UNLV’s new AD won the news conference, but now must convince others to give

Updated April 18, 2017 - 9:03 pm

She won the news conference in the way a No. 1 seed handles a 16 in the NCAA Tournament, a figure whose presence and confidence and personality owned the room beyond even what those who hired her had anticipated.

For starters, Desiree Reed-Francois was that impressive, and it’s now obvious why and how she annihilated the competition to become UNLV’s next athletic director when the process reached final interviews.

“She knocked our socks off,” UNLV president Len Jessup said. “I just sat there thinking, ‘I have to hire this person.’ ”

The resume is detailed and impactful enough to assess her more than qualified for the role of which she was officially introduced Tuesday, and there is no question someone so smart and experienced did her homework on both what ails UNLV athletics and those factors that might help generate future success.

But while I’m sure Reed-Francois has been updated on how Tony Sanchez is trying to build a winning football program and the incredibly difficult situation Marvin Menzies inherited as basketball coach and why the skeleton of a marketing department has resembled a revolving door the past several years, one thing stands paramount to whether her tenure ultimately will be deemed a success.

Can she raise money?

It’s not as sexy a topic as hiring and firing coaches, not as apt to grab headlines like fancy new facilities might, not what most people like to hear and talk about.

Too bad.

The heartbeat of higher education is defined through philanthropy, and nobody relies on it more in major college athletics in 2017 than a non-Power Five program in a conference with a forgettable TV contract.

It was reported in February that UNLV athletics is facing a nearly $5 million budget shortfall, largely because of attendance problems in men’s basketball and football, and you can forget those rumors that circulated the past few days about the university forgiving such debt to offer Reed-Francois a clean slate financially as she begins the journey.

Jessup insists UNLV will do everything it can to reduce the number as much as possible, but it’s also true a large slice of that responsibility now falls on the shoulders of Reed-Francois.

I have a feeling behind that bright and wide and welcoming smile lurks a serious, no-nonsense, don’t-be-late-to-work-on-her-watch persona that will demand excellence and quickly determine who within UNLV athletics can and can’t produce.

Good. Great. The department needs a fresh and demanding perspective — someone to hold others accountable and command results — more than Menzies needs a few guys who can shoot.

Which is also how you figure she might raise funds.

I don’t see her being deterred from those who might offer initial negative reactions of her efforts to get money flowing in UNLV’s direction, because she seems the sort who will keep offering the use of a pen until the person writes a check.

“Being genuine is a key aspect of it, but we have a saying in our line of work, ‘People give to people,’ ” said Whit Babcock, athletic director at Virginia Tech, who brought Reed-Francois to Blacksburg, Virginia, with him from Cincinnati and promoted her to second-in-command. “While UNLV may be the underlining aspect of it, people are only going to give if they believe in the person they’re giving it to.

“Relationship building is key, doing what you said you’re going to do is critical, and being good stewards of those resources. Desiree will work hard, she will create a vision, she will show people a need and she’s not afraid to ask. She has an unbelievable work ethic and attention to detail. She’s incredibly intelligent. She’s the whole package.”

Nobody in athletics knows her better than Babcock, a sitting AD who made the trip to Las Vegas to help celebrate Reed-Francois realizing a dream she had pursued for two decades. Think about how much that says he thinks of her.

But never mind this not being your father’s or grandfather’s Las Vegas. This isn’t even your Las Vegas anymore. The Golden Knights of the NHL are here. The Raiders of the NFL are coming. Competition for sponsorship dollars and discretionary income of sports fans will be more intense than any time in the town’s history.

Desiree Reed-Francois won the news conference. She owned the room. She had presence, confidence, personality.

But if there are any boxes to check off when identifying the most significant qualities for her new job, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are all the same.

Can she raise money?

“I have to build trust with our supporters,” she said. “They have to know that I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do and that I’m accountable. They need to know that we have a plan, and I need to invite them to participate in it and then say thank you.”

On paper, Jessup hit a home run with this hire. He more than delivered on his end.

Now, it’s on Reed-Francois to do the same.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 98.9 FM and 1340 AM from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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