Postseason ban takes air out of UNLV football

They love their sweet tea in Texas. Drink it by the boot-full. So when the UNLV football team made its way to the Heart of Dallas Bowl for a New Year’s Day game, the Rebels had every opportunity to partake in a local favorite.

If they took a sip today, there would be no sugar.

The memorable taste of UNLV’s first postseason game in 13 years is gone. The balloon of celebration and momentum built from a winning season has popped.

The tire of elation is flat.

It took more than a decade for the program to exhibit some semblance of respectability.

It took one news conference Thursday to severely damage all that positive energy.

Here’s the truth: The guy on the street doesn’t care. The person UNLV will attempt to sell football tickets to for the 2014 season doesn’t want to hear that the university has been working for years trying to improve a poor Academic Progress Rate score that has led to the Rebels being ineligible for postseason play next season, among other penalties.

The public will see only a program that has failed to reach minimum academic standards set forth by the NCAA and one that, no matter how successful a record it might produce over 12 games, has zero opportunity to be rewarded for it.

That sets you back in the perception and interest departments. Way back.

“All of it falls on me,” coach Bobby Hauck said. “Anything that goes on in our program falls at my feet. If our starting left tackle gets into a fight in a bar, it falls at my feet. If we don’t graduate enough of our players, it falls at my feet. If we don’t run the ball well enough, it falls at my feet.

“If we have shortcomings, I have to do better. The thing that bothers me a little bit is that by getting an APR penalty, it’s insinuated that we haven’t been working at it, and that’s a falsehood. We have been. Our goal is to graduate everyone and never lose an APR point. In the world of college football, is that realistic? Probably not.

“But from our standpoint, this is a disaster. We didn’t get there. Shame on us.”

The APR doesn’t exist within a vacuum, and what was once thought a well-intentioned measure by which to track eligibility and retention numbers of student-athletes has over time shown countless flaws and ways by which many universities now navigate around potential land mines to reach and often exceed minimum requirements.

There are ways you can manipulate the process, and more often than not, those athletic departments with the biggest budgets win the APR game.

UNLV isn’t one, didn’t make its numbers and will pay for it with the postseason ban and replacing some practice hours with additional academic hours and having six football-related days of activity reduced to five.

This isn’t a slap on the wrist. It’s pretty serious stuff in terms of punishment.

The Rebels have a plan. They already have taken action. UNLV will commit around $250,000 to make improvements it believes will strengthen the academic culture for its athletes. It’s being proactive, and that’s a positive step. There were no excuses Thursday. No passing the academic buck. Everyone shouldered the blame.

“It’s kind of interesting to see what Connecticut men’s basketball did in going through an (APR postseason ban in 2013) and then coming back and winning the national championship,” UNLV president Don Snyder said. “(Public perception) is not an issue that can’t be dealt with. We need to deal with it aggressively. Life is full of adversity. It’s how you deal with it that’s important.”

I’m sure Snyder means well and all, but the only thing UConn basketball has in common with UNLV football beyond an APR ban is both play Division I athletics.

The Huskies were a major power before their APR problems, having won a national title in 2011 and two more before that. UConn basketball matters greatly in the big picture of its sport.

UNLV football for so long has been a bug on the windshield of national football prominence.

It was a combined 47-109 since 2000 before going 7-6 last season.

And it definitely isn’t coming off a postseason ban and challenging for a national title. That’s not happening.

The Rebels will have to scratch and claw and fight just to be consistently relevant in the Mountain West.

This is a bad day for UNLV. The momentum and positive vibes and sense of elation is gone. The balloon has popped.

The sweat tea is sugarless.

“I would tell everyone to stick with us,” athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said. “Hang with us. Believe in Bobby Hauck and his football players. Watch what we’re going to do and how we’re going to improve. This is disappointing. It’s going to be tough for the players. I can’t worry about what people on the outside think. I care about it, but I’m more concerned about our players and all the people here hanging together. When things go wrong, you either fall apart or you stay together and become something maybe nobody expected. Stay with us. Believe in us. This, too, will pass.

“It’s a horrible day. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. You know the call (from the NCAA) is going to come, but it’s still devastating. It’s devastating. But the NCAA is unyielding. It’s unbendable. We live within their guidelines. We will accept this and move on.”

And try to rebuild interest for the guy on the street.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com 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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