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Winning perfect recipe for drawing fans to games

This isn’t Alabama. Nick Saban isn’t the local college football coach. There are no titles to defend, no Bowl Championship Series supremacy to flaunt, no intimidating results on a national scale to promote.

In the world of leverage when comparing a football program to its influence over a student body, Saban proved last week his is along the lines of Ben Bernanke during times of financial panic.

Saban rules the day. The only thing bigger than his ego is his power around Tuscaloosa.

Bobby Hauck and those within athletics own no such weight over UNLV students. Hauck and his superiors are flat broke when it comes to dictating how many might support the Rebels at home games.

It is their hope, however, that winning matters, that recent success on the field can turn what at times has been a contentious relationship with students into a positive one.

“We hope every student on campus comes to the game Saturday and sells the dang thing out,” Hauck said of UNLV’s 1 p.m. homecoming matchup against San Jose State at Sam Boyd Stadium. “I like day football games. They ought to be played most of the time. We can’t do it because (of weather) here early in the season, and television is always part of the equation, but a day football game for us will be a lot of fun.

“No situation is perfect. You can find something to not like about anything. The stadium is too far away. The tailgate isn’t set up exactly how you would like it to be. The transportation (options) aren’t perfect. Whatever it might be. But let’s get beyond all that and say, ‘This isn’t exactly how I want it, but I’m going to go out there and have some fun and support my school and enjoy watching two football teams go at it.’ ”

And that, really, is the sell.

And that, really, should be enough.

For years, it has been about a lack of evidence, the idea that until UNLV showed an ability to compete on the scoreboard, expecting students (or anyone, for that matter) to make the trek to Sam Boyd and support a losing program was asking too much. Such reasoning had merit. One losing season is tough enough for some to handle, but nine straight creates the sort of apathy that keeps student sections empty.

But as much as athletics has attempted to address some of the students’ issues earlier this season — allowing those without a game ticket into the tailgating area, lowering the cost of attending the tailgate, paying for students to be transported to and from Sam Boyd — none should be so critical that it would preclude students from supporting a team that is 5-3 and one win from bowl eligibility.

The years pass, and the men’s basketball program continues to be a player within national rankings, and UNLV students respond, organizing efforts to support the Rebels in a way that rivals many of the best student sections nationally.

But this is a basketball school. Owns the tradition to prove it. Always will be.

Whether it’s the distance from campus to Sam Boyd — eight miles seems like 800 to some — or the restrictions on how alcohol can be transported into the tailgate, a faction of students always will exist that simply will discover a reason not to support football.

It’s those on the fence who UNLV hopes to convince otherwise.

“I do believe our success this season will bring more students out starting this weekend,” athletic director Tina Kunzer-Murphy said. “Winning helps. It does. It used to be, student tickets for football would be cut off at 2,500. We changed that. There are plenty of tickets now for anyone who wants to come. I would love to see a day where we have 5,000 to 10,000 students at a game. We’re doing everything we can to make it easy for them — handing out tickets on campus every Thursday, buying them pizza, addressing the need for transportation. They can print their tickets out online.

“We’re doing anything we can think of to assist them.”

Hauck is correct. The perfect situation doesn’t exist, even for the nation’s best program. Saban wasn’t happy that Alabama students had been leaving his team’s blowout victories early this season, so he went public with his displeasure. A day later, 20 student organizations had lost block-seating privileges for home games.

That’s the egomaniac Saban for you.

That’s also some serious juice.

Hauck and Kunzer-Murphy don’t have that leverage. They are at the mercy of how many of those fence-sitting students decide that what they might perceive as negatives before the game now are being outweighed by watching a winning home team during it.

“I haven’t been to a game yet but am thinking about going now,” said Marcus, a UNLV sophomore who happened past the student union on Monday to watch football players paint the Fremont Cannon red in celebrating the team’s rivalry win against UNR. “There seems to be much more of a buzz on campus about the team now.”

This is what you call a start.

This isn’t Alabama.

Baby steps are required.

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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