at the little football stadium on Boulder Highway watching UNLV beat Utah State 28-27 to even its record at 2-2.
Alas, the Rebels would not get over the proverbial hump cast by the likes of Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Pacific, which no longer play football.
UNLV lost the last game of 1987 at home to Northern Illinois to finish 5-6. This was the season the Rebels had a big running back with a Jheri curl and thick legs named Elbert L. Woods.
Ickey Woods led the NCAA in rushing that season. This was before he invented the Ickey Shuffle in the pros.
So the Rebels back then looked much like other college football teams in this part of the country looked back then, perhaps even a little better, because they had Ickey Woods. But they had him only a little while and then the Bengals drafted him.
And so here I am, shuffling into my 27th season as an observer of the UNLV football team, having observed only three winning seasons among the past 26.
In 1992 under Jim Strong, the Rebels beat Northern Arizona and Montana State to clinch a 6-5 season; in 1995 under Jeff Horton, they went 7-5, tied for first place in the Big West Conference and defeated Central Michigan in Las Vegas Bowl III; in 2000 under John Robinson they pulled out their last three games with rabbit’s feet and magic elixirs before routing Arkansas in Las Vegas Bowl IX to finish 8-5.
There have been 26 college football seasons since I first rolled across Hoover Dam. There have been three winning ones. And now you bypass Hoover Dam on the way from Arizona, the way UNR and countless others now bypass UNLV on the football field.
It could be argued the Rebels’ run of futility over the past quarter-century is unsurpassed, especially when one considers that during the same period, the Chicago Cubs have had 10 winning seasons; and the Detroit Lions have had seven; and the Cincinnati Bengals have had six, including the last two in a row.
Anything is possible. But normally it takes seven years.
This would explain why men went to the moon in 1969 after President Kennedy had said it would be hard in 1962; and why the New York Mets became World Series champs in 1969 after Casey Stengel, their first manager, said that would be hard — if not impossible — in 1962 when the Metropolitans went 40-120.
Sometimes it takes more than seven years though. Sometimes it takes a guy who owns a shoe company to write some checks, and I’m mostly talking about Phil Knight up in Oregon, not the guy who owns Zappos.
So the UNLV football team will run onto field at Minnesota tonight with a paltry all-time winning percentage of .408, 123rd among 126 in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But I see a ray of hope amid clouds of despair, because UNLV nearly beat Minnesota last year, and that was before Tim Cornett had a chip on his shoulder.
I see Tom Seaver throwing heat, and that errant throw hitting J.C. Martin on the elbow, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking small steps and giant leaps in the Sea of Tranquility. And I see Bobby Hauck going for it on 4th-and-1, and maybe even 4th-and-2, because Hauck has got to be feeling the pressure, even if he won’t admit to it.
I see Tim Cornett running with the football, striving for media respect, hoping the 2½-star recruit playing right guard or left tackle can get in the way of somebody. Because when you’ve been down for as long as the Rebels — and nobody’s writing checks — getting in the way of somebody isn’t always easy.
I do not, however, see a winning season.
But where there once was broken glass in the median, I see a palm tree and desert grasses and wildflowers beginning to bloom, which proves only that I am an optimist or an idiot.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski