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Time has come for Sanford to quit ‘improving,’ start winning

Here’s the thing: How do you fairly define improvement from a starting point of awful?

Lousy?

Bad?

Below average?

Any strides made by UNLV’s football team this season might have its coaches confident that their program is standing at the doorstep of much better days, but results suggest the Rebels still dawdle well beyond property lines. You can get to two wins a lot of ways. It’s still two wins.

It’s an uncomfortable truth to accept for a head coach who has produced just six victories in three years, but it’s one Mike Sanford must immediately remedy or face the certainty someone else will be afforded the chance to finish what he began.

“I don’t believe at all in setting a number of wins for any season because then the talk becomes of certain games the outside perception thinks you should win and certain ones it doesn’t think you should, and none of it means a hill of beans to what happens in those 31/2 hours during a game,” Sanford said. “Having said that, we have a tremendous sense of urgency. We have very high expectations for next year. I have very high expectations. That’s the bottom line.”

This really is: Next year, from a welcoming schedule that includes seven home games, Sanford must manufacture a record that presents the Rebels an opportunity to play in the postseason. Six wins. Seven. It’s not as much about a specific number as it is substantial advancement.

In other words, the overall record isn’t as significant as it is the Rebels are actually playing meaningful games when basketball practice opens in mid-October.

It’s the only way to approach things unless those who run UNLV’s athletic department want to lose the last few devoted souls who still believe that seemingly permanent dark cloud hovering above the football program will one day move and allow sunlight to touch the Rebels for the first time in nearly a decade.

The team could fail miserably again and a coaching move could be made and it’s likely UNLV would not find someone as amicable as Sanford. It might not discover a more devoted person to making things right, but a 6-29 record over three seasons suggests it could hire a better head coach.

It’s up to Sanford to prove that notion wrong next season, to verify athletic director Mike Hamrick didn’t make a colossal blunder when picking him to rebuild the Rebels. As it is, the jury might still be out, but be assured more than one vote has been taken and there remains just a few steadfast holdouts on Sanford’s side. He’s no dummy. He understands how the game works.

Seventeen starters return, but that’s no guarantee the offense will score more or the defense will make more stops or special teams won’t again be a disaster after coaches proclaimed they would be among the Mountain West Conference’s finest groups or the level of discipline in terms of personal fouls won’t continue to be that of grade-schoolers on sugar highs.

Everything is on Sanford to finally produce, as it should be. It’s called being a head coach. Postgame comments about players not executing should immediately be replaced with what he and his staff could have done better to prepare UNLV, as should any reference to youth.

There are obstacles in every program. Eventually, unfairly perhaps, it must only be about winning games. UNLV has reached that point.

It’s a task Sanford and his team will at least begin alone next year, except for those few remaining faithful souls still searching for sunlight.

The Rebels can’t sell a 6-29 coach to anyone entering next season. They lack the kind of marquee player (Frank Summers is a nice Mountain West running back, but not of elite stature nationally) successful ticketing campaigns are built around. The home schedule (Utah State, Iowa State and UNR in nonleague games and no Brigham Young or Utah in conference) is about as attractive as your standard Nick Nolte mug shot.

One good thing could come of such an inability to advertise: Sanford can use every imaginable “us against the world” speech when motivating his team because the concept won’t be far from the truth.

But the only way to emerge from this mess and continue his goal of building UNLV into a decent program beyond next season should be to become bowl eligible in 2008.

Four years is enough to expect as much.

“This program is improving, regardless of the record,” Sanford said.

Which means what?

That in three seasons, they have gone from awful to merely bad? That’s not good enough, at least not for anyone you’re asking to open a wallet.

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

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