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Chewing over UNLV’s search for an athletic director

Wisely or unwisely, regent asks opinion of sports writer

Other than the night during March Madness a couple of years ago when a bunch of fellow scribes and I shamed Mark Alden into buying us a sack of White Castles after the bars closed in St. Louis, I couldn’t remember the last time I broke bread with one of the Nevada system regents.

Much less the chairman of the board.

So when James Dean Leavitt called the other day with a lunch invitation, I was at once flattered and skeptical — skeptical, because when a regent asks a sports writer to lunch, the first thing that usually comes to mind is Darrell Royal, the old Texas coach, describing the forward pass:

You know that when you pass, three things can happen, and two of them are bad.

My sense of dread was temporary alleviated when James Dean — which is how a lot of people I know refer to him — picked me up outside his office in his Porsche 550 Spyder and I noticed there were about a month’s worth of newspapers scattered across the passenger seat and floorboards.

(Actually, it wasn’t a Porsche Spyder but some big red boxy thing with a license plate that reads UNLV-UNR and all the options, the sort of car you expect a successful defense attorney to drive, and since there were no head-on accidents between his downtown office and the nearest Tony Roma’s, it really didn’t matter all that much how we got there.)

“Man, we could use a few more like you,” I said, impressed that James Dean Leavitt, chairman of the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents, still acquires his news the old-fashioned way.

He told me he had a hockey background, mostly because he grew up in Calgary, where they have a fine organ-I-zation. Maybe Scotty Bowman’s gonna be the new UNLV athletic director, I thought.

Leavitt also said he was schooled at Brigham Young, and I said I wouldn’t hold that against him. Then he ordered a burger without the bun and I ordered a chicken salad without the chicken.

Then he interviewed me about who I thought should be the new A.D.

Whoa! Like Texas quarterback James Street’s bomb on fourth-and-short against Arkansas in ’69, I never saw that coming.

The songwriter Warren Zevon was fond of saying, “I’m not namin’ names,” and I’m not going to single out any here, only that I think highly of Tina Kunzer-Murphy, the Las Vegas Bowl executive director; and Steve Stallworth, the general manager of South Point arena; and Jerry Koloskie, UNLV’s interim AD, and that any of those locals would be a big improvement over what we’ve had to endure recently. That’s basically what I told Leavitt.

And like I’ve been writing all along, I told him I thought the job should go to a local this time, because Manny (Jim Weaver), Moe (Charlie Cavagnaro) and Jack (Mike Hamrick) were outsiders whose main accomplishments at the end of the day were overcharging for labor.

But I never was very good on the other side of the tape recorder, so eventually, I took it back from James Dean Leavitt and told him it was my turn, and that the little red light was on.

The first thing he said was that as much as he and his fellow regents want to be involved in the process of identifying the candidates and hiring the new athletic director — and even though technically they’ll have the last word when it comes to ratifying his or her contract — the decision would be Dr. Neal Smatresk’s and his alone, because that’s what university presidents get paid to do.

“Ultimately, the regents will approve the contract once the decision is made by President Smatresk,” Leavitt said.

“The board clearly recognizes the value that the athletic director brings to the institution is very similar and comparable in some ways to the academics that lead the institution. We’re hoping that whoever is selected has the knowledge and the personality and those dynamic qualities that can engage the entire community.

“That’s what we need for UNLV athletics to continue to improve and be at the highest level.”

I say UNLV needs to concentrate on beating New Mexico and TCU and raising a little money and forget about the highest level, and that a local guy or gal should be anointed as Fearless Leader, but, as I say, I already had my chance to talk, and now it was James Dean’s.

“I think we are going to be in a situation here where we have several credible local talented candidates. But I believe Neal also wants to open it up and make (the search) national and as competitive as it should be.

“President Smatresk has indicated that he will get going seriously on this in the spring, but I believe that even as we speak he is certainly talking to the boosters, to the alumni and to the professionals in the field.”

If nothing else, by inviting me to lunch and picking my brain (no poleax necessary when one of those toothpicks at the cash register will do) about who the new athletic director should be, James Dean showed he’s a Rebel With a Cause. (Of course, he left that afternoon for South Bend, Ind., where he’d watch the Wolf Pack play Notre Dame.)

He’s willing to roll up his sleeves and his pant legs and get knee-deep in the process, if that’s what it takes to help the president make the right call.

I find that refreshing.

Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2009 | 2 a.m.