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Questions on deck for Rebels baseball

There is a picture of the UNLV baseball locker room on the second page of the team’s media guide. On one wall is a large red and white banner with these words:

The true measure of a man’s character is how he conducts himself when he believes no one is watching.

Buddy Gouldsmith can’t test that theory today. All eyes — or at least the smattering of ones who seem to genuinely care about UNLV baseball — are upon him.

It happens when you’re coaching for your job, one he hopes to keep when his contract expires next month after four years of directing a Rebels program that has plunged from Mountain West Conference champion to setting school records for consecutive losses and soon for losses in a season.

A program that on Saturday needed all of senior Keith Smith’s three home runs to beat Air Force 13-12 to avoid falling to a program so pathetic that it finished conference 0-23 this season and is 8-123 in league the past five years.

“I’d like (the administration) to look at me as the same guy who has had success,” Gouldsmith said.

Whether he deserves to continue is debatable.

The schedule (ranked 27th nationally to begin the season) has been difficult, purposefully designed to attract recruits from talent-rich areas and also prepare UNLV for the level of competition it has failed against in past regionals.

But going a semi-respectable 6-10 against top 25 teams means nothing when you get swept by the likes of UNR and Cal Poly, lose 12 straight at one point and are 14-17 in games decided by one or two runs.

There isn’t a better example than baseball when separating good from bad college coaches. Nowhere is talent evaluation more valuable than a sport in which many of the best prep recruits never step foot on campus, choosing to begin a professional career once selected in the amateur draft or attend junior college.

Gouldsmith can evaluate. He was recruiting coordinator for two seasons under Jim Schlossnagle, who won 62 percent of his games here and led UNLV in 2003 to its first NCAA regional in eight seasons before leaving to make Texas Christian the Mountain West’s best program.

But consider: UNLV under Gouldsmith has gone from 37-24 to 35-29 to 29-30 to now 22-34. It has gone from consecutive regionals his first two seasons to consecutive losing records and enters the six-team conference tournament as the No. 6 seed on Wednesday at Wilson Stadium.

From mattering in conference to merely existing.

“I never publicly evaluate coaches,” athletic director Mike Hamrick said. “As for the baseball program, we’ve had success and I don’t see any reason why we can’t be successful. We have the facility, we’re in a baseball area with warm weather and in a conference we can compete for a championship.”

He’s correct, for no other reason than the league (minus TCU) stinks in baseball. But it’s also important that UNLV (a non-BCS school reliant on football and men’s basketball to generate most of its revenue) is realistic about how successful the sport can be.

There is nothing wrong with dreaming big, but know that since 1995, just six of 96 teams that played in the College World Series were making their first appearance. First-timers are as common at Rosenblatt Stadium in June as a boring atmosphere.

Hamrick didn’t hire Gouldsmith, and the athletic director is interested enough in baseball to have served three years on the sport’s NCAA committee. He also spent eight seasons at East Carolina and watched as the Pirates built one of the nation’s finest facilities while reaching numerous regionals and two Super Regionals.

He thinks UNLV can duplicate such achievement, even though some of the differences specific to baseball between here and Greenville, N.C., are like the weather patterns of Honolulu and Minneapolis. The Pirates have a national program. The Rebels have seasons to remember.

And yet it’s certainly not foolish to establish goals beyond that of East Carolina, an athletic department in which it’s difficult to name any significant accomplishments beyond Conference USA.

UNLV has had key injuries and players who have underperformed. That’s baseball. Of some 25 locals to have committed under Gouldsmith, only three have played their entire careers here. That’s college baseball. That’s everyone.

“When I was there, we were an island of a program in terms of raising our own money and doing what we wanted with it for the program,” Schlossnagle said. “But it’s a different setup under (Hamrick’s) administration. Whether that has helped (development) or not, I don’t know. But I believe they have the right coach in Buddy. I don’t have any question about that.”

Oh, questions exist.

Legitimate ones at that.

Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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