UNLV’s search for a basketball coach was done mostly out of the spotlight, with T.J. Otzelberger emerging publicly as a serious candidate only as a deal was almost done.
When it came time to formally introduce him, however, UNLV made sure to bring out Otzelberger in the most Las Vegas way. He flew to the Thomas & Mack Center in a helicopter on Thursday and later walked the red carpet at the Strip View Pavilion as the band played the school fight song and cheerleaders waved pompoms.
And then Otzelberger, who smoothly referred to the Rebels’ upstate rival as “UNR,” let what is a passionate but often skeptical fan base know he was ready to make UNLV the class of the Mountain West. He even called UNLV the “flagship program of the conference.”
“We will embrace the uniqueness of Las Vegas and be proud members of the community,” Otzelberger told the crowd of about 500. “We will embrace past expectations. We will not shy away from them. We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the 1990 national championship team, a team I watched as a seventh-grader up in Wisconsin. The aura around UNLV basketball was electric, the play on the court was rife with excitement and the arena was rocking. We will get that magic back.
“We’ll compete for conference titles, for NCAA Tournament berths and one day for a national championship again.”
Otzelberger, 41, agreed to a five-year contract that makes him the Mountain West’s highest-paid coach with a $1.3 million average. He will make $1.1 million next season, which is a little higher than the salary of previous leader Eric Musselman, who has a base salary of $1 million at UNR. Otzelberger’s pay rises $100,000 each season.
The buyout for Otzelberger is about $4 million his first season, $3 million his second, $1 million each in his third and fourth and 25 percent of the remaining contract in the fifth year.
UNLV will pay Otzelberger’s previous school, South Dakota State, a buyout of $350,000 He went 70-33 in three seasons with the Jackrabbits, making two NCAA Tournaments and one National Invitation Tournament.
“We were looking for a coach who embodied the spirit of Las Vegas, a competitor with the energy, the determination and the firepower to unapologetically compete for championships,” UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois said. “We needed a head coach who knew how to build a championship culture, and we needed a person who could help our young men achieve their hopes and dreams.
“T.J. Otzelberger embodies our high expectations.”
Otzelberger said he “needs to re-recruit” the current roster and that he has had conversations with those players since Wednesday. Almost the entire team showed up to the announcement, with only forwards Shakur Juiston and Tervell Beck not attending. Juiston is a potential graduate transfer who is eligible to play immediately if he goes elsewhere.
Along with trying to keep players at UNLV, Otzelberger will soon hit the recruiting trail to look for new ones.
He’s also in the market for assistant coaches, and one source said veteran coach/scout Tim Buckley was being considered. Buckley is a scout with the Minnesota Timberwolves and served as an assistant at Indiana from 2008 to 2017, with other stops at Marquette, Iowa and Wisconsin. He also coached Ball State from 2000 to 2006.
Otzelberger’s history before South Dakota State includes being an assistant at Iowa State for eight seasons over two stints and for two years at Washington.
He got to know Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger when Kruger coached UNLV from 2004 to 2011. Otzelberger attended a handful of Kruger’s practices.
“I hold Coach Kruger in a very high regard, and I appreciate his advice over the last few days,” Otzelberger said. “I’ll continue to lean on him throughout this journey in the days and weeks ahead.”
Kruger said he thought at the time that Otzelberger had a promising coaching future, a belief that has only strengthened.
“I think he’ll do great,” Kruger said. “He’ll get out in the community. The fans there are great. They’ll like T.J. They’ll like the way he plays, like the way his teams play. He’ll have a great relationship there.”
2019-20: $1.1 million
2020-21: $1.2 million
2021-22: $1.3 million
2022-23: $1.4 million
2023-24: $1.5 million
First season: $4 million
Second season: $3 million
Third and fourth seasons: $1 million
Fifth season: 25 percent of remaining contract