After serving at UNLV for nine years as senior associate athletics director for development and a short stint as interim athletics director, New Year's Day brought a new role for Erick Harper: UNLV's 14th permanent director of athletics.
The former Kansas State defensive back (1986-89) takes over Rebel athletics at a challenging time for collegiate athletics nationwide as massive changes now allow NCAA student-athletes to license their name, image, and likeness. But several programs are enjoying this year's successes, and there's a sense that others are turning a corner.
What are you most optimistic about with Rebel athletics?
I am really excited about the academic success. We have 17 sports and of those 17, 16 had a cumulative semester GPA of 3.0 or better. We have some student-athletes who are in the engineering program. (Women's basketball player) Essence Booker is going to go into the nursing program after completing her eligibility and possibly playing professionally. Watching them achieve high levels of academic success just gets me excited.
We just saw in the NCAA Tournament Saint Peter's make a run and how it captured the community's imagination in Jersey City, New Jersey. What was your takeaway watching that?
It reaffirms that all things are possible. If you play as a team, you trust and are committed to the process, then all things are possible. When coaches get kids to work together, all things are possible.
Once upon a time the Rebels were the only sports talk of the city. It's crowded now from a sports perspective, but we've got some young men and young women who represent our great institution and a university president who is absolutely supportive of athletics.
The football team last year was probably a better team than the record indicated. How do you feel about where the program is?
I think we're moving in a positive direction. We lost five games last year by eight points or fewer, and I think with the two recruiting classes coach (Marcus) Arroyo has had in the first two years, and adding some of those transfer portal guys that can make immediate impacts, like a Harrison Bailey who came from Tennessee, and Ricky White from Michigan State, we have guys that can help the program win.
If we can change those five games back into wins with a ball bounce here or there, then the momentum you get is unbelievable.
Are you going to be swinging down to practice to talk to the defense, throw them a few tips?
The game has changed so much. I can help them when we play Air Force and that's about it because I played against the wishbone (offense). It was more of a running game back then. That's why my shoulders have issues today.
With things like name, image and likeness coming into play, it feels like the landscape is more challenging for student-athletes than it was even a few years ago. How can UNLV help navigate these waters?
It's going to be a challenge, but most importantly, we are an institution of higher learning and we have to educate our student-athletes. We've all seen people try to make the quick buck. But they lose the opportunity to learn how to sustain generational wealth. When you're just chasing the quick buck, you never understand what the value of that quick buck is going to be. We must educate our student-athletes on the long game, not just the short gain.