Running back Mike Thomas didn’t know much about Las Vegas when he looked for a place to transfer after deciding he no longer wanted to play at Oklahoma.
He didn’t even know a university existed in Las Vegas, and it would have been difficult to blame him. UNLV had just begun playing football five years earlier at a school that was only 16 years old.
But Thomas took a chance, and he became the program’s first star. He rushed for 3,149 yards in two seasons to set a school record that, amazingly, still stands.
“I’m real surprised by that,” Thomas said. “I tell you why it’s so lasted so long, they didn’t get another guy from Texas.”
He laughed as he said that, but maybe Thomas was on to something.
The record appears certain to finally fall this season — by one of Thomas’ fellow Texans.
Tim Cornett, from Houston, enters his senior season 700 yards behind Thomas. If Cornett stays healthy and averages the 94.8 yards he gained last season, the mark would fall Oct. 26 at UNR.
“It would mean a lot,” Cornett said. “To have the rushing record at a university is big. The 700 yards, I can’t stop there. I’ve got to keep pushing through.”
Cornett, though, is about far more than numbers.
He badly wants to win, having endured three consecutive two-victory seasons. And now Cornett wants to carry the Rebels, and he has put in the work to do so.
Cornett changed his eating habits early in the year, even meeting with a nutritionist. He then began eschewing the five trips a week to order off McDonald’s dollar menu to now beginning the morning with a smoothie and oatmeal and proceeding with two meals and two snacks throughout the day.
This new diet allows him to make an occasional stop at Chipotle, but Cornett might balance that by carrying a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich to eat at other times.
He also has added 10 pounds of muscle to get up to 215 pounds on his 6-foot frame.
Cornett wants to not just get on the field but stay on it. Coach Bobby Hauck likes to rotate backs, and last season Cornett spent the second quarter of games standing on the sideline.
“This is my last year, so if we play 100 plays (in a game), I want to play at least 90,” Cornett said. “I’ve been putting the work into it. It’s getting to the point where I can take that abuse on my body.”
It’s not completely up to Cornett, of course. Hauck and his coaches maintain final say on how playing time is distributed.
“We need these guys to hold up, especially at that position where there’s a collision on every play,” Hauck said. “Young people don’t necessarily see the big picture, so that’s where it falls to the coaching staff. So we’ll be rotating for sure.”
What made Cornett’s season so remarkable last year is that he suffered a torn labrum in his left shoulder on a late hit in the Rebels’ season opener against Minnesota.
He spent most of the season ignoring the pain, pounding and dashing his way to eight 100-yard rushing games. By the time he was done, Cornett had run for 1,232 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
“When you have an injury like that, it makes you not even want to play,” Cornett said. “You don’t want to be out there getting hurt. I’d push my way out there and do what I could, but I’d have to come out a lot.”
Even so, it was the first 1,000-yard season for a UNLV back since Dominique Dorsey gained 1,261 in 2004, and Cornett’s total was the fifth highest in school history.
Thomas owns two of the top three season rushing records, with 1,741 yards in 1973 and 1,408 the following year. Those sandwich the 1,658 yards put up by Ickey Woods in 1987.
Thomas joined the Rebels when the program was in its infancy after beginning his college career at Oklahoma.
“I really thought I would enjoy playing at Oklahoma, but I didn’t,” Thomas said. “I didn’t like the town. I needed a change, and I got a call from Vegas.”
Thomas was asked on that call if he could be on a plane that night to Las Vegas. He didn’t hesitate.
“It turned out to be the best thing for me,” Thomas said. “It gave me a chance to grow and mature and become the man that I am, so I’m very thankful for that.”
He wasn’t thankful at first, though, discovering the Rebels had gone 1-10 in 1972.
But with Thomas — and some other key players — success came immediately.
UNLV landed in the top 10 in Division II in 1973 for the first time, and Thomas led that classification in rushing in becoming the program’s first All-American. In a 41-15 victory over Santa Clara, he rushed for 314 yards, one of nine school records he set in that game.
The following year, Thomas helped the Rebels finish the regular season undefeated (11-0) for the only time in school history. They also made their first postseason appearance, advancing to the semifinals before losing to Delaware.
Thomas again was named an All-American.
“They brought in some real good junior college transfers,” Thomas said. “Things started happening for us, and people started following us a little bit. They did an excellent job of recruiting my senior year, and we were able to put together quite a few wins.”
He went on to become UNLV’s first NFL Draft pick when the Washington Redskins selected Thomas in the fifth round in 1975. He then was named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year after rushing for 919 yards.
Thomas played six seasons in the NFL, four with Washington and his final two with the San Diego Chargers. His best season occurred in 1976 when Thomas rushed for 1,101 yards, and he finished his career with 4,196 yards.
“(UNLV) got me prepared to go to the next level, and I’ll always be grateful for that,” Thomas said.
After football, Thomas went on to work in the oil industry, running a pipe company in Houston. He was forced to retire two years ago after contracting COPD, a lung disease.
“I don’t get to run like I used to, but I still go to the gym three days a week,” said Thomas, who turned 60 this summer. “I’m doing real fine.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.