No party in Vegas
By Michael C. Lewis, Special to CNNSI.com
Considering that it almost failed to provide three bowl-eligible teams, saw its preseason favorite fall to pieces and watched its members finish just 2-18 against opponents from leagues affiliated with the Bowl Championship Series, the Mountain West Conference could probably find no better representative than the UNLV Rebels.
Even when they win, they lose.
The Rebels (7-5) appeared to be the league's triumphant savior when they went out and won their last three games -- including the final two on the road -- to finish with a winning record in coach John Robinson's second season and provide a third team to fill out the league bowl roster.
That stretch run allowed the Las Vegas Bowl to breathe a sigh of relief, having taken a huge risk by putting Air Force on hold and waiting until UNLV's season finale on Dec. 2 to see if the Rebels would become eligible. Bowl officials figured having the hometown team in the game would be a tremendous draw, something they desperately needed after years of lackluster attendance and rumors that the bowl might be in jeopardy if it did not improve its local ticket sales.
So the Rebels go out, save the day for everybody and get a bowl date with Arkansas (6-5), and what happens?
The school fires its basketball coach, the world forgets the football team even exists and the fans act as if they're being asked to buy tickets to a root canal.
Perhaps predictably, tickets have not sold well among Razorbacks fans, who faced a long trip to the game and not enough lead time to make inexpensive travel arrangements. Arkansas has sold only about 3,500 of its allotment of 12,500 tickets.
Worse, only about 8,500 tickets had been sold among local UNLV fans by the day before the game, forcing the school to slash the price on $50 end zone tickets to $30 on Monday in hopes of drawing a decent crowd. "We want to make sure we have as many UNLV fans in the stands as possible," associate athletic director Terry Cottle said.
The Rebels' poor drawing comes as no surprise to Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry. He practically predicted it back when his Falcons were still waiting to see whether they would play in Vegas or against Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Classic.
"I don't understand why they feel that if they went to a bowl that all of a sudden they would draw a whole lot better than they did for homecoming and their regular-season games," DeBerry said.
Bowl officials are trying to put a happy face on the slow ticket sales and say they hope a local TV blackout will help. But such indifference is hardly what the league wanted to see at a bowl game intended to grow into the marquee destination for its conference champion.
What a long, strange trip ...
Not only are the Colorado State Rams the best team in the conference (no arguing, Air Force; the Rams are the league champion), but they have endured the most while preparing to meet Conference USA champion Louisville in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29.
The Rams (9-2) had to cope first with coach Sonny Lubick's brief flirtation with USC officials searching for a new coach, then with a tragedy on the practice field. A student cameraman was critically injured Sunday when the 30-foot tower from which he was filming practice was toppled over by a gust of wind.
"Everyone was in shock," defensive tackle Jamie Bennett told the Denver Post.
The cameraman was improving by mid-week, but he provided the down side to the emotional roller-coaster the Rams have been riding. Only a few days earlier, at the end of their finals week, they gave Lubick a standing ovation in the locker room after learning he would not be leaving to coach the Trojans.
"Everyone here loves Coach Lubick and none of us wants to see him go," safety Aaron Sprague said. "We realized it's his career, and I want the best for him. I wouldn't rather play for anyone else in the nation. He loves it here and we all love him."
Lubick, the all-time winningest CSU coach whose next victory will be his 50th with the Rams, said he has already put the USC speculation behind him and is focused on earning the Rams' first bowl victory since beating Missouri in the 1997 Holiday Bowl.
"We've got to step up the intensity a little bit and get ready to go," he said.
Lubick also is hopeful that injured wide receivers Pete Rebstock and Joey Cuppari -- two of the team's three leading receivers -- will play against the Cardinals. Rebstock broke his leg in a loss at Air Force on Nov. 11, but has returned to team workouts. Cuppari also is back at practice after suffering a sprained ankle in the season finale against Wyoming, though he is still questionable for the game.
A rocky road?
Good news for New Mexico fans: Coach Rocky Long has received a three-year contract extension for leading the Lobos to a 12-23 record in three seasons since Dennis Franchione took them to their only bowl game in nearly four decades. Now, Long is due to stay in Albuquerque through 2005.
Athletic Director Rudy Davalos doesn't think so.
"I think progress has been made against probably the toughest schedule we've played since I've been here," Davalos said. "I believe in him, the president of our university [Dr. William Gordon] believes in him and I think the fans believe in him."
The Lobos' schedule was rated 46th in the nation this past season, but they did not do much against it. Their only good victory came against Air Force (8-3); the other four came against New Mexico State (3-8), Wyoming (1-10), Utah (4-4) and Division I-AA Northern Arizona (3-8).
The coaching shuffle
Utah coach Ron McBride fired, among others, linebackers coach Fred Whittingham, whose son is the Utes' defensive coordinator and reputedly angry about the decision. New BYU coach Gary Crowton has left the door open to bring in a new defensive coordinator, even though he has said that all of the defensive assistants who served under retired coach LaVell Edwards will be staying.
Could it be?
Speculation around Utah suggests Kyle Whittingham might just be mad enough about his father being fired to pursue a job at his alma mater and main rival to the Utes. It appears to be a long shot in reality, but it's certainly among the more intriguing possibilities as the Utes and Cougars shuffle their coaching staffs following disappointing seasons.
Aside from the elder Whittingham, McBride fired offensive coordinator Tommy Lee and special teams and running backs coach Sean McNabb. He promoted graduate assistant Lee Leslie to coach running backs and hired former grad assistant Alex Gerhke to help coach the offensive line, but the question of who will call the plays next season remains unanswered.
As for the Cougars, Crowton has returned to Chicago to spend the holidays with his family, and he's not expected to announce his offensive staff until he returns to BYU in January. The coaches themselves know what Crowton plans to do, but have been asked to stay quiet. And if Crowton decides to serve as his own offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach, he might actually add another defensive coach. Say, a new coordinator?
Michael C. Lewis covers the Mountain West for the Salt Lake Tribune.