The character first appeared as a giant head made from smoke and fire, demanding the little girl and her friends kill the Wicked Witch and bring her broomstick to him in return for granting their wishes.
But we later learned that behind the curtain sat merely a man, an illusionist who became supreme ruler of the kingdom and did his best to sustain the myth.
There are two sides to the wizard.
Many at UNLV believe the same about Gerry Bomotti.
Whether he is the powerful and ruthless giant who runs athletics with an iron financial fist from behind a curtain or simply a university vice president needed to make sound and significant decisions about where the institution should most responsibly spend its money, this is clear: Whoever the Rebels next hire as athletic director will have a close working relationship with Bomotti, and how well the two coexist ultimately could determine if UNLV remains a part of major college athletics.
“Gerry Bomotti runs the university, and (president) Neal Smatresk is simply a figurehead,” one UNLV senior administrator said. “Nothing happens without Gerry giving the OK. Sit in a meeting with him one time. He wants to control everything. He will tell you he wants to help athletics. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
It is one view many throughout athletics support, the idea that Bomotti is a numbers cruncher as the vice president for finance and business who neither has a background in athletics nor cares whether it succeeds at a level needed to compete at the highest levels.
That he judges athletics in far too simplistic a manner of dollars and cents, unwilling to embrace the belief that a successful athletics program more than anything else helps define and nurture and promote a university’s stated mission.
That he is a math major concerned only about numbers and not the big picture, a trait that led to a contentious relationship with former athletic director Jim Livengood.
That, at his previous stop at Colorado State and now UNLV, Bomotti covets one thing more than the rest: power.
“I think that’s completely wrong,” Smatresk said. “There are athletic directors who could arguably be considered more powerful than presidents, or football coaches that are. But if you come to me, it doesn’t matter what (department) it is, and it’s losing money every year and that means we have $300,000, $500,000, $1 million, $2 million less to spend on academics than we should, that’s an issue for me.
“When a (department) is no longer running on a sustainable path, that’s a problem for the university. So Gerry provides information. Does that mean Gerry is calling the shots for athletics? Not at all. Not even a little.
“To say there was no conflict (with Livengood) would not be accurate. To say that (Bomotti’s) concern (was) about the numbers and what they meant for the university is fair. Again, that’s his job. When you have a chief fiscal officer who doesn’t tell you what the fiscal situation is, boy, you have a really big problem because now you’re completely vulnerable and the institution’s vulnerable. But to say there was personal animosity (on Bomotti’s side), I don’t think that’s fair.”
I don’t know Bomotti, but I know two facts paramount to the discussion about his role at UNLV:
First, there is a vice president for finance and business at every school and, especially for those universities such as UNLV, in many ways a casualty of historically dire economic times, such an individual is needed to provide clear, impartial direction when it comes to fiscal responsibility. He can’t be writing checks and making decisions and suggesting cuts both in operations and staff as a sports fan. That’s reckless.
Second, without consistent support from Bomotti, UNLV soon could be at the precipice of extinction in the one sport that truly matters nationally, or at least left out of the equation when major college football programs separate the haves and have-nots for good.
“I just never really felt — and everyone else in the department felt the same way — that the university finance area was supportive of athletics (at UNLV),” former UNLV athletic director Mike Hamrick said. “I spent eight years at East Carolina, and I’ve been (at Marshall) four years now, and the finance area of the university goes out of their way to try to help you be successful in athletics because they understand the importance of having a quality athletic program.
“UNLV is a great university. It’s in a great city, but for it to be successful or any athletic department to be successful, the university has to do everything possible to support and help the athletic department.”
Hamrick couldn’t be more correct in his assessment.
Which brings us to the two white elephants in the room: football and the Thomas & Mack Center.
A popular opinion about Bomotti is that he cares nothing about the former and sides far too often with the latter a longstanding feud with athletics and the venue that has helped sustain it for decades, that he would prefer UNLV stop financially supporting a perennial losing football program and yet tends to favor a Thomas & Mack facility that has seen its number of events decrease in the past five years but its number of employees remain steadfast the past 20.
That he has no problem supporting staff cuts and slashing salaries in athletics but not at the Thomas & Mack.
“The (Thomas & Mack/Sam Boyd Stadium/Cox Pavilion) program is rather unique in higher education — you would be hard-pressed to find a similar organization at any other institution,” Bomotti wrote in an email while also stating he believes his office is supportive of athletics. “I can’t think of another institution where the majority of venue income does not come from the athletic program.
“However, I think there are many potential A.D. candidates that would in fact be very successful in working with the program, and I know the president is wanting to find one who has the experience and capability to manage this program as well as athletics. Athletics is one of many very important programs at UNLV.
“Power is generally tied to an individual and not a position itself, and in some cases, VPs might be at an institution longer than the president. This knowledge of the institution can shift power over time, especially as the president gathers more and more experience. Neal Smatresk is building up a large power base as UNLV president, and I would suggest it will continue to grow the longer he is in this position.”
The wizard has two faces depending on who you ask, and yet this is more than a legitimate guess: While the best hire to run athletics unquestionably would be a local candidate such as Steve Stallworth, the former Rebels quarterback and current South Point Arena and Equestrian Center director, Bomotti and Smatresk might view such a person as too powerful, too connected, too popular and unwilling to accept the status quo relationship the president and his vice president have created between athletics and the other side of campus.
Stallworth could change things dramatically for the better. He has that level of juice.
I would think that might concern Bomotti and Smatresk in terms of their power base dwindling, even though it could prove highly beneficial for UNLV athletics and the university at large.
So if the decision is to yet again go outside for the hire — say, someone such as Washington State associate athletic director John Johnson — he or she needs to know this: Depending on who really sits behind that curtain, a power-hungry man who does not give a financial inch regarding athletics or a vice president simply doing his job as a responsible steward of an institution’s finances, it would be smart to make nice with him.
That’s no illusion.
You don’t need a giant head made from smoke and fire to see who’s really in charge at UNLV.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.