Three years ago this December, Mike Sanford stood before a crowded room of folks hanging on his every word as the new head football coach at UNLV.
Some of the first ones he uttered were these: “Our expectation level should be, and my expectation level is, to win the Mountain West Conference championship, go to a bowl game and to be ranked in the top 20 in the nation every year.”
Today, the Rebels are 5-21 under him.
Tonight, they play the most significant game of Sanford’s tenure by hosting Utah in a conference opener — a game UNLV must win if we are to believe the Rebels are making any sort of progress. Close won’t cut it. Just competing isn’t good enough. Nothing should suffice but a victory.
There just comes a time when you have beat someone not named Idaho State or Utah State or San Diego State in order to offer those purchasing tickets and admirably standing beside what has been a losing program for nearly seven years some appearance of hope.
There comes a time when you finally have to beat someone that matters in order to demonstrate you actually can. If tangible development truly has been made on the field, UNLV needs to confirm it by defeating the Utes.
“I’d hate to put so much specifically on Utah,” Sanford said. “I just think winning in general is huge. But this is our next game, so it’s a huge game. It’s huge.
“I’m fine with what I said at that (introductory news conference). I still feel strongly those are things we are going to accomplish. I can’t get up in the morning and go to work and do what I do if I don’t believe we can win and I can get this thing done. It’s not like I’m living in a dream world and not reality. I believe those things can and will be done here.”
Here’s the thing: Most anyone taking over a program that was a combined 17-29 the previous four years as Sanford did is going to initially tantalize starving fans with talks of championships and bowls and rankings. Sanford did. Chuck Long did at San Diego State. Coaches do all the time, and it’s not an enormous issue if you have even the slightest grasp on a team’s genuine state.
And yet 26 games should be enough to at least begin the process of beating someone annually considered among the best in your conference. Utah is again better than UNLV, if for no other reason than I can’t imagine any Rebels team dominating UCLA in checkers, never mind whipping the Bruins 44-6 in football as the Utes did last week.
But this isn’t close to the Utah of 2004 and that 12-0 BCS season. It’s not even yet the Utah of the last two seasons, when the Utes combined to finish 15-10 and win bowl games against Georgia Tech and Tulsa. It’s a 1-2 team that has already seen six starters miss game time because of injury, including at quarterback and running back. Utah is good in some areas and average in others. It’s certainly beatable. UNLV needs to prove it.
Not because it has lost 11 straight to Utah or that it has dropped its last 12 conference openers, although both streaks are alarmingly ridiculous. Not because the Rebels are at home. Not because this is the best of three UNLV teams Sanford has offered. Not because Utah seems to have a quarterback rotation somewhere between three and 11 players.
UNLV must win because all successful journeys own a starting point and it’s about time the Rebels secure theirs. Enough time has passed. It’s true they could lose tonight and possibly win next week at UNR or the following week at Air Force. It might seem extreme to draw such a definitive line with one game.
But if you think so, ask yourself this: When should such expectations begin? When should the Rebels win this type of game? When should it be demanded they begin the journey?
I say now, nearly three years and 26 games later. It’s time to offer those fanatics few in numbers but strong in resolve a shred of evidence they’re not staring at another two-win team.
“This is a different team, a different season,” Sanford said. “It’s just different, and anyone who thinks it’s the same is wrong. Our team is different. Our attitude is different. Our leadership is different. Our talent level is different.
“You know, whatever I say isn’t going to make any difference until we prove it on the field.”
Here’s the thing: It’s time to show there is more to rebuilding than merely talk of improvement. Sanford said he didn’t give a specific time period for reaching all those stated goals in 2004. Fair enough. Forget the conference championship and bowl game and top 20 ranking for now.
Just beat someone that matters.
Win a game that might turn a few heads.
It’s time. Nothing should suffice but a victory.
Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or email@example.com.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS