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Much at stake as UNLV begins coaching search

Updated March 18, 2021 - 7:38 pm

While not the marquee job it once was, the men’s basketball coaching position at UNLV that officially became open on Thursday has an impressive list of suitors.

Athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois has begun reaching out to candidates as she works to replace T.J. Otzelberger, according to a person in the athletic department. He is leaving to accept the same position at Iowa State.

The person said Reed-Francois wants to act quickly to give the players time to appropriately evaluate their futures. A quick decision also would give the new coach time to take full advantage of the players available in the NCAA transfer portal.

The stakes are high for the UNLV AD, who could not be reached for comment. Rebels basketball boosters are not happy with the state of the once proud program. UNLV was 29-30 in Otzelberger’s two seasons and has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2013.

“I’m extremely disappointed in the program, at this exact point in time, on a number of fronts,” said Bill Paulos, president of the Runnin’ Rebels basketball club. “This next hire has to be pretty amazing and has to come with players. It has to be an A-plus guy. It can’t be, ’We’re just going to hire some assistant coach from some place and bring him in.’ Or some other up-comer like T.J.

“I know T.J. will do great things at Iowa State,” Paulos added. “But the truth of it is, UNLV basketball must and should be a lot better than it is. That’s the harsh truth about where things stand.”

Candidates emerging

The vacancy is drawing interest from coaches across the country. Names worth mentioning are Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, college basketball analyst Steve Lavin, Iona coach Rick Pitino, Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire, Oregon assistant Tony Stubblefield and New York Knicks assistant coach Mike Woodson.

Current assistants Kevin Kruger and Demarlo Slocum also figure to get consideration. Kruger was a point guard on a Rebels team coached by his father, Lon. Slocum is from Las Vegas and used to coach with the Las Vegas Prospects, a local AAU program.

Bennett was a candidate for the job in 2016, but turned it down to remain with the Gaels, with whom he’s coached 20 seasons and reached seven NCAA tournaments. He was also part of an NCAA probe for recruiting violations in 2013, ultimately serving a five-game suspension. His teams had won 20 games in 13 consecutive seasons before the coronavirus shortened 2020-21 campaign.

Lavin hasn’t coached since 2015, but made the NCAA tournament eight times in 11 years at UCLA and St. John’s, two historically successful programs like UNLV. He’s known to be a dynamic recruiter and is familiar with recruiting the East and West coasts.

Pitino said publicly this week that he’s not interested in leaving Iona, but that hasn’t stopped UNLV’s fan base from clamoring for him. He has Iona in the NCAA Tournament in his first year on the job and is a historically great coach capable of recruiting, strategizing and developing players at an elite level. But he was fired by Louisville in 2017 for a bevy of transgressions that took place under his watch and comes with a $10 million buyout clause at Iona.

Stoudamire played point guard for 13 years in the NBA and has gathered a wealth of coaching experience since retiring in 2008. His coaching stops include Rice, Memphis, Arizona and the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies, and he was the West Coast Conference coach of the year in 2020.

Stubblefield is the Ducks’ associate head coach and is also known for his recruiting chops. He helped Oregon secure four top-12 recruiting classes during his tenure, and the Ducks have reached the NCAA tournament seven times under his watch.

Woodson is also a former NBA player. He has spent the better part of the last three decades carving out a successful NBA coaching career. He was the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks and Knicks, compiling a 315-365 mark and five playoff berths.

A tall task

Whoever gets the job is taking over a program that’s lacked continuity since Jerry Tarkanian sat on the sidelines inside the Thomas & Mack and one that bowed out of the second round of this year’s Mountain West tournament.

There’s also work to be done on the recruiting front, as four-star Rebels commit Arthur Kaluma is considering other options, according to a person with knowledge of his thinking.

UNLV employed a search firm, Folger Consulting, for the last coaching search that resulted in the hiring of Otzelberger. But a person within the athletic department said the school is not using a search firm to find Otzelberger’s replacement.

A UNLV player who spoke to the Review-Journal on the condition of anonymity said “none of us are really fazed” by Otzelberger’s departure, noting that Otzelberger addressed the team Thursday morning shortly before an official announcement.

The player also mentioned Pitino as someone he would like UNLV to consider.

A former Division I coach acknowledged that the UNLV job “has its challenges, but basketball people in the know realize its potential.”

“The new coach needs to bridge past Rebels to the present to feel like a family,” said former coach, who coached for several years in a Power Five conference. “Gradual process though. It can’t be forced or phony.”

Bar set high

Another prominent donor, Tom Jingoli, expressed his disappointment with the current state of affairs, noting that “finishing seventh in the Mountain West is disappointing for everybody involved in the program.” It’s one thing for San Diego State and UNR to be better than UNLV, but it’s another for Utah State, Boise State, Colorado State and Wyoming, Jingoli said.

“It’s time for everyone to wake up and realize UNLV is an irrelevant mid-major program at best. We are not the Runnin’ Rebels of old,” said Jingoli, a board member of the Runnin’ Rebels basketball club. “If you hire the right coach, that can change. I’m happy for T.J. He got a Power 5 job with a significant pay increase. I don’t fault him for leaving.”

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in a video posted to Twitter this morning that Reed-Francois offered Otzelberger a contract extension last night as a means to retain him. But the Rebels find themselves in this familiar position.

The new coach will be the school’s 14th, including interims, since Tarkanian left in 1992 and the sixth in the last 10 years.

Sports columnist Ed Graney contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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