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UNLV Director of Athletics Erick Harper

Wade Vandervort

UNLV Director of Athletics Erick Harper is interviewed by the Las Vegas Sun at the Thomas & Mack Center Monday, June 26, 2023.

Erick Harper exits the backdoor of his office at the Thomas & Mack Center and walks a few paces east to enjoy a familiar sight: Visitors to campus taking a photo next to the statue of legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

“I see it quite often, actually,” said Harper, the UNLV athletic director. “It shows you how special UNLV is to be able to put the statue of a guy that really put you on the map with the way he coached and the excitement that he brought into this building.”

In an interview last month with the Sun he continued, “I think that excitement can come back at a level that is very similar to that.”

Our wide-ranging conversation touched on many topics, from the upgrades to the basketball roster to UNLV’s efforts in realignment.

You’ve been here at UNLV for 12 years. That is almost longer than at your alma mater, Kansas State. What makes UNLV so special and why have you decided to make this home for so long?

Shortly after I got here, I met a young lady that was working with the foundation. It just so happens now she’s my wife. And we have two lovely daughters. My wife has an undergrad, her master’s, and she just completed her Ph.D. (at UNLV). And that’s the personal side of what makes me love Las Vegas.

On the professional side, just when I got here, I could see the amazing opportunities that UNLV has. Now we’re living in the sports and entertainment capital of the world and looking at the opportunities that are here to take UNLV to a level of consistency that has never been seen before with the leadership of President (Keith) Whitfield.

What this city offers in hospitality, excitement and entertainment, innovation, creativity, it’s something. The opportunities for what our coaches have and what we can do for our student-athletes, I think is absolutely special in this city.

Is there one accomplishment you’re especially proud to have pulled off during your 18 months as athletic director?

The culture of what we want has been changed to a culture that I think everybody feels that they can thrive in and everybody feels like they have a voice. It’s important to them to come to work every day with a smile on your face and joy in your heart. It’s having the opportunity to be here and help transcend and transform UNLV to a spacewe all want it to be — not only internally, but externally. In the number of donors that I’ve talked to over the 12 years I’ve been here, I’ve just seen it grow. The opportunity to be able to have those conversations and know that everybody is pulling and pushing in the same direction to win championships and just have UNLV being one of those special places that everybody wants to be a part of.

Can you pinpoint the net gain of donors or net revenue increases?

We could quantify it in one simple way with Allegiant Stadium in the very first year (with fans in 2021) seeing a net revenue of $5.5 million strictly from six games. So, six games based on ticket sales, both premium and regular, net concessions and parking. Obviously, we had Iowa State that year, so that just shows us that the type of opponent that travels we need to consistently schedule because that helps us.

Editor’s note: UNLV earned $930,000 for premium seating revenue in 2021 at Allegiant Stadium, the first football season with fans, officials said. In 2019 at Sam Boyd Stadium, it made $371,000.

Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

I came over from the fundraising side into this seat, so I wish we could have probably hired quicker in some areas over there to replace my spot and add to it, because the more boots you have on the ground, the more dollars you can raise. At the same time, I have to make sure we’re hiring the right people that want to be here. And I think right now in our fundraising area, we have the people who want to be here.

What about your athletic teams?

Well, we all want them to win championships every single time. I was telling somebody the other day that I can take 17 championships in a heartbeat. But what Lindy La Rocque has done in women’s basketball and what Dawn Sullivan (she left for Missouri) was doing in volleyball has been spectacular.

We’ve hired (former Olympian) Carmelita Jeter in track and field to get us back to the levels of winning titles. (Coach) Stan Stolte has done a great job in baseball in a struggling year this year. I think we’re in a space right now that all of our coaches are excited. They’re eager to win championships, and they’re eager to put our student-athletes in the space to be able to win championships.

How do the Golden Knights, Raiders and the Aces, plus the city getting the Final Four and the Super Bowl, help UNLV?

It allows us to have our logo on national television. Any time you can have your brand and your logo being pushed by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Las Vegas Events, and when MGM becomes our partners with them, those championships are absolutely phenomenal. That only builds our brand, the more often we can have it out there. …

Who would have thought 10 years ago that you’d have an NCAA championship in Las Vegas. No one thought that. But now it’s here, and our logo is right there, solid for the weekend.

Longtime UNLV fans talk about the glory days and why the university is so special for them. Has there been a moment since you’ve been here that just blew you away with the history and tradition of this place?

I had an opportunity to meet LJ (Larry Johnson, a star on UNLV basketball’s 1990 national championship team), and he couldn’t have been more gracious. He was really excited about UNLV. That moment was special and we were able to get a picture together.

I’ve also spent time with (former UNLV quarterback and NFL great) Randall Cunningham. Just hearing about his experiences of coming from Santa Barbara, Calif., and being here and making his home here (was special). You know, he’s almost been a counselor for me, more on the track side than the football side. He’s been such a good friend and mentor.

I’m sure you saw Golden Knights goalie Adin Hill had Johnson’s jersey on during the victory parade. Was that planned? Did you give that to him?

Click to enlarge photo

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill, wearing a UNLV jersey, celebrates during a Golden Knights victory rally at Toshiba Plaza Saturday, June 17, 2023. The Golden Knights defeated the Florida Panthers at T-Mobile Arena Tuesday to win the Stanley Cup Final.

I wish I could say I did. That was great. I can promise you this, Adin Hill is going to have an invitation to attend any UNLV event he wants because of that branding and marketing for the entire week. I ran into some people the other day and they said how great that was to see. That just shows you the UNLV logo has withstood the test of time. And for it to be with LJ, that made it more special because of what he still means to college basketball today.

What kind of advantages is that history and tradition for basketball coach Kevin Kruger? And what kind of challenges does that present with such a high bar?

I was thinking about this the other day. Kevin is going into his third year, and he’s going to have two consecutive years with the same coaching staff. And that helps in the recruiting process. Because as we all know, when coaching staffs change, kids decommit and go somewhere else. It gives Kevin an opportunity to have some consistency in that the same people who are in his ear, were there last year. That gives him an opportunity to grow as a head coach.

He’s grown as a head coach, and he’ll be much, much better this year because of that opportunity and the pressure. Kevin has played in pressure games. I think Kevin’s on his way.

So, realignment. Fanswant to know if the school should change conferences.

The only thing I could say to that is we have to take care of home. We have to take care of what we can control here at UNLV. The Mountain West Conference is a very strong conference, as evidenced by what San Diego State did in basketball this past year. Where we sit today is doing everything in our power to make sure that our brand and our logo and the interest of UNLVsports is relevant, and we have to make sure we stay relevant every single day.

Is there a master plan to try to get there?

We are always trying to generate more revenue so that we can have the facilities. Obviously, we have a $2 billion stadium to play football in (with Allegiant Stadium), and we have the Mendenhall Center (for basketball), and thanks to the Mendenhall family for that.

We have the wonderful Fertitta Football Complex, thanks to Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, and a vision by (former) coach Tony Sanchez.

We are upgrading the Lied Athletic Complex as well, and we are going to do some things over at softball with a new scoreboard going up. If you’re going to compete and move into another conference, you have to have all the bells and whistles and the things that people want to come out to see. But also people want to come see winning teams.

Football has struggled to have winning seasons. Do you think that could be holding UNLV back?

If we went into any Power 5 conference, we’re going to be at the bottom from a budget perspective. We need to be at the top of the bottom third of that to start with, and then we grow from there. Because if you look at what TCU and Utah did by changing conferences, the revenues that they were able to generate once they got into those conferences gave them an opportunity.

But again, the Mountain West is a strong conference and we’re going to work our tails off to compete and win championships this year. And wherever we end up, we end up.

Talk about the overall progress of some of the programs. Let’s start with football. Barry Odom seems to be fitting in nicely.

Click to enlarge photo

UNLV Rebels head coach Barry Odom calls out to players during the UNLV Spring Showcase at Allegiant Stadium Saturday, April 8, 2023.

We’ve got the right guy here with us in Barry Odom. Through the summer, he said they’ve had over 900 kids on campus, obviously, some multiple times. In the spring, through spring ball, they had over 1,000 here. And again, some of those are doubled up. But at the same time, kids are coming. And they’ve been in all 36 high schools here in Las Vegas. We’ve got three verbal commits from kids here in Las Vegas. Barry has done a magnificent job of engaging and getting out and being in the public, and recruiting locally.

It’s important that we keep the local talent. When Tim Chambers was here, as our baseball coach, he recruited a lot of local kids. And if you just take one prospective student-athlete that’s local, there’s a chance of four to six to 10 people who are going to come see that individual play every single game. That was very evident with Lady Rebel basketball the past couple of years because we had three local ladies on the team.

Do you like the transfer portal? Is it challenging on the administrative side? Or is it great?

Coaches have done it for years and then the student-athletes had restrictions on them. But it’s an opportunity for student-athletes not to have to jump through so many hoops to transfer for whatever the reason.

When I was in college (at Kansas State), I wanted to transfer after my first year but my dad told me, ‘You made that bed, you’re going to sleep in it.’ I’m so thankful for my father for saying that because it stuck with me. And I stuck with it and it worked out great for me.

What’s the one sport that has been consistently great at UNLV but might be overlooked?

Men’s and women’s swimming and diving have been really, really good. But the other piece of that is women’s tennis. They just won another conference championship and they don’t get the credit publicly, but they’ve done a magnificent job.

What is the next athletic year going to look like at UNLV? Bowl game? NCAA Tournament?

No predictions, but the goal (for football) is definitely a winning season, compete for (league) championship, get to a bowl game, and potentially win that bowl. For basketball, it’s the NCAA Tournament on the men’s side, getting back there for the women. I think that’s a very good step for us. And with the guys that Kevin has recruited, I think we have a very good opportunity there.

Article written by #LasVegasSun

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