Her mother used to put Desiree Reed-Francois and her brother, Roman, on the BART train from the Bay-area city of Fremont up to the Oakland Coliseum. She’d pack a lunch for the kids and stick a little money in their pockets for tickets, like she was sending them off to school. Twenty miles and 45 minutes on the train, rumbling north with green-and-gold filling up the car at every stop.
This was the early ’80s, around Rickey Henderson’s first stint with the team, and the Athletics were mired in a stretch of below-.500 squads. The good seats were just seven bucks but, with more popular neighbors across the Bay, the A’s had to throw fans a bone. They’d let everyone in for free after the third inning, Reed-Francois and Roman accidentally discovered. The duo did what any enterprising youths would do: “We pocketed the ticket money and bought malts,” UNLV Athletics Director Reed-Francois said.
She got her love of Oakland baseball from her grandmother, who died with a rosary in one hand and an A’s hat in the other. Sports were always going to be in the frame.
Reed-Francois took a crack at everything growing up — soccer, softball, track, swimming. And at UCLA, she spent a year as a walk-on rower.
“What I loved about athletics, and I don’t know if this is gender-specific,” she said, “is it is an area where you could compete, and it’s OK. No one judged you because you wanted to win, and you wanted to win so badly it was part of your being.”
The Reed sibling plan all along was that Roman was going to go to the NFL and Desiree would serve as his lawyer. In 1994, though, while Reed-Francois was in law school at the University of Arizona, Roman, playing linebacker for Chabot College, went to make a tackle. The same play a thousand ballplayers in a thousand games make around the country every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday went as wrong as it could. He broke his neck.
The accident left him a quadriplegic and Reed-Francois convinced that she wanted to be in a position to help collegiate athletes like her brother.
On a Sunday afternoon at the start of the semester, Reed-Francois spent the day making her mother’s pollo asado and beans. The meal in her home set a different tone for a meeting with the Student Athlete Advisory Council. She talked about practicalities of managing their hectic schedules and about their role in the strategic planning process for the department. And the conversation turned to opinions on the NFL’s handling of player protests during the National Anthem.
“I come from a family of teachers; that’s my natural leadership style,” she said. “I really believe in the unique teaching that happens on our courts, fields, and pools. It’s often one of the defining characteristics of the best coaches.” And athletics directors.
Determined to climb the college athletics administration ladder, she worked at six different universities in the course of more than 15 years before she found herself at the University of Cincinnati working for Whit Babcock in 2013. A year later she followed the 2016 finalist for SportsBusiness Journal’s AD of the Year to Virginia Tech.
By 2016 she was the deputy athletics director. The path opened up through the brush, and in June, she took over as UNLV’s director. The first woman of color serving as athletics director of a Football Bowl Subdivision program, to boot.
“Whit is, in my estimation, one of the top five athletic directors in the country,” Reed-Francois said. “The advice he gave me is about really getting to know your team as you develop that championship culture. What it comes down to, in its simplest form whether I’m hiring a head coach or I’m hiring an up-and-coming staffer, I look first for character and second for competence.”
“Championship culture” is Reed-Francois’ guiding light, her ultimate vision for how to position the university for the opportunity to join a Power Five conference, the brass ring for any college athletics program.
She started by spending six and a half weeks living in a residence hall room to get a feel for the entire student body and how to lead them, en masse, to games. Her first takeaway was to bring in DJs and food trucks for a game-day festival before kickoff or tipoff. The Electric Daisy Carnival-ification of tailgating.
That will get a huge boost as the football team plans for its eventual new stadium alongside the NFL’s Raiders. She is now part of a team negotiating the specifics for UNLV at Las Vegas Stadium — a critical piece in enhancing recruitment and reigniting team support. Reed-Francois comes from a place of experience there. She helped negotiate Cincinnati’s deal for the short-term use of the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium. She was on the NFL’s Management Council, and served as a legal intern with the Raiders.
But facilities are just a piece of the job. Reed-Francois turns the conversation back to championship culture. That, she says, takes three parts. Graduating students and giving them a pathway to a meaningful career; winning championships; and serving as a point of pride to Rebel fans.
“If you run a student athlete-centered athletic department — with that always in the forefront of your decision making processes — you will start to have the makings of that championship culture. It’s an oversimplification just to say it’s about wins and losses. Winning is the byproduct of culture.”
Pollo Asado Marinade
With a busy travel schedule, Desiree Reed-Francois sometimes extends her Sunday family dinners to her student athletes. "This is a variation of my mom’s recipe," she said. "Sometimes I cheat and throw everything in the crock pot when I leave for work.
- 8 chicken breasts
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- ¼ cup lime juice
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- Handful of chopped cilantro
- ½ cup chopped red onion
- 2 teaspoons himalayan salt
- 3 chopped garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons Mexican oregano
- 6 ounces achiote paste
Marinate overnight. Grill your chicken, shred it and serve with fresh limes, cilantro, onion, crumbled goat or cotija cheese and tortillas