UNLV Football is entering its most important year in program history. The Rebels are playing their final season at Sam Boyd Stadium before moving into the new Las Vegas Stadium on the strip, which will also be home to the Raiders and the Las Vegas Bowl. UNLV will also be moving it’s football operations into the new Fertitta Football Complex on campus. With all the changes at UNLV, the one constant has been head coach Tony Sanchez. The former Bishop Gorman head coach was hired with hopes that he would not only get UNLV in a winning direction, but get the Las Vegas community excited about Rebel Football.
After the 2017 season, UNLV finished 5-7. The 2018 season was poised to be UNLV’s breakout year. It was supposed to be the year they would go to a bowl game and serve as a turning point in the program’s history. However, the Rebels would finish the 2018 season at 4-8. Sanchez was given a fifth season as head coach, with athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois saying she is looking forward to winning and “bowl eligibility” this season. With Sanchez coming back, it’s time to step back and look at the state of the program. It’s time to wonder if Sanchez is the guy to bring UNLV to success. Has the UNLV football program peaked with Tony Sanchez as the coach or can he take the program to new heights?
There were some fans who were critical of the program for bringing back Sanchez for a fifth season. In fairness, if you look back at the previous five UNLV coaches, they all lasted at least five seasons. Most importantly, in what was supposed to be a breakout year for the program, starting quarterback Armani Rogers went down with an injury. He missed six games, and UNLV went 1-5 in those games. Very rarely does a team improve or get exceptionally better when their starting quarterback goes down.
The backup quarterback is the backup because they are not as good as the starter. For UNLV, Max Gilliam is definitely the backup for a reason. The defense was a problem for the team during the losing stretch, but Gilliam’s lackluster play did not help the team either. A problem for Sanchez in his tenure has been depth, and with a lack of depth comes with a drop off of talent from the first to the second stringer, and we obviously saw that at the quarterback position.
Before that difficult 2018 season, the Rebels had improved their win total each season under Sanchez. Progress on the field was being made, and based on the stats, Sanchez was getting the program going in a good direction. Let’s look back at some previous UNLV coaches, particularly the first three seasons of the four total coaches (including Sanchez) UNLV has had since the program joined the Mountain West Conference. That year was 1999, and it was also the first season for John Robinson. Sanchez had more total conference wins in his first three seasons (9) than Robinson (8), note that Robinson made a bowl game in his second season. They also have the same amount of conference wins in their first four years (11). Sanchez also had more total wins in his first three seasons (12), than Mike Sanford and Bobby Hauck (both with 6 total wins in each of their first three seasons). Compared to other UNLV coaches, Sanchez was off to a solid start.
Sanchez has also helped UNLV grow off the field. One of the main new assets to the program is the Fertitta Football Complex. The new complex is 75,00 square feet and will feature a locker room that is twice as large as the current locker room. It also features a barber shop, team lounge with video games and flat screen televisions, and a new weight room. Sanchez helped raise the funding for nearly all of the funds needed to build the complex. It has wowed many new recruits, Sanchez even said that one recruit said it was the nicest facility he has visited, and that recruit had visited Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
So to answer the question, UNLV has not reached its full potential under Sanchez. The program can get better with a Tony Sanchez as the head coach. When UNLV fired basketball coach Marvin Menzies, Reed-Francois was asked during a press conference about the difference between the football and basketball programs. Particularly why Sanchez was given a fifth year, and why Menzies was fired after his third year. She said that one was like steering a sailboat (the basketball program), and one was like steering a battleship (the football program). Which means that one ship is much more difficult, and takes more time to turn than the other. With football, there are a lot of players and a lot of coaches, with less games.
A lot needs to happen for a football program to turnaround. Like I mentioned earlier, UNLV does not have a long history of success, which can make the transformation process into a somewhat successful football program difficult. In program history, since moving to D-1 in 1978, UNLV has only had 13 seasons at .500 or better. There is some history, but nothing like an Alabama, or even Appalachian State. The past is behind and the program can only look ahead. This team has the most depth and talent Sanchez has ever had since he took the job, the team has a difficult schedule. For UNLV to take the next step with its football program, you have to have a leader everyone is confident in and stands behind. As of now, the Rebels believe in Sanchez, and he has this year to prove it. If he can, 2020 could be the most anticipated season in UNLV football history. If he can’t, then the program starts at square one, just like it has been doing for years.