When former USC and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson accepted an offer to take over the moribund UNLV football program 2� years ago, he didn't overanalyze the situation. "I thought it would be an exciting challenge," says Robinson, 66, the ninth-winningest active coach in Division I-A. "It wasn't until I got here that I realized how bad it really was."
Everywhere he looked, he saw defeat. The record book was bad enough—among UNLV's feats of futility were an 0-11 in 1998 and no wins on the road and no bowl games since '94—but the players' state of mind was worse. "Their confidence was horrible," recalls Robinson. "Football was like punishment to them." The practice field, a bleak patch of turf surrounded by fencing topped with barbed wire, even suggested a prison yard.
Thanks in part to skillful transplantation by Robinson, the program is much more respectable. Among the improvements are a roster larded with Division I-A and junior college transfers, a ring of palm trees around the practice field and 11 wins over the last two seasons, including a 31-14 pasting of Arkansas in the Las Vegas Bowl. This summer the sports information office is cranking up a Heisman Trophy campaign.
" UNLV's not chopped liver anymore," says junior quarterback Jason Thomas, the focus of that campaign and, aside from Robinson, the biggest reason for the program's rise. A 6'4", 230-pound lefty who can throw the ball 70 yards, Thomas was recruited out of Dominguez High in Los Angeles by Robinson before USC fired the coach in 1997. Thomas redshirted his first year with USC, then transferred when it became apparent that he wouldn't get to compete for the starting spot the following fall. After sitting out in '99, he had a dazzling 2000, throwing for 1,708 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 599 yards—the school's career record for a quarterback—plus 11 more touchdowns. "You know when you're playing tag and some guys never get caught?" asks Robinson. "That's Jason. He has great elusiveness."
That'll be important this fall because improving on last year's 8-5 record won't be easy given a schedule that is probably the toughest in school history. "I say, if you're going for the ride, go all the way, don't hedge your bets," says Robinson. For this Vegas gambler, that could turn out to be a winning strategy.