When Marvin Menzies arrived in Las Vegas in April he was way behind, and he knew it. The search for the next Runnin’ Rebels coach had been tumultuous. The team had just three scholarship players and Menzies had to quickly assemble his new coaching staff.
Menzies, who had worked under household-name head coaches such as Rick Pitino and Lon Kruger, had himself built a winning program at New Mexico State. In his nine years in Las Cruces, he took the Aggies to five NCAA Tournaments.
So, why leave a successful program — his Aggies had won 26 of their past 28 conference games — for the uncertainty and the pressure of a fanbase yearning for a return to the prominence of the UNLV glory days? The answer is simple, he said: the potential.
At 54, Menzies is energetic and upbeat, qualities he knows Rebels fans want to see in their team’s style of play. “This is one of the few towns where if we win, people will come,” he said. “This is a basketball town. It’s a flagship program.
“The fan base is all part of the Rebels family.”
Menzies and his family — he and his wife, Tammy, have a son, a daughter, and a niece “who’s been with us forever” — had been keeping tabs on UNLV for quite a while. When Kruger took the job as the Rebels’ head coach in 2004, Menzies was one of his first hires. He and his wife loved Las Vegas their first time around.
When UNLV’s best post-Jerry Tarkanian team — Kruger’s 2007 squad — advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, it was with players Menzies had recruited. By that time, Menzies had moved on to Louisville, where he was an assistant to Pitino for three years, prior to taking the head job at New Mexico State.
This past spring, Kruger, Pitino, and San Diego State’s Steve Fisher, who gave Menzies his first Division I coaching position, were all vocal supporters during his UNLV courtship.
“I wanted to become a full-time head coach when I was hired by Steve Fisher at San Diego State,” Menzies said. “I like to think I’m a good listener, a good observer. I’ve tried to learn from some of the professionals I’ve worked for in my time.”
Early in his career, Menzies hadn’t really decided coaching was what he wanted in life. He has an economics degree from UCLA and a master’s degree from Sacramento State. He thought about starting a business — or maybe even going into politics.
Does he talk politics with his players? “I’m staying away from politics,” Menzies said, laughing. “I learned my lesson a long time ago. As a young head coach, I supported a specific candidate in town. That public venue wasn’t the right way to go about things.”
But he does preach political engagement and participation. “What I say is what my mom said to me: ‘I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, but I’m going to tell you to vote.’”
Menzies’ mantra, “program first,” informs how he and his coaching staff engage with the student-athletes in their charge and how they recruit potential UNLV stars.
In recent years, UNLV has signed a number of so-called one-and-done players, who leave after a year, seeking NBA stardom. “We’ll go after high-level talent,” Menzies said, “but only if (that player) wants to be a Rebel first, a student first. I’ve stayed away from certain high-level players who’ve predetermined, ‘Well, I’m going to go there for a year and then leave.’”
“Program first” led Menzies to take his team to the Bahamas in August to practice and play three exhibition games. For Menzies, who credited the Rebel Athletic Fund’s Runnin’ Rebels Club for paying for the trip, the excursion was part of his catch-up plan for a team that hadn’t played as a unit: Getting the athletes used to travel protocol; preparing for games; warming up for games; and playing in actual games.
The coaching staff filed scouting reports on each facet of the trip. “I felt really good about it,” Menzies said. “The blemishes I saw are all very coachable. I think we have some talent.”
He said the bonding that came with the experience will be invaluable when the season starts in earnest on Nov. 11 at the Thomas & Mack Center against South Alabama. But Menzies knows the date many Rebels fans have circled is Dec. 10: UNLV’s first meeting with Duke since the Blue Devils upset UNLV in their 1991 NCAA Final Four match up.