UNLV’s step back from Las Vegas limelight

By Kaycee Clark-Mellott

Medill Reports

LAS VEGAS – Las Vegas hosted its first Super Bowl and is home to three professional sports franchises, with another two likely on the way in the next decade. But long before any league looked at the city, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels dominated Sin City sports culture.


Paul Gutierrez: How did this team, this school, this program specifically … it dominated this scene. And where it is now, it’s got a long way to try and get back up there. But I think times have changed, and I don’t know if it can ever really get there.

Kaycee Clark-Mellott: The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, was once a prime spot for college basketball, including a national title in 1990 and countless All-Americans and future NBA greats. Now, UNLV is a shadow behind the Strip with the Raiders, Golden Knights and Aces.

Steve Cofield: While UNLV was kind of leveling out as a 17-, 18-win program, the Golden Knights come along, they go to the Stanley Cup year one, so the popularity just explodes.

Clark-Mellott: The popularity of Vegas sports was UNLV. Led by Jerry Tarkanian, the Hall of Fame coach, the Rebels’ 19 seasons under him dominated the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, with 509 wins in that time.

However, most of his coaching career, Tarkanian battled with the NCAA, including at the U.S. Supreme Court. His constant fight with the NCAA — and bad connections with sports gambling — eventually led Tarkanian to leave the school. However, he was triumphed with bringing attention to many issues others glossed over.

UNLV’s popularity persisted during Tarkanian’s time, including Gucci Row, the courtside seats that countless celebrities sat in to watch the Rebels.

Gutierrez: The Rebels were the story. They were … as Jerry Tarkanian used to say, “getting tickets on Gucci Row was harder than getting tickets to the Frank Sinatra concert in town.” And yet, Frank Sinatra actually recruited for Tark at one point.

Clark-Mellott: Familiar with those seats is Jerry Tarkanian’s best friend, Freddie Glusman, someone who frequently traveled with the team.

Glusman recounted crying with Tarkanian in a back stairwell after a 1991 semifinal loss to Duke, ending the Rebel’s bid for back-to-back national championships.

Glusman doesn’t think the school can ever return to the prominence they once had in Las Vegas.

Cofield: Well, I think they have to win on a local level. And then, every once in a while, bring the top 25 big boys into your building, and that’ll help.

Clark-Mellott: Despite the Golden Knights, Raiders and Aces coming to Vegas — plus the Athletics and an NBA team likely coming soon — the Rebels meant a lot to the city and its sports history.

Gutierrez: But because it was first, and because of what it meant, and because of how small the town was then — 34 years ago — there’s no way to really put your finger on exactly what that team, what that moment, what that coach, what it all meant to this community.

Clark-Mellott: Here at the UNLV campus, around the Thomas and Mack Center, many students I spoke to didn’t go to any games this season or at all during their time here at UNLV.

This includes the Lady Runnin’ Rebels basketball team, who currently lead the Mountain West Conference and have been nationally ranked at points this season.

Lynsey Fjelsted: I’ve been really busy, but also, there’s been so much traffic down here in Vegas with the pro sports coming to Vegas. So, that’s why I haven’t really been out.

Austin Cook: As far as the athletics are involved at UNLV, I’m not very well-versed on anything that’s going on on-campus.

Clark-Mellott: Even though many students are not attending games, some are still aware of the Rebels’ history.

Ondrej Suska: I’ve heard about it from my dad. He used to talk about the Runnin’ Rebels and how they were just the top of any kind of basketball college team out there.

Clark-Mellott: The influence of pro teams in the city now has left the Rebels almost like a little brother.

Gutierrez: When I do sit back and look around at the city and just how much it’s grown, and the march towards irrelevancy for the Rebels, that’s sad to me.

Clark-Mellott: From UNLV in Las Vegas, I’m Kaycee Clark-Mellott

Kaycee Clark-Mellott is in the sports media specialization at Medill. You can follow him on X @kcclark_6