Livengood loses battle with Smatresk, but UNLV is biggest loser

Jim Livengood announced his retirement as athletic director at UNLV on Wednesday in a hastily called news conference from his office, not on a dais in front of family and friends and cheering supporters.

This is not how you would think arguably the finest AD in a program’s history would go out.

There is a reason for it: Neal Smatresk won the war.

University presidents usually do in these times.

Which, in this case, means UNLV loses.

Livengood was as you would expect — classy and dignified to the end, as unlike Mike Sanford as a person could be when another all but has decided your fate — but this conclusion reaches far deeper than a man’s desire to spend more time with his grandchildren.

“If I’m going to do this, let’s do it,” Livengood said. “Let’s not hang on and get it to a point where there are a lot of questions within the community and on campus about what’s going on. This was the time. (Smatresk) has been a good boss to me. I would characterize our relationship as good. I think he would, too.

“But there were things ahead that were going to be harder to control. I’m trying to look at UNLV not being something that’s just going to be here. Let’s grow. Let’s not accept the fact we’re always going to be what used to be a midmajor. Let’s get better. Let’s take some chances on some things. Let’s be visionary. Let’s be futuristic thinking. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think that wasn’t what we’re doing.”

And so you have a major reason he is gone, unable to win the tug-o’-war for a man who smartly thinks on a broad, national scale in a time of incredible fiscal change across the college landscape pitted against a side of campus defined by a small-time perspective.

A business card on Livengood’s desk reads: “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

Get the picture here?

UNLV now has lost its athletic director and one of his top senior associates in D.J. Allen in the past several days, the latter choosing to return to his entrepreneurial roots.

It’s a coincidence and yet it’s not, two high-ranking department members gone within a week’s time.

Know this: A definite line of disagreement exists between one side of campus and the other, differing philosophies on how best to grow UNLV athletics.

In this way, Livengood was not left alone to do his job in a time when the budget crisis was one dollar short of appalling, often handcuffed by an old boys network in this town more worried about how things might shake out between athletics and the Thomas & Mack Center than massive cuts against education.

In other words, by people who should have remained on their side of the sandbox and concerned themselves with building — or saving — libraries.

No athletic director in the country is forced to deal with the sort of contentious relationship for control that exists at UNLV between athletics and the Thomas & Mack, another reason Livengood finds himself searching for moving boxes today.

“Absolutely, the (Thomas & Mack) issue has been a thorn in both of our sides for some time,” Smatresk said. “Relations between it and athletics are not great. There are ongoing problems I’m concerned about, and I have expressed that to both sides.

“Jim has been thinking about (retiring) for a year and a half now. Maybe longer. There were a couple times I begged him to stay. Our friendship will continue.”

At least Smatresk got Livengood’s name right this time, unlike when he called him “John” upon introducing him to the UNLV community in December 2009.

The relationship between president and AD has been strained for some time, long before Smatresk reportedly dressed down Livengood in a meeting recently over the ills of a football program that last knew a winning season in 2000.

This is what happens when presidents become too involved in sports, for which we can blame in part the late John and James Knight, whose formation of a commission in 1989 identified presidents as those best to run college athletics. What a colossal mistake that has been on all kinds of fronts.

I never have been happier about being as wrong on someone as I was with Livengood getting the UNLV job. I thought he would arrive and immediately retire to one of the town’s many golf courses.

Instead, he never stopped working, never stopped raising money, never stopped making the unpopular decision when he knew in his heart it was the right one.

Now, Smatresk will begin yet another search for an athletic director, likely one more willing to nod a head up and down and adhere to his every desire.

For this, whoever it is, he or she should arrive to the job with three eyes — two to look forward and continue building what Livengood so impressively began and one for the back of his or her head, to always know where the boss lurks.

Smatresk should have stepped back and allowed the guy he hired to finish the job. In the end, the president didn’t appreciate a truth I and others never thought possible: John Livengood was a hell of an athletic director at UNLV.

Maybe the best it has had.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 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.

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