When Jerry Tarkanian was looking to leave Long Beach State for a place with more resources, his job options were Arizona State or UNLV. After deliberating, Tark decided he was just going to stay in Long Beach. Sure, UCLA and USC would keep taking whichever of his recruits they wanted, and he'd have very little money or institutional support, but he'd been to back-to-back Elite 8s so it wasn't like he couldn't win there.
Before he announced that he was staying, he woke to find an article in the local paper where the LB State athletic director said that leaving for UNLV would be a "slap in the face," because it was a lateral move at best. If Tark stayed, the AD promised a press conference on campus, but if he left he was on his own.
That changed Tark's mind, and so he left.
In 1973 UNLV had recently made the jump to Division I, and Las Vegas wasn't the Las Vegas we know (the county had a population of about 270,000), but Tarkanian had the vision to understand that the city was growing rapidly and that all those people living off The Strip would need a team to get behind. They also offered him things that Long Beach State couldn't – like an office, a secretary, and a recruiting budget. Most importantly, Nevada had a rule that made it easy for him to get academically marginal students into college. Four years later UNLV was in the Final Four. Within a decade the 18,000+ seat Thomas and Mack Center was built. Then came four more Final Fours and a National Title.
Now it's been 20 years since he left and the Runnin' Rebels have one Sweet 16 in that time.
They play in a good conference. They have money and plenty of support. They just don't have a lot of wins to show for it.
The 2012 recruiting class was supposed to change that. Dave Rice was in town and he had vowed to restore UNLV to its place among national powers. Katin Reinhardt, a consensus top 40 recruit out of Southern California, was his first big time commitment. Then Khem Birch (the consensus No. 11 recruit in 2011) announced that he was leaving Pitt and moving to UNLV. Anthony Bennett (No. 6) was next, and then Savon Goodman (No. 82), DaQuan Cook, and Demetris Morant rounded out the class.
This class was paired with a talented veteran core of Mike Moser, Anthony Marshall, Quintell Thomas, and Justin Hawkins.
Expectations were high, and every preseason poll had them in the top 25.
Then they finished 3rd in the Mountain West, they lost to New Mexico in the Mountain West Tournament, and they got bounced by Cal in the opening round of the NCAAs. When the season was over, Mike Moser left for Oregon, Kaitin Reinhardt left for USC, and Anthony Bennett became the top pick in the NBA draft. Coupled with the graduation of three seniors, the roster was gutted. And that was before Savon Goodman was arrested, and he'll now sit the year out.
UNLV still has talent. Even without Goodman they still have four players who were consensus top 100 recruits, which is more than 47 of the BCS Conference schools have (57%). But they don't have the loaded roster they expected.
So is UNLV going to make it back? It's been more than two decades since Jerry Tarkanian roamed the sidelines, chewing on his trademarked towels.
If (or when) they do make it back, it will be great for the college game. Many coaches and fans grew up watching the dominant Rebel teams from the late 80s and into the 90s. Those teams changed the way the game was played. They changed the power structure of which programs dominated. Now we're just waiting for them to be nationally relevant again.