Dennis Finfrock, whose innovative thinking in the construction and management of special events facilities was overshadowed by a brief, turbulent run as UNLV’s interim athletic director that resulted in the resignation of popular Rebels basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, died this morning from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 62.
Finfrock had battled Parkinson’s for more than 13 years before dying at a long-term care center in Henderson.
While Finfrock’s name — along with that of then-UNLV president Robert Maxson — grabbed headlines in 1992 during a public battle with the beleaguered Tarkanian, friends and associates of the former Thomas & Mack Center director remembered him for innovative decisions that brought more than $1 billion into the Southern Nevada economy.
Most notably: Finfrock’s gamble in 1983 to have the Thomas & Mack restructured as a multiuse facility rather than built as a basketball-only venue.
“Everyone running major venues in this town has roots that go back to Thomas & Mack and are tied to Dennis,” said Daren Libonati, the current director of the Thomas & Mack who began working for Finfrock in 1992.
Pat Christenson, Las Vegas Events president and a longtime student of Finfrock, said his mentor’s unique vision to make last-minute revisions to the arena was one of several chances he took in business that paid off.
Ripping out concrete and nine rows of seats at both ends of the 18,500-seat arena six months before it opened allowed for the use of portable grandstands for basketball games but provided for a more versatile facility. That decision, Libonati said, allowed for a variety of events to be staged there.
Without Finfrock’s vision, Las Vegas might not be hosting the National Finals Rodeo in December for the 25th year, the seven-day Professional Bull Riders World Finals or anything on ice — from Disney shows to hockey games.
But for all Finfrock did to develop the Thomas & Mack, Sam Boyd Stadium and, later, the MGM Grand Garden into major sports and entertainment venues, he received his most media attention as UNLV’s interim athletic director, when he became embroiled in the controversy that led to Tarkanian’s resignation.
The resignation came one year after the Rebels won the NCAA championship, with the program mired in violations and with players having alleged ties to a convicted sports fixer.
“It kills me that so many people only knew him for that,” Libonati said of Finfrock. “It makes my heart sad.”
Said Christenson, hired by Finfrock as a UNLV assistant wrestling coach in 1980: “I was there for that. I know Dennis has always regretted that he was involved with that.”
Maxson named Finfrock interim athletic director in 1991 to replace the retiring Brad Rothermel.
“It was clear to me as early as 1984 that (Maxson’s) intentions were to see if he could separate Jerry Tarkanian from the institution,” Rothermel told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2006.
“Maxson used Dennis. It really wore him out,” said Christenson, who replaced Finfrock in 1992 as director of the Thomas & Mack and Sam Boyd after Finfrock became vice president of special events for the MGM Grand Garden, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1993.
Said Libonati: “Dennis was a loyal ambassador to whomever his boss was. He was caught in a bad triangle with Maxson and Tarkanian.”
Finfrock resigned after 15 months as athletic director — a position Christenson said Finfrock had coveted — because of the public outcry over Tarkanian’s departure. Finfrock didn’t remain idle for long.
When the MGM decided to build a sports and entertainment arena adjacent to the Strip resort, it turned to Finfrock to oversee construction and develop it into a major player in the market. He signed Barbra Streisand to open the Grand Garden with her first arena concert in 20 years and landed the Rolling Stones, who had not played in such a venue in five years.
In 1994, Finfrock gambled on the new Professional Bull Riders circuit, and the Grand Garden hosted its World Finals until 1999.
Also in 1994, the Grand Garden hosted 42 boxing title fights — the most in one year at a Las Vegas venue, Libonati said.
Then, in 1995, Finfrock signed Mike Tyson to a six-fight, $20 million deal after Tyson was released from prison, helping the Grand Garden surpass Caesars Palace as the Strip’s primary boxing venue.
“At the time, the MGM Grand was the brand new, biggest thing going on in Vegas,” Ty Murray, a seven-time world all-around champion and PBR founding partner, said of the inaugural Finals. “That’s where all of the buzz and all of the talk was, and that’s where we had our event.”
Finfrock was part of a massive cutback at the MGM in 1995 and soon began working as an independent design consultant for various arenas and stadiums, including the Olympic stadium for the 2000 Sydney Games, the Bangkok Dome in Thailand and Staples Center in Los Angeles.
In 1996 and 1997, Finfrock served as president of the International Association of Auditorium Managers — now the International Association of Assembly Managers.
Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1996, Finfrock became executive vice president of ticketing and marketing for Advantix, a Southern California-based box office agency. In 2003, Finfrock served as special events manager for the Cannery in North Las Vegas and staged a few boxing cards with promoter Richard Steele.
Becoming one of the country’s most noted authorities on arena and stadium design and management could not have been more off the radar for Finfrock when he left Brigham Young in 1970 to become a high school science teacher and coach in Clark County.
Finfrock, a three-year member of the BYU football team, began coaching the sport at Rancho before moving to Chaparral, where he coached wrestling.
In 1976, Finfrock started the UNLV wrestling program, and in 1980 he became an assistant athletic director. He soon convinced Christenson to move from Wisconsin to become his assistant coach.
“I sent 10 letters to colleges in the warm weather trying to find an assistant coaching job,” said Christenson, an NCAA wrestling champion. “Dennis called and offered me $4,000 a year, but that wasn’t enough. I was headed to take a job at Louisiana State when he called back and asked if I’d be willing to help coordinate other sports events at the school to earn more money.”
Soon after, construction nearly was completed on the Thomas & Mack. About six months before it opened, Finfrock became its director and made the risky call that could have led to a short-lived career. He got the state Legislature to invest about $200,000 to remove the first nine rows of seats at both ends of the arena. He thought by doing that and using portable seating for basketball games, it would open a wide market for other events when they were rolled back.
Finfrock took another gamble in 1983 when he got the late Sam Boyd to contribute $1.2 million to install removable artificial turf at the stadium that bears Boyd’s name. As with the Thomas & Mack gamble, Finfrock envisioned multiple uses for the football stadium but knew he had to have a protected playing surface for the Rebels.
“Maxson came out and asked Dennis if he realized that some decisions can cost you your job,” Christenson said.
Finfrock said he did. The retractable roll of material enabled Sam Boyd to begin a lucrative tradition of hosting Supercross motorcycle races and Monster Truck shows, which are among the two best attended events of the year at the former Silver Bowl.
“That exemplifies what great vision Dennis had,” Christenson says.
Finfrock was born June 25, 1947, in Yuma, Ariz. He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Kay, and son Jason, 40, the associate marketing director of the Thomas & Mack.
At Dennis Finfrock’s request, no funeral services will be held.
Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at jwolf@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247.