I didn’t think Jim Livengood was the right guy. I questioned his desire, his commitment, his hunger to build a non-Bowl Championship Series athletic department in the latter stages of his career.
I thought he would come to Las Vegas at age 64 and retire.
I was dead wrong.
How ironic. His decades of experience are exactly what UNLV needs most today.
Fifteen months later, Livengood faces the biggest financial challenge of his life as an athletic director, created by a budget crisis that best is described as appalling.
You have read the stories, seen the looks of doom and gloom spread across the faces of politicians and university presidents, heard the depressing amounts of money that must be slashed from every corner of campus.
Livengood’s department won’t and shouldn’t escape such an unforgiving ax. The hard part is deciding what, and more importantly whom, gets cut from a many-limbed tree under which exists athletics and the Thomas & Mack Center. It is a plight that has many nervous and others upset.
Relationships run deep and stretch decades around here. Regents are elected officials who, like all politicians, have interests to serve. But any of them spending one second worrying about how an athletic director who kept Arizona’s budget in the black for 16 years might have to cut upward of 22 percent across the board are as misguided as they are disruptive.
Livengood needs to be left to do the job for which he was hired and to continue being supported by UNLV president Neal Smatresk. What he doesn’t need is interference from those who should be worried more about massive cuts to be levied against education than how things will shake out with athletics and the Thomas & Mack.
“Leadership in these times is tough because you have to make unpopular decisions,” Livengood said. “I’m not out to hurt someone’s family or create a situation where someone can’t pay a mortgage. But we have to make some very tough decisions. We don’t have any other choice.
“To say there’s an (old boy’s network) in Las Vegas is a major understatement. But that’s OK. That’s the way of the world. I’m about transparency. I’m going to tell it like it is. I’m going to do the best job I can. I’m going to be up front and honest. Some people might not like that, but it’s the only way I know how to lead.”
There is nothing pretty about this. There is no good side to people potentially losing their jobs. UNLV is hardly alone when talking athletic departments and budget woes. Cuts have been made across the country in countless ways.
Marketing costs. Facilities. Staff. Media guides. Travel. Mandatory furloughs. Anything to make a number.
What you try to save most are sports programs themselves, although many schools haven’t been able to make budget without sacrificing one or two or more. If you start cutting teams around UNLV, you draw closer and closer to that line of non-Division I status, not something the Rebels need to flirt with if at all possible.
“It’s always difficult to come in initially as an outsider, but I think (Livengood) has been very approachable and personable and enthusiastic and passionate,” said James Dean Leavitt, chairman of the Board of Regents. “These are tough times. I have confidence in him. I don’t think he’ll make any decision in a vacuum. He’s willing to sit and talk with anyone. This is a time when we need to appreciate his experience. He couldn’t have come at a worse time (financially), but look what he did at Arizona.
“There has always been some inherent tension between (athletics and the Thomas & Mack). When cuts need to be made, it’s a difficult thing. Tough decisions have to be made. Let’s face it — when your livelihood might be at stake, it’s never an easy thing.”
There are truths at UNLV that won’t change, beginning with revenue streams coming from just three areas — gate receipts, fundraising and television — and the fact that if what has been a struggling football program doesn’t soon begin making money, cutting all the corners in the world won’t help. Football always has been the key. It really is now.
I was wrong about Livengood, and now I feel bad for the spot he is in, but it’s one that comes with the title. It’s the chair in which he has chosen to sit. The legislative session ends in June, and yet things aren’t likely to get any better between now and then. Livengood must make cuts from both athletics and the Thomas & Mack. There is no getting around it.
“By far the worst situation I have ever faced,” said Livengood, whose contract runs through Dec. 17, 2012. “So much deeper and harder in terms of (potential cuts). This is very real. My commitment is to be the best leader I can be in such times. There are more good people associated with UNLV than I ever imagined when first coming here. I mean really good people. They deserve leadership right now.”
He deserves to be left alone to do his job.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.