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Former Rebels bemoan football program’s woes

UNLV football remains close to the heart of Joe Haro nearly a decade after the former running back removed his Rebels uniform for the final time.

He is loyal to the program and university, and “Jersey” Joe – who rushed for 1,107 yards in 2001 and 841 in 2002 — still makes Southern Nevada his home.

Haro feels the pain of what he sees today, another victory-challenged Rebels team about to be overshadowed by the start of basketball season, unable to match the enthusiasm, optimism and lofty expectations by those who call the Thomas & Mack Center their home.

UNLV is 1-5 entering Saturday’s 3 p.m. game against Colorado State at Sam Boyd Stadium, which follows a 2-11 record in coach Bobby Hauck’s first season last year. He replaced Mike Sanford, who failed to post a winning record in five seasons.

Haro was a member of the last Rebels team to finish above .500, the 2000 club that went 8-5.

“It’s definitely frustrating as a former player and alum,” he said. “A lot of people know I played football. They will bring up if we even need a football program. That’s upsetting.”

Haro is one of many former Rebels suffering from afar. They badly want the program to turn around, and none interviewed by the Las Vegas Review-Journal said they were ready to give up on Hauck, who came to Las Vegas after going 80-17 in seven seasons at Montana.

“I think that the program definitely needs some work, but I feel Coach Hauck is the right guy for it,” said Zach Bell, part of the Rebels’ strong linebackers unit from 2001 to 2004.

But there are deep concerns, expressed passionately and thoughtfully, the most common being that former players don’t feel welcome around the program.

Former star cornerback Kevin Thomas, who played four seasons for the Buffalo Bills, said he received no response when he applied for graduate assistant jobs under Sanford and Hauck.

“I want to go to my school,” Thomas said. “I learned valuable stuff that can be passed down to these kids. They need technique. I want to share the knowledge. Like Coach (John) Robinson would say, it doesn’t do you any good to keep it a secret.”

Bell said, if given the opportunity, he would quit as manager of a beer distributorship in Southern California and move to Las Vegas and “help in any capacity.”

Hauck said the gates to Rebel Park are always open for practices, and he never wants to turn away a former player. He also said such complaints are common at many programs.

“We welcome everyone who ever played or coached here,” Hauck said. “It’s one of those things where guys have got to get involved, too.

“We’ve had things around spring practice a little bit, and probably would like to do a little bit more. I think historically what has happened here is we’ve talked about doing some of that. They have not been particularly well attended.”

Many, though, feel helpless simply sitting by, and they wince at what they see on game days — and other days, too.

Running back Frank Summers, who is on the San Diego Chargers’ practice squad, said he was surprised when he stopped by UNLV’s practice this past spring. He saw the many newcomers and said “they looked like a high school team.” Summers added he “didn’t like their intensity and body language.”

Summers, who rushed for 928 yards in 2007 and 740 in 2008 after previously playing at California and at a junior college, said the often-used complaint about facilities is overblown.

“The facilities aren’t bad,” Summers said. “I was at Cal-Berkeley, and (UNLV’s) facilities are better than at Cal. The only difference is the freaking stadium isn’t on campus.”

Summers said the stadium’s location near Henderson doesn’t bother him, but he and other former Rebels are concerned about the program’s future.

Many want the current players to understand the past. Haro remembered the impact Bob Rather, a linebacker in 1977 and 1978, had when speaking to the team about the rivalry with UNR when Haro was a freshman.

“From that day forward, I never liked Reno,” Haro said. “We can’t lose to Reno every year.”

Haro was part of the Rebels’ run of five consecutive victories over the Wolf Pack from 2000 to 2004. UNLV hasn’t beaten its upstate rival since, and lost 37-0 three weeks ago.

“I’ve talked to (Rather),” Haro said. “We want to see them compete. We root for them. … Some of the losses are tough to swallow.”

Former quarterback Sam King, who played for UNLV from 1979 to 1981 and as a senior passed for a still-school record 3,778 yards, was particularly troubled by two losses this season. Though still hopeful the program will turn around, King couldn’t quite get past the 41-16 loss to Southern Utah and the 41-14 defeat at Wyoming.

“Is it because of talent?” King asked. “If not, then you would have to say, is it coaching? Either way, Wyoming or Southern Utah shouldn’t have better talent than we have or better coaching.”

Thomas, who played from 1998 to 2001 and was Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, watched this season’s games against Wisconsin, UNR and Wyoming even though he lives in Texas.

“I’d like to see them fight more,” Thomas said. “The Wyoming game, I was really disappointed in those boys. I wish they could’ve fought a little harder. I’m sure they’re playing hard, but they’ve got to play fast.”

Bell, whose brother, B.J., is a senior defensive end, said UNLV’s youth movement has created a leadership void. He said the Rebels need to sign more junior college players to address that issue because the older athletes would provide needed guidance to younger players.

“When we played teams in the past, we always had older guys with leadership roles,” Bell said. “There a lot of younger guys. They don’t know how to win.

“You can’t just come to a school and win. Right now, the guys in here aren’t ready. It isn’t just being football ready, but the overall experience.”

The greatest Rebel of all, former 16-year NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, who holds UNLV’s career passing record of 8,020 yards from 1982 to 1984, said the program needs to think differently from others.

Maybe an imaginative on-campus stadium, which the university hopes becomes a reality, would be a good start.

“We need newness,” Cunningham said. “It doesn’t always come down to money. It comes down to commitment.”

Stronger community support, Cunningham said, could convince more talented local players to play for UNLV rather than sign with top programs elsewhere.

“Everyone knows it takes time, money and effort to get back to finding our identity as a school and as a team,” Cunningham said. “Sometimes you need to bring people back in and let them tell people who we are.

“We might not have the tradition of a (Southern California), but we have tradition.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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