Despite pressure, Livengood stands by principles, his hire

John Maxwell has written more than 50 books that have sold 12 million copies, primarily on leadership. One is called “Today Matters,” and it encourages the reader to focus on the present rather than living in the past, challenging him to stop dreaming about what could have been and instead embrace what is.

It is not directly aimed at many who have followed UNLV basketball for decades, but it could be.

Jim Livengood knows this best today.

He is a big fan of Maxwell’s work and has quoted it when giving speeches, drawing much inspiration from it the past 10 days.

It helped UNLV’s athletic director remain strong when reading the emails that told him to go to hell and that he should take a long walk off a short plank, helped him get through all the very real and frightening threats, helped him remember how foolish the claims of racism and religious preference were as he conducted the search that led to Dave Rice being introduced as the school’s new basketball coach Monday.

“Everyone chimed in to all sorts of degrees,” Livengood said. “I was surprised, given our economy and all the struggles our state is going through, that it raised such a high level of interest. This thing brought out all kinds …

“But you have to remember, I had to choose who would replace a Hall of Famer in Lute Olson at Arizona in a town where basketball matters like nothing else. I understand passion in these situations. People have a hard time letting go of something that happened 20 years ago. We should never apologize for history, but know when it’s time to move on.

“When you get down to it, today really is all that matters, and for UNLV today, at this time, Dave Rice is the best choice to lead our basketball program.”

I don’t know if Livengood of 20 years ago chooses Rice over another former Rebel in Reggie Theus. Livengood struggled answering the question Sunday evening.

Pressure from those with influence, be it political or monetary or both, can be overwhelming. It came from all ends by those wanting Theus, in all manners both professional and ludicrous and some downright frightening given, at the end of the day, this is still about hiring a basketball coach.

A younger athletic director might have folded under such pressure.

Thank goodness Livengood didn’t.

Not because anything is guaranteed with Rice, who has all the makings of a terrific head coach but now must prove it.

But what those who follow the program should celebrate is having an athletic director strong enough in his convictions that outside influences, who seemingly felt they still owned the power and juice of decades ago and could dictate his final decision, didn’t alter his chosen course.

They should also feel good about a university president who received the same level of pressure and threats and yet stood behind Livengood.

“If you hire an athletic director, you have to back him, and if you’re not going to back him, you have to fire him,” Neal Smatresk said. “I’m not ready to fire Jim … . He did a great job. We had various discussions about this, and that’s what you do when you have a hard choice. You talk things through.

“I knew the (outside pressures) were coming, and yet I wasn’t really quite ready for it. If you take any great decision — and this, for this city, is a big, great decision — you’re going to have people with different opinions. They have passion for the program.

“But it has to be about UNLV. I hope everyone supports that. If they can’t, then they’re not really Rebel fans. Passion is a good thing. Sometimes, it can go too far. But I know in a few years, after a lot of wins and hopefully Mountain West Conference championships, those with hard feelings today will come back. At least I hope that’s the case.”

Some think the negative campaign isn’t over, that there are still those who will claim in the coming days this search was about race. That’s laughable.

Livengood at Arizona along with former Olympian Gayle Hopkins led one of the few athletic departments nationally that named separate advisory committees made up of blacks and Hispanics, those who had input on all hirings and other important decisions the last 15 years.

Some might continue to claim it a religious issue, given Livengood’s Mormon faith and the fact he graduated from the school (Brigham Young) that Rice coached at the last six seasons. Ridiculous. Rice is Catholic, and at one time his father worked as a missionary for his faith in Africa.

Things got bad at times for those doing the hiring in this search, and that’s a shame. But as with Maxwell, Livengood also draws inspiration from words his father often offered.

“He would always say that when making tough decisions, you have to look in the mirror and live with the guy staring back,” Livengood said. “I know in my heart this is the right choice. I also know no one will have to live with it more than me. I can look back at that guy today and know for sure David is the right choice.”

The search is over. The coach is hired.

The athletic director and president were professional to the end.

For those who disagree, go read a little John Maxwell.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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