Livengood successfully erases first impression

I still remember the handshake that would have made an NFL linebacker wince and the sort of forced smile most often directed by a girl’s father to the teenage boy standing in a doorway.

I still remember thinking that if Jim Livengood didn’t view it as bad form, he would have grabbed the nearest chair and smashed it over my head.

“I’ll tell you what,” Livengood said upon hearing my recollections, “I’m laughing with you and at you.”

He’s pretty diplomatic and generous. That’s the Walla Walla in him.

He should be only laughing at me.

Eggs are a healthy eating alternative but feel sort of gooey all over one’s face. I was wrong about Livengood before and on that December day in 2009, the one when UNLV president Neal Smatresk introduced his new athletic director as “John Livengood,” which is sort of embarrassing until you realize Smatresk is the guy who paints his face red at NCAA Tournament games and then, well, it makes perfect sense.

Livengood doesn’t want to step away when his contract expires in December and nor should anyone associated with UNLV athletics want him to, an opinion Smatresk is expected to support in May when proposing a three-year extension for the man who hired Dave Rice to lead the men’s basketball program.

Livengood wasn’t Smatresk’s first choice and yet has proven an invaluable one in times of economic distress, his reputation as an athletic director who balanced budgets for 16 years at Arizona having only been enhanced here.

I don’t believe for a second Smatresk and Livengood agree on every detail of every matter. They don’t. There has been some tension. You would expect some given what each has faced.

“The (budget woes) have been much worse than I first imagined, devastating to the state and city,” Livengood said. “All of it has trickled down to us. It has been a challenging thing to fundraise and ask for (money) in this economy. People have tough decisions to make, and if it’s between something like the cancer society or heart society or UNLV athletics … well, that’s hard.”

I thought Livengood would come here and retire while masking as athletic director, content his resume would be enough to get by as they were not-so-subtlety showing him the door at Arizona.

I was off by the distance of Neptune to the sun.

Livengood at 66 has worked tirelessly to make UNLV athletics better and stronger and perceived in a brighter light nationally, all the while having to make serious cuts that have cost people their jobs and his coaches and student-athletes the sort of perks those at other schools expect more than appreciate.

His most important coaching hire to date is still a major work in progress. Bobby Hauck was Livengood’s pick to rebuild UNLV football, and his 4-21 record in two seasons hardly screams of certain long-term success.

An athletic director’s legacy is defined mostly by those he identifies to lead a university’s sports teams, and none is more scrutinized than the football coach.

UNLV isn’t in the financial position for Hauck to fail. It can’t afford it.

“I believe with all my heart Bobby will turn the program around, and yet the reality is, we’ve won four games in two years,” Livengood said. “I realize people are tired of hearing that we’re building for the next year. They have heard it so many times, it sounds like a mouthpiece. But we are going to be much better at football. We have to be.

“If I cared about being popular, I would have sided with 10 or so of the biggest and most (influential) people in Las Vegas and hired Reggie Theus as our basketball coach (over Rice). At this stage of my career, being popular isn’t important. I could quit working tomorrow and we’ll survive. But I intend on working harder the next three years than I did the last three.”

Livengood has faced off and stood his ground with some archaic ways and people at the Thomas & Mack Center, unwilling to bow to an old boy’s network and disruptive voices who impede progress or, in the case of an athletic department at a state university in these times, survival.

He has to this point saved all of UNLV’s 17 sports, because the minute you are forced to cut one, drops of water become large waves and the perception of your department is that of a sinking ship.

“This was never a retirement job,” Livengood said. “When I’m done, I want people across the country to say, ‘How do I get that UNLV job?’ I want it to be the most sought after job in the country. I’m dead serious.”

I was dead wrong about the guy.

Three more years makes perfect sense. I’m glad Smatresk realizes it.

He needs John Livengood now more than ever.

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

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