Sanchez embraces Las Vegas in quest to rebuild UNLV program

The request came from the Review-Journal to ask first-year UNLV coach Tony Sanchez to pose in front of the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign.

He was all too happy to do it, and even brought along his wife, Tessie, and their two kids.

For Sanchez, the perfect marriage is UNLV and Las Vegas. It’s a union that’s rarely been made, at least by coaches who have overseen the Rebels’ football program.

He doesn’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to draw off the high energy of a city that attracts more than 40 million visitors per year and has a skyline recognized throughout the world.

So it shouldn’t be any surprise Sanchez also posed this summer for a publicity photo with a showgirl and two members of the Jabbawockeez dance team. What’s more, five of his players stood next to the same showgirl for another shot.

Las Vegas’ “Welcome” sign also is prominently featured in the new uniforms and at Sam Boyd Stadium, and diamond yard markers are painted on the field.

“The biggest thing is embracing Las Vegas,” Sanchez said. “I think for a long time, it’s been one of those things where people have kind of hidden it. It’s like, ‘We’re UNLV, but don’t worry about Vegas.’

“We are Las Vegas. We’re a vibrant community of great opportunities, the entertainment capital of the world. And we want to be a part of that.”

His approach is certainly different from UNLV’s previous two hires.

Mike Sanford and Bobby Hauck didn’t talk much about Las Vegas, for fear the Sin City reputation would cost them recruits because of parents fearful of sending their sons to a perceived modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Both coaches emphasized that daily life in Las Vegas wasn’t much different from other places, with its shopping malls, schools and parks sprinkled throughout the valley.

Sanchez also talks about the positives of raising a family in Southern Nevada, that kids grow up playing youth sports like they do elsewhere.

But Sanchez isn’t afraid to make that point while standing with athletes and their families in the High Roller as the observation wheel rises 550 feet above the Strip. And it’s the Strip, visible from his office at Lied Athletic Complex, that Sanchez will point to as a reason a player should sign with UNLV.

The Strip not only is Las Vegas’ economic lifeblood, but he tells parents it also represents a future for those young athletes.

“If you treat people right and you graduate from UNLV, you’re going to be connected to those opportunities, and not a lot of places can sell that,” Sanchez said. “We have that right here. We’re selling the heck out of it.”

Whether selling Las Vegas makes a difference as Sanchez tries to turn around a program that has finished eight of the past 11 seasons with just two victories is the question.

John Robinson was the last Rebels football coach to incorporate Las Vegas in promoting his program, and he won in his second season, going 8-5 in 2000 and beating Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl. He didn’t match that success in his final four seasons, but a lot of factors went into why Robinson fell short at the end.

That end, a 2-9 record in 2004, makes it difficult to remember how fun Robinson made being around the program in the beginning. He emceed his spring games and invited celebrities on his radio show, and Robinson was full of fun stories at his weekly boosters luncheon.

That magnetism was missing in the following two hires. Sanford and Hauck were generally liked by locals, but neither lit up a room and were odd matches with the city in which they coached. They tried to sell milk and cookies to a gin-and-tonic populace.

Sanchez gets Las Vegas, and it’s why he’s been such a hit in the community.

His enthusiasm also has had a clear effect on the players, who regularly take to social media to express their excitement for the season and the direction of the program.

Hauck banned players from going on Twitter or Facebook, and his practices were so businesslike, it was as if the players were going through drills in a library. Now practices are much noisier, and not just because rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop is blared all over Rebel Park. The players are constantly yelling encouragment at each other.

“Coach Sanchez is excited, and he’s pumped up,” senior quarterback Blake Decker said. “That translates to the coordinators being pumped up. That translates to the position coaches, which directly affects us. The music, the vibe, the excitement (at practice) takes you back to the original excitement you had playing the game when you were a little kid.

“When you fall back on those basics of why you played football, I think once you find those motivating factors is when you finally do play well. I think Coach Sanchez does a good job of helping us to remember those.”

Sanchez also knows plenty about winning. He won six state championships in six seasons at Bishop Gorman High School.

Winning at the college level is another matter. Not only did Sanchez make that leap, he made it at a school where it’s nearly impossible to win.

But Sanchez has done something no coach has accomplished since Robinson. He’s made people care about UNLV football. That, in itself, is a major victory.

And, beginning Sept. 5 at Northern Illinois, the great experiment will begin to see if on-field victories, the ones that truly count, match the energy Sanchez has generated.

“When you take over a job like this, if you think it’s just about football, you’re missing the boat,” Sanchez said. “We have to focus on everything — our image, our excitability, from uniforms and the recruiting process to fundraising. So many off-the-field things need to be addressed, and if you’re just going to focus on the X’s and O’s and that’s it, it’s going to be really hard to turn a corner here.”

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

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