Interview with James Dean Leavitt - (Nevada) University Regent

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On August 3rd, 2011 University regent James Dean Leavitt sat down with me for an interview. The topics we discussed were the coaching search / selection, UNLV Now stadium project, funding in general, TV package, conference changes, and ticket prices.

RR: Obviously your focus as a University Regent is academics and athletics over the eight member institutions in Nevada, but for the purpose of this interview I want to talk to you about UNLV Basketball, and other subjects as they relate to UNLV Basketball, just saying this so people don't forget you work on and for a lot of other really important things as well.

JDL: That's correct, seven academic institutions, and the Desert Research Institute.

RR: As a regent, were you shocked that Coach Kruger left and took the Oklahoma job?

JDL: I was surprised that he left, that being said it is a wonderful opportunity for Dave Rice. Coach Kruger did a lot of things well but I don't think he was a significant recruiter for us, he made the effort but just didn't deliver a lot of high-powered recruits; let's face it - coaching is one thing and talent is another, and you certainly have to have both to be a top-20 program.

RR: Providing that he didn't leave, an obvious hypothetical, and he had time left on his contract, he would have been renewed as long as his salary demand didn't go higher?

JDL: He would have been renewed, obviously with the economic situation we couldn't pay him more, but he was successful enough to be renewed. There is the dilemma, do you put someone else in who could possibly done more, I don't know the answer to that question, but I believe he would have been renewed.

RR: One of the things I noticed about the selection process, you guys as regents (some of you) were present for some of the interviews.

JDL: I was present for 3 of the 4 interviews, I was briefly present for the Ernie Kent interview, but I couldn't stay for it. Jim Livengood and Neil Smatresk was there for all four.

RR: It seemed a little unusual for the regents to be a part of the interview process, was it unusual, or was it part of the plan?

JDL: You know what, I was asked to participate and happy to do so. We had a new president in Neil Smatresk and even newer AD in Livengood, so I think they wanted to be comfortable with multiple points of view representing the community. I invited Kevin Page, a UNLV alumni to participate and he joined me for 3 of 4 interviews as well, so it was the four of us.

RR: As far as the interviews went, who was tasked with asking the questions, or was it roundtable?

JDL: It was led by Jim Livengood, I was more of an observer, I gave my opinion if asked. Its ultimately is the A.D.'s decision who to recommend in consultation with the president. Certainly I was consulted and I appreciated being a part of the process. I was clear and they were clear that it was the Athletic Director's decision - and that's the way it should be.

RR: As far as who was put in the final four, and who was under consideration, did salary ever figure into the decision? Was it an up-front thing, salary demand?

JDL: I can't recall if the range was specified or not, I certainly know in each of the interviews a range was discussed. We knew we were not going to have to pay the same for someone coming in that Lon Kruger was commanding, but the decision was based on who was right for program. The money was secondary. Certainly you may have to pay someone like Ernie Kent perhaps more who has been a head coach more than a Dave Rice, but the marketplace is competitive, each of the four individuals very much wanted to come here and build the program. The decision of who would be interviewed was entirely Jim Livengood's decision, I had no involvement in who the finalists would be.

RR: What is the current status of UNLV Now, the on-campus stadium project?

JDL: We were hoping to get some financing legislation passed out of the legislature this past session, we were not successful in doing so, nor were any of the other stadium projects. That being said, we're still moving forward, certainly majestic reality is moving forward. We're hopeful that we can put a plan together that can move forward without the financing legislation. It could be that two years from now we go back to the legislature to get what we would view as the final piece necessary. In the past we were looking for the legislation and then do steps B,C,D. Now were at steps B,C,D and not waiting for the legislature. They didn't do what we were hopeful they would. It's certainly possible we'll be back to the legislature after we are well into the project, and chances might increase then.

RR: Is there any indication why the legislation failed?

JDL: It was the end of the session, things were rushed. We were there, we were prepared. We were disappointed that the legislative leadership were not able to give it the time and attention it needed. The end of a session is rushed and hurried...

RR: Big budget problems this year...

JDL: We could argue that this could have been heard much earlier in the session, but there was a decision made by the powers that be, not going to name names, and it was pushed off to the very end. In essence they just ran out of time. Our entire team was there till midnight the last 3-4 days of the session trying to get what we needed to accomplish. We were frustrated, it was visible. We had done our homework and prepared and were not given what was needed to get it to the floor.

RR: So, it didn't make it out of committee?

JDL: Yes, it gets frustrating. At the end of the day you want your legislation to be considered on their merits and when it doesn't get to be heard, it's frustrating, you don't feel democracy is well served.

RR: Did you have assemblymen and senators sponsoring the bill?

JDL: We did, we had Sen. Al Horsford sponsoring and leading the effort. You're hopeful if it's still needed two years from now... In some ways you could argue it's a blessing in disguise. Anytime you're looking for assistance from the State, you have issues because the public is always sensitive of these issues (taxes). All were trying to do, is create a tax increment district, in essence, blocking out the four corners of UNLV, and say look - any sales tax, and land tax, any of the usual taxes that would be paid, let us keep those, let's not have those revert to the city, county, or state. It seemed like a very reasonable proposal, but that being said we'll have to figure out a way to support the project without it, and it will be a challenge. Majestic and Ed Roski are confident, and have the experience to back it up. Ed is an incredible and honorable guy, and a guy with deep pockets. I'm still optimistic.

RR: My basic understanding of the project, it would be a dual use facility - the main centerpiece of it would be football on campus, but also for basketball with larger capacity than the T&M. 40-50k for football, 20-25k for basketball?

JDL: Yes, we've seen some beautiful state-of-the-art renderings for the design, and it's impressive. A lot of the support for athletic programs is from substantial private giving, and there's a link between the two, so there are constraints that are ever present.

RR: The need for the on-campus stadium, "UNLV Now," isn't it primarily driving by the need for football stadium on campus?

JDL: Oh there's no question, it's tough to run a good football program at Sam Boyd Stadium. Sam Boyd Stadium is suitable, but it is not the most desirable location. It's in a very south-east location of the city, and to some extent it excludes people on the west side of town who don't want to put in the extra driving. That being said there is only 5 home games this year, as opposed to the normal 6. I think if you have football on campus stadium it will generate excitement, it's something that hasn't ever been there for UNLV.

RR: Because the plan has a dual use stadium, is there any problem with the T&M, should we be concerned with the T&M if UNLV Now fails to produce the stadium?

JDL: I think T&M is fine, I think it needs a little retrofitting and a little modernization. We've done some things, a different cooling system a few years ago. It's still an outstanding facility, and I'm always amused when people think there's something wrong with it. It's the second highest grossing facility in the country after Madison Square Garden. This is Las Vegas, and people kind of expect the best here, and what better place to put a state-of-the-art stadium then right on that corner where every plane that lands, you look out and you see something that says "UNLV "naming rights" be it Microsoft or whomever, from the plane or driving in. Naming rights are huge, and with the location that could be a $100 million deal.

RR: Speaking capacity, I know they're not in the MWC anymore but BYU built the Marriott Center which holds about 23,000, is there the need to compete with capacity? Is there a concern we're losing out edge on being the biggest and well attended?

JDL: I'm not so sure about the difference between what we have now and the Marriott Center. I think there's an optimal size. One thing we haven't talked about is that we're discussing the possibility of bringing in an NBA or NHL franchise. So, as far as what happened in the legislature, we were going down one path and had a fairly clear idea, but because we didn't get what we needed we've re-met as a group and explored every possibility and instead of going in a linear order we're more flexible. A NBA franchise would have been a ways down the road, but we're exploring it now. Naming rights would have been down the road - we're exploring it now. Housing, dormitories, we're exploring it now. Maybe we can't do it the way we wanted, maybe we have to do it the exact opposite, such as building everything and then building the stadium. There's been a lot of brainstorming accomplished. I'm expecting update in a week or two in terms of where UNLV is at as well as Majestic.

RR: Does the UNLV Now plan include razing the T&M, or does it stay?

JDL: The plan is it stays, and its retrofitted and becomes a place where, for example, maybe the women's games are played there. It still would be used for a variety of functions. I don't think there is any way until the new stadium is built to tell what exactly its used for. You can put $20-30 million dollars into the T&M and have a fantastic venue.

RR: With a dual use stadium, and I'm familiar with the land, you would take part of Swenson and the whole area (which is partly airport land) would become a stadium. With all the capital improvements that have already been accomplished and parking-land grabs to accomplish those feats, where will parking be located?

JDL: Parking will be very important, there will be several multi-level parking facilities built for this, it's the only way to accomplish it. 4-10 story buildings but very attractive in appearance, built into the project. We've run out of horizontal space, so we have to go vertical. We only have so much real estate. You keep developing this great place of real estate, it's close to the strip and its basically in the center of the city. You can get to campus from about 30 minutes from any part of town.

RR: UNLV hasn't really built major athletic facilities since the T&M was built in the 80's...

JDL: Yes, there hasn't been a lot. We refurbished the Bucky Buchanan Natatorium (pool) a few years back, of course we're building the practice facility, the Mendenhall Center should be ready late-fall and really looking forward to the grand opening of that, what a recruiting tool that will be for Coach Rice. We're really excited about it. At the end of the day, you've got to know how to coach but you still have to get to the players. You can turn a B player into an A, a C player into a B player, but you can't turn a C player into an A player, so you need the talent to be competitive. Dave Rice understands recruiting, he gets a lot of credit and certainly deserves it for Jimmer Fredette. He wasn't a highly touted recruit out of high school, out of New York, but he stayed through his senior year and got much better under Coach Rice.

RR: Back to UNLV Now, what do you think the chances are that shovels actually touch the ground?

JDL: Could be within 1-2 years, chances are still very high. You have very committed people, the board is really high on it. President Smatresk is really excited. Majestic Reality is a really good partner with the expertise and funding in land development. They are searching for capital and doing everything that needs to be done in planning a project of this scope. If you compare us to California or states with a ton of regulation, it's not nearly as hard to get it done here. We're well on our way and don't anticipate any insurmountable obstacle.

RR: It comes down to money.

JDL: Its money, but more important the collective will of the city is behind the project. It's not 100%, but if you compare it to Harrah's / Caesars / Downtown, there is a lot more. The core of alumni and people like myself who have adopted UNLV as our university, and were just as passionate about it. The UNLV foundation board are made of the ‘movers and shakers' and even though very few of them actually attended UNLV.

RR: Historically, that's the way it's been...

JDL: Right, and they've adopted the university and are excited.

RR: UNLV has been lacking in RAF fund contributions, not in terms of total dollars, but the number of donors has been low - near bottom in the MWC for quite some time. Do you have any ideas on how to change it?

JDL: It's the responsibility of the athletic director. Winning helps, and that produces donations. But Jim Livengood's job to go out there to talk to each and every booster, and get alumni to join it. He works closely with the alumni association. We have to increase the size of the gifts as well as the number. Even if you get a little bit from a lot of people, that adds up. Let's say you have a guy who gives $100 a year, as his income increases maybe in 2 years its $500 a year, and then in a few more $1000. You can't focus always on the big gifts, it's a combination. He has multiple departments to manage, and at the same time he has a huge fundraising responsibility. Bill Bolt, who is the chancellor for development and the president Neil Smatresk, they also help. There are a lot of people who want to give to athletics. That's what's great about the university; it brings a lot of people together.

RR: Do you know who sets the prices and the donor levels for the season tickets?

JDL: Yes, that's strictly the AD, to a lesser extent the administrative directors.

RR: With the recession, which as especially hard on Las Vegas - has there been any fundraising challenges with that?

JDL: You have supply and demand, and certainly if you don't have the people needed to fill up the stadium, then you have to price yourselves competitively. They factor those things in, they are not clear answers so you have to make judgments. The excess money goes to support the program. This is in large part a blue-collar town, and you want to be accessible and understand the fact that incomes are strained right now, and it's a public institution. The market determines a lot of those things.

RR: Are you satisfied with the TV package as far as the coverage football and basketball gets. It seems to me in terms of at least basketball, there are still games not being featured on TV?

JDL: I don't think anyone is satisfied with the package. There are efforts made, and they get revisited almost on an annual basis. You get in there, and you try to market the best you can. A lot of people were critical of Mike Hammrick for some of the contracts he entered into. Last year, there was a lot of changing of teams conference to conference. BYU didn't think they were treated fairly; all of a sudden they are independent. Utah believed they would get more money by joining the PAC 10. TCU, same thing. There were a lot of moving parts last year. This year we have Boise State coming in, next year UNR. You have to on be on TV. Certainly players like Shabazz and the other top recruits, if they're aren't on TV then how do they increase their exposure, so that's what concerns me almost as much as anything. Let's face it, if you are a star athlete you want to be seen on ABC, CBS, ESPN, and you don't get on there as often. Wouldn't want Shabazz to think, I'll be seen 20 times on national TV at Kansas, only 6 times at UNLV. But, regardless of school, when you're winning you get shown on national TV and the networks have provisions so that they can adjust to that.

RR: Obviously because of all the moves there was never any talk of UNLV leaving the MWC?

JDL: None that I'm aware of.

RR: How do you feel about these additions, especially UNR.

JDL: Its really exciting, the board set a policy a long time ago to try to get our flagship institutions into the same conference. I think it's going to make the rivalry more meaningful because it impacts what place you finish in the conference. Right now UNLV has the edge in basketball, but UNR has the edge in football. I think it's good for the State and rivalries are important. I'm concerned that we've lost BYU and Utah because they were good rivalries that generated a lot of income. I'm sure that UNR and Boise State will be comparable in certain respects. The MWC I believe will be stronger for the additions. BYU had a great run this year in basketball, but for a couple shots, who knows, they could have gone deeper in the tournament. It is a big loss of Utah and BYU that we couldn't keep them in the conference, but they both did what they felt was in their best interests. I'm kind of interested to see how Utah will do in the PAC-12. It's all exciting and football is right around the corner.

RR: A lot of schools count on football driving athletics, given the lack of recent success of UNLV in football how does that translate to finance?

JDL: Definitely, and it's a challenge. When we talk about increasing funding for higher education there's not a lot of support of that, and even less for athletics. Certainly there are a lot of tax payers who have a hard time justifying the expenditure. I don't think that clash will ever go away. There are not that many programs in the country that operate in the black, but that's the goal. I know Jim Livengood's goal is to have athletics self-sustaining, and the future in our state is less and less support, but that's the trend across the country. As the economic maintains its flat trajectory, it's going to remain largely private donations. TCU has done very well, but they're in the minority.

RR: Is it particularly difficult at UNLV because football isn't driving things?

JDL: We'll sure because bottom line, there is less money. There would be less gate receipts. We're not anywhere near selling out (football) games. Fortunately or unfortunately, you have to win to get people into the stands. You can give away tickets, but you have to have a competitive product people want to see. Chicken and egg scenario. Certainly a new stadium won't change things overnight, but it may very well help with recruiting. That was the emphasis behind the Mendenhall Center, helps with recruiting and player development.

RR: Going back to the naming rights, are there any restrictions on renaming the T&M and getting that windfall?

JDL: The existing relationship with the Thomas and Mack families, who helped build the facility, it's very difficult to change it. They gave us those commitments, and you don't want to undo the goodwill that was built.

RR: So the name of T&M won't be changed?

JDL: No, for example I spoke with Bill Boyd when we considered moving the football stadium (UNLV), which is called Sam Boyd Stadium. They understand that things don't stay the same forever. The name of the new stadium in the face of the old, are sensitive discussions. If you have a $600-700 million dollar project, and you can get 10%+ of it paid, that helps a lot.

RR: Let's talk some fun, beside the hard work as a regent what's the perks and fun stuff you do?

JDL: I think it's the access, I get to meet and work with some of the most powerful people and incredible in the state, the social events, the academic events, the cultural events, being surrounded by faculty, students, very invigorating. My profession is being a criminal defense attorney, and I get to represent one client at a time, but it's like working in a vacuum working with the same judges and attorneys all the time, so it's a great change from that world. We are given two tickets to the games, and certainly access to the box, but those are the only financial perks. You spend a lot of time serving the citizens, we only get paid $80 per meeting, so in a given year that's about $2500, which for me is a day in the office. You don't do it for the money, but anything you put your heart and soul into is extremely rewarding. Any type of civic commitment, but there is no greater cause then education of course, it's the solution to all of our problems, scientists, engineers, doctors, and lawyers that help make up civilized society. Huge honor to be on the board, and I just finished my second year as chairman of the board. I'm now reassigned to chairman of health sciences. That's a very exciting project as well. For me, just the ability to influence so many people, and to be involved with hiring chancellors, presidents, athletics directors, coaches, it's amazing. Over the last two years I've been given extraordinary opportunities and it was well worth it.

RR: Those two tickets, how good are they?

JDL: They're on the floor, not particularly good tickets. The box is fun, you get to socialize it. The closer you get the more exciting it is, especially in basketball. Same with football, boxes are nice to entertain guests and donors, have a drink, but there's nothing like being close to the field.

RR: Wrapping the interview up, what's something people don't already know that you're excited about or looking forward to?

JDL: Hard to answer it, but something people may not know, is over the past six years we've worked hard to keep the board elected. There was several efforts, one by Chris Giunchigliani and one by Bill Raggio to try to make the board of regents not elected, but appointed. We fought those efforts and hopefully it doesn't become an appointment system. You want people to have access and opportunity. Someone like me would have never been appointed to the board of regents; those jobs would go to big supporters of the governor or big party contributors. Because the terms are 6 years, a lot of people don't finish the terms due to health reasons or running for another office, so in some ways it's the best of both worlds, 4 or 5 of the 13 board members are appointed. It gives people the chance to make a difference, and it keeps the board responsive to people and the tax payers supporting these publically funded institutions.

RR: That was something I didn't know, interesting.

RR: Well thank you for sitting down with me for the interview, best of luck to you.

JDL: My pleasure, thank you.

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