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Olivier optimistic about improving Lady Rebels

Kathy Olivier just keeps talking — she’s a college basketball coach, which means she owns the intrinsic capacity to yap like Churchill — until the recruit’s eyes flicker. That’s when she knows the proper button has been pushed.

So she runs with it.

It might be about her time as an assistant at Southern California, about the national championship she was part of there. It might be about her 15 years as UCLA’s head coach. It might be about the days she ran up and down the court as a UNLV All-American.

Whatever the topic, Olivier understands perception rules when you are just beginning to mix cement with water, that it’s one irrefutable tool that can help turn a losing program into a hard, solid mass of consistency and victories.

Olivier has accepted the task of trying to reverse the trend of a UNLV women’s program that has gone 22-37 the last two years, an alumna who has come home with dreams of returning the Lady Rebels to an NCAA Tournament they have made just once in 13 years.

She led UCLA to five NCAA tournaments and one Elite Eight, which is one more regional final than UNLV has made, before resigning in March.

“I really think we can win, maybe because I never once thought we couldn’t,” she said. “It has happened here before. I’ve seen it.”

The most important part: She knows it won’t happen tomorrow or in a few months or likely this season or next. She understands the kind of success the men’s program enjoys today was earned over time, that you can’t jump from Pluto to the sun without first encountering Jupiter and Mercury and all others in between.

One of the biggest mistakes UNLV football coach Mike Sanford has made was to predict a conference championship his first season during an introductory news conference. It was a decree he didn’t have to make and one that only looked more and more preposterous when his record stood at 6-22 after three seasons.

Kat Mertz, one of the best coaches walking the UNLV campus, took a smarter route in publicly stating she wanted her women’s soccer program to be ranked by her fifth season. It reached that point in September. Mertz is in her fourth year.

The lesson: Know who you are and the depths from which you’re trying to overcome.

“My feeling is that we’re going to work our butts off and do everything we can to get better and people will eventually buy in,” Olivier said. “We’re trying to develop a championship mentality with our players — strong work ethic, be engaging with the community and administration and other teams on campus, handle ourselves in a professional manner, have passion. Don’t be jealous of the men’s team — support it, go to their games. We’re not ready for that level (of attention) right now.

“I’ll tell you this: We will play hard. We will play to the end. I know that much.”

Here is a reality she must confront: Never in its history has UNLV women’s basketball drawn a home crowd of 5,000. Not when Olivier was averaging nearly 17 points and six rebounds per game in 1979-80. Not when the program was ranked second nationally in 1989-90. Never.

There are high school girls’ programs that extract more attention locally than the Lady Rebels, which makes sense when you consider Bishop Gorman might have been better the last two years.

But if passion is a key emotion from which a rebuilding plan is created, Olivier has enough for all of Southern Nevada and beyond. She just needs to see more of those eyes flicker.

Steve Fisher’s first recruit as San Diego State men’s coach was a forward named Aerick Sanders, who was deciding between the Aztecs, Northwestern and Penn State. Fisher knew he had Sanders hooked when, upon entering the family home for a recruiting visit, the player handed him a book about the “Fab Five” to sign and showed him a poster of that Michigan contingent on his bedroom wall.

Lon Kruger undoubtedly pushes UNLV’s recent success when talking with recruits, but don’t believe for a second he doesn’t also mention coaching in the NBA. Kids couldn’t care less that he didn’t win in the league, but only that his experience might be able to accelerate their own journey there.

Perception. It’s the water in the cement.

Olivier seems to have a fairly sturdy grasp on how to sell it.

“I get very sincere when I talk about UNLV,” she said. “This is my program. My school. I was around for the (Jerry) Tarkanian days, when if you had a ticket, people would be dying for it. There are no Lakers or Dodgers or Angels here. This is it. It’s a basketball town.

“We’re going to do everything we can to be a big part of that. We’re not there yet. We have a long ways to go. It’s going to take time, but we’ll do what we have to do to get there, and that means working hard every single day.”

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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