Knight again has young Rebels on course for dream season


There are pictures of him immediately after and in the weeks that followed. There he is hugging his players as the final hole played out. There he is kissing the green. There he is addressing the crowd moments after the clinching putt fell. There he is descending a plane, national championship trophy in hand. There he is holding it aloft at a football game. There he is riding in a cart during a celebratory parade.

Dwaine Knight remembers all of it and never once took any of those special moments for granted. It's too darn hard to win. It's takes too much skill and fortune.

"It has to be your week when the time comes," Knight said. "There is no other way to say it. It is very, very hard to do. But to win it is magical. It's incredible. That's always the dream."

I have been in Las Vegas for nearly six years now and can say without hesitation there isn't a better man or coach in these parts than Knight. He is a Hall of Famer and the architect of a UNLV men's golf program that owns one of the school's two team national championships and is proving good enough this season to perhaps make a run similar to 1998.

That's when the Rebels won their title in Knight's hometown of Albuquerque, N.M., when they withstood a final-round charge by Clemson to finish an NCAA-record 34 strokes under par.

Knight sat behind the 18th green with several players that day as Chris Berry, who had nightmare performance at the NCAAs two years prior when he finished last in the individual event, clinched the team title.

In the moment, Knight might have thought the Rebels soon would be back to such a place, to holding a national championship trophy and giving acceptance speeches after kissing greens. But golf has this way of humbling even the best programs year after year.

The format today is for 30 teams to qualify for nationals, play 54 holes and then have the top eight seeded into match play, which eventually crowns a champion. You could play the best golf of anyone all season, struggle for one day at nationals and be done.

It's a grind just to have a chance.

"There are so many good teams now, you really need to have things go your way and be very tested and prepared in every way by the time you get there," Knight said. "We came into the (1997) season No. 1, stayed there all year and finished (22nd at nationals). The next year, we won it all. You never know what the future holds, so you do your best to take care of business now."

His program has been self-sufficient through the UNLV Golf Foundation since the early 1990s, able to stand even with and ahead of many Bowl Championship Series schools in funding. Knight's players don't take a back seat to any program in terms of how they are prepared to succeed.

They have done so admirably this season, ranked second nationally today by Golfstat and fifth in the Golf World/Nike Coaches Poll. UNLV has played eight events, winning five and finishing second twice.

Some believe the Rebels are a year away from seriously chasing another national title, that when those returning from this current group welcome one of Knight's most heralded recruiting classes in school history, UNLV will have positioned itself for another trophy and more memorable pictures.

But it's too unpredictable a game to leave anything to chance. The Rebels are good enough this year to qualify for nationals and make noise at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades between May 29 and June 3.

Might as well swing away for a championship.

It's a credit to Knight, who at 64 and in his 25th season leading UNLV always has done a terrific job selling his team's history, its two NCAA individual champions (Warren Schutte and Ryan Moore), its countless All-Americans having graduated to PGA Tour victories, its consistency of being just one of three programs nationally to have qualified for 23 straight NCAA regionals, its magical run in 1998.

"We've got a pretty young bunch this year, but already they have shot three tournament records," Knight said. "That's pretty amazing. They have the ability to get under par and keep going. That's a good thing. They hang in there and give us a chance to win. That's a great quality to have.

"We don't have the experience of some of our teams that were ranked No. 1, but they're not afraid of anything. We're looking forward to what might be in store for us."

Six years later, I'm certain of this: There's not a better man in these parts.

And definitely not a better coach.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from noon to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN Radio 1100 AM and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

 

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