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UNLV pirate gets last laugh

Mother mother ocean,

after all these years I’ve found

My occupational hazard being

my occupation’s just not around

I feel like I’ve drowned, gonna head uptown.

— from "A Pirate Looks at Forty" by Jimmy Buffett

Harvey Hyde, the coach of the 1984 UNLV football team that will be inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame on Friday night, used to be a bit of a pirate. In the colorful, "aye matey, arrrrgh ye comin’ along for the ride?" sense, not the pillaging and plundering sense, though the Rebels of his era certainly pillaged and plundered Cal State Fullerton and San Jose State and some of those other teams.

He probably still is a bit of a buccaneer.

When we chatted Wednesday morning he was cruising down the 210 freeway near his home in Arcadia, Calif., headed east, en route to his home away from home in Las Vegas.

He said he was driving a BMW that was in pretty good shape. It should have been a big Cadillac convertible with whitewall tires, maybe a red 1970 Coupe de Ville, which was the last year the Coupe de Ville came in a convertible. You can see a pirate’s bandana blowing in the wind when he’s driving a ragtop Caddy.

The Rebels played like pirates when Harvey Hyde was their coach. They swashbuckled a lot. They swaggered, too.

They plundered college football’s low seas, going undefeated in the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference and 11-2 overall, losing only to Hawaii, 16-12, and to 10th-ranked Southern Methodist, 38-21. This was just after the Pony Express and Ron Meyer, another former UNLV football coach, had left for the NFL. Meyer was a pirate, too.

Pirate is just another word for football coaches from midmajor schools who are given ultimatums by the board of trustees to beat Southern California and Stanford or even Boise State, though their resources pale in comparison to those of Southern Cal and Stanford or even Boise State.

"We had a swagger, and we didn’t care what people thought," Hyde, 73, was saying as drive-time traffic swirled around him. "We went out there, and we played hard."

You might not beat the powerhouse programs with an attitude like that, but you might only lose 42-28 and cover the spread. And chances were good you wouldn’t lose to Southern Utah or Northern Arizona. This is not to say the method Bobby Hauck has chosen to rebuild the UNLV program is the wrong approach; just that it takes a lot longer his way.

The 1984 Rebels had Randall Cunningham and a bunch of other guys who played in the NFL, and they had some juco studs, and they had a chip on their shoulder. There were brushes with the NCAA and brushes with the law, and when UNLV was found guilty of playing seven ineligible players, unwittingly, the conference quite wittingly said it had to forfeit its victory over Toledo in the California Bowl, though none of the ineligible players dressed out.

Only the 1984 Rebels could be penalized for using ineligible players that didn’t dress out.

"They made four, five or six all-league players sit out – and we still won, 33-13," Hyde said with a wry chuckle. Actually, it was 30-13. But the pirate still had the last laugh.

He still was chortling and guffawing and saying "arrrrgh" when UNLV president Bob Maxson, tiring of the negative publicity, began nudging him toward the door, just as Maxson later would nudge Jerry Tarkanian toward the door. Hyde wound up coaching football at Long Beach State, under the legendary George Allen. The 49ers played like pirates, too, even beating UNLV to clinch a rare winning season. Somehow, that seemed appropriate.

The news release about the 1984 UNLV football team didn’t mention any of that, because pirates still make college people a little nervous even if almost every college athletic program worth a damn has them, including Notre Dame football and Duke basketball and UCLA under John Wooden (and sugar daddy "Papa" Sam Gilbert).

But a lot of guys who play like pirates, thankful for the opportunity, also go to class. They earn degrees and become productive members of society, even doctors and lawyers and police lieutenants, as Harvey Hyde likes to say.

(The 1984 Rebels were star-crossed, too; the last time they got together as a group, in 2009, it was learned that seven of them had died, though the 1984 Rebels still are relatively young men, much too young to die.)

Here’s the thing about pirates: The more time that passes, the less threatening – and cooler – they become.

People really don’t care about forfeiting victories to Toledo, or Michigan taking down championship banners. This would explain why everybody loves the old Oakland Raiders, how Mike Leach got hired at Washington State, why Captain Morgan always gets the girl in those rum commercials on TV.

It would explain why Harvey Hyde was headed east on the 210 freeway on Wednesday morning, driving a BMW in pretty good shape with a huge smile on his face and not a care in the world.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0353. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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