Sanford must change his recruiting philosophy

If there were a judge and jury of 12 impartial souls not aware UNLV football exists — I could find 12 on my block — the verdict could be read following opening arguments.

The evidence is that compelling. The Rebels need to change how they approach building a program or losing will continue to be as central a part of coming seasons as Sam Boyd Stadium’s parking lot resembling a ghost town come mid-October.

This is an issue beyond any preseason poll, although UNLV deserves its ninth-place prediction by the Mountain West media until it cracks that suddenly insurmountable ambition of winning two conference games in a season.

There are things I disagree with four-year coach Mike Sanford about, but none more than how simple a recruiting sell Las Vegas is.

The only proof to corroborate my feeling that signing great high school football players here is just a tad easier than finding gasoline nowadays under $4 a gallon is a program that hasn’t produced any consistent success for 30 years and Sanford’s 6-29 record in three seasons.

You know, small things like that.

Sanford this recruiting season signed the highest percentage of high school players in school history, a philosophical belief that makes sense for a majority of programs nationally. It’s the best way for most.

But to accept it as the pre-eminent long-term method for UNLV means you agree it’s possible for the Rebels to eventually contend for league titles and bowl berths by playing opponents straight-up in recruiting wars, that there are enough talented prep athletes who want to attend school here and whose parents are not put off by the Strip and many negative views that define the town’s nightlife.

Sorry. There aren’t.

This is even beyond Sanford. Whether he remains coach following this season or next or five years from now, it’s time UNLV as a university decides what it wants to be in football. If the answer has anything to do with being good, it can’t build the conventional way.

It has to adopt a Dennis Erickson route and sacrifice youth for more junior college players. It has to go heavy on risk. Sanford did some of it early in his time here, and should double those efforts. This is another thing we disagree about.

Look. It’s not the healthiest way. You want to avoid such a plan at all costs. JC players tend to come with more baggage and often less character. They could be murder on your program’s Academic Performance Rating with the NCAA and cost you scholarships. They often cause the kind of off-field headaches that keeps Advil in business.

But three decades of mostly losing football should be enough not to immediately renounce any proposal for change. John Robinson went the JC/major college transfer route early in his tenure as UNLV coach, won eight games his second season, beat Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl, got tired and stopped working hard. It doesn’t mean the strategy couldn’t produce winning teams here for years.

"The only way to truly build a program that is going to last is to recruit high school kids," Sanford said. "To me, there is a temptation of recruiting a bunch of juco guys to win right away, but you’re not going to sustain it.

"Talent is part of it, but I want a team I can trust on and off the field. … When you say we’re not winning, you’re basing this on the last three years. To me, this is a new year, a new opportunity that I’m excited about."

What else is there to base anything on? Recruiting a team full of high-character individuals is commendable, but do you know what character and two wins a season eventually gets a coach? Fired.

There is no buzz here about this team. Lon Kruger now has his face on telephone books. I’m not even sure Sanford owns one. The expectations for basketball are Wynn Las Vegas high. Those for football haven’t reached your ankle.

It’s true UNLV should earn better results this season. You can find five wins on the schedule and not feel ridiculous. This is a bad league after the top three teams, and any staff entering its fourth season and handed seven home games like the Rebels shouldn’t be allowed to effectively explain away another dreadful record.

But while you can run into a string of bad luck for a season, you can’t run into a string of 6-29 bad luck. Are the players not good enough? Are the coaches not good enough? Is anyone good enough?

So you take more recruiting risks the next few years before your contract runs out and you try to win more by going the JC way and, hey, what do you know, it might work well enough that you eventually sustain something positive and then returning to the high school route makes sense. We all know the alternative. Three decades worth.

Sanford and I disagree about this, of course.

But I’d sure like my chances with a jury.

Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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