Grilling awaits UNLV, UNR athletic hires


It was a potential Wolf Pack coach on the hot seat, but it even made some UNLV officials squirm.

Brian Polian had just agreed to become UNR’s football coach, but he still had to go before the state Board of Regents.

Polian was put through what amounted to a second job interview Jan. 11.

Regents grilled Polian in the public meeting at UNLV, which also was broadcast on the Internet. They asked him tough questions about his credentials to succeed Chris Ault and about the details of his five-year, $2.8 million deal.

Regent Cedric Crear even attacked Polian for attending a reception with supporters before the board had voted whether to approve the contract.

At the end of the day, the regents approved the deal, though Crear and two others voted against it.

In the next few months, UNLV will hammer out its deal with a new athletic director in the same, very public forum.

UNLV president Neal Smatresk said the public airing isn’t altogether a bad thing.

“It forces us to hold open, fair and honest above-board searches that are squeaky clean with procedures being followed and no one being blindsided,” Smatresk said. “It keep individuals from cutting really bad deals for the institution with no checks and balances.”

Some administrators and coaches grumble privately about the process, but the system probably won’t change. The regents, who are elected officials, aren’t about to give up the public discussion of a prominent hire such as a football coach or athletic director.

Still, no other state holds its job searches in the same open manner as Nevada, said Todd Turner, who conducted the coaching search on UNR’s behalf.

“The thing that struck me as most unusual was the approval of the Board of Regents of the contracts were in an open meeting, particularly one when the respective coach is present,” Turner said. “I felt that was really strange.

“It isn’t unusual to have a governing board have an interest or purview over major contracts. What’s most unusual is it’s a personnel issue discussed in the open.”

There is a danger the regents’ public review will scare off quality candidates who don’t want contractual details and their qualifications discussed so openly.

Even those who support the current system acknowledge that possibility, but Smatresk downplayed the concern by saying athletic directors by the nature of the job face many difficult questions regarding athletic and academic results.

“So if the idea of putting yourself in front of a board prior to the final contract being (discussed) scares you, the probably this isn’t such a great position for you to apply to,” Smatresk said.

Candidates are placed in the position of having to go through two sets of interviews. The first one is much more private, and in those discussions contractual details can be hashed out. It’s also in that first stage that what many perceive as the official job offer is extended.

Candidates discover, however, the regents get the final word, which was the case with Polian.

“They questioned the terms,” Turner said. “They questioned the dollars and cents. They questioned whether he deserved it. He was sitting in the room.”

Regents were particularly perplexed about Polian’s five-year deal, as opposed to the customary three-year contract brought before the board. UNR president Marc Johnson told them a five-year contract is the industry standard.

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck originally signed a three-year contract when he was hired in December 2009. He received a two-year extension less than nine months later to bring the deal more into the typical five-year frame.

Polian is set to earn a base pay of $475,000 this season, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. It rises to $525,000 next year and then $585,000 over the final three years. He also is guaranteed an additional $60,000 each year for television and other deals. And he has incentives that could add much more.

Regents also thought some of the bonuses were too easy to attain, making the contract even more lucrative.

“I would not be surprised if he was to make $700,000 or $800,000 a year if he hits those bonuses,” Board of Regents chairman Kevin Page said.

For comparison, Hall of Fame coach Ault was paid a base salary of $385,000 as part of a $400,000 package, and Hauck makes $150,000 in base pay and about $350,000 total.

The regents questioned Polian’s contract, including whether someone who hasn’t been a head coach — he was special teams coordinator at Texas A&M — deserves such a deal.

Page said the regents’ questioning might have surprised Polian and UNR officials.

“Don’t get me wrong, as I board, I think we need to do a little better job, but I think there was a little frustration” from the regents, Page said. “I’m not concerned if they get their feathers ruffled a little bit. I think Marc Johnson, in particular, had a lot of surprises.”

Smatresk said it was important to also see role of the board from the regents’ perspective.

“The board doesn’t much like the fact that we basically make an offer and the person accepts it pending board approval, because it puts huge amounts of pressure on the board to accept it whether they like it or not,” Smatresk said. “So having the board in the loop and being more or less pleased with what you’re doing is a helpful thing.”

Page said the board has a duty to protect the state from another Rutgers debacle. That school hired a men’s basketball coach and athletic director without apparently properly vetting either candidate, only to have later revelations embarrass the university.

He also said, especially in these difficult economic times, that it was especially important “not to back up the Brink’s truck.”

“At the end of the day, we have a fiduciary responsibility, with recommendations from the president, but we’ve got final approval on it,” Page said.

Those interested in becoming UNLV’s athletic director should know what kind of interview process to expect.

It will be public, and it might get uncomfortable.

“I think you’ll have a certain amount of people who say, ‘I don’t want to go through that,’ ” Page said. “But unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about that. I think if Neal does a good job of telegraphing to us the terms of the contract ... I think it’ll go much smoother.”

Page said Smatresk already has helped himself by putting provost and law school dean John White in charge of the athletic director search committee, an early signal UNLV will conduct this search more in line with the regents’ expectations. Smatresk said he hopes to have a hire in place by September, but more realistically it will be October.

As for “telegraphing” the contractual terms to the regents, expect Smatresk to take Page up on his offer.

“We need to work together,” Smatresk said. “I’m quite happy to keep the board appraised, in the loop, and make sure when we get to make decisions that they have a good understanding for the basis of those and they’ll approve them. As long as we’re all pulling in the same direction, I think we’ll have good outcomes.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

 

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