For a program — and a city — starved for gridiron success, head football coach Tony Sanchez has become more than hope: He’s brought back-to-back season improvement. In his first year at UNLV (and first in college football), Sanchez and the new-look Rebels improved to three victories and then last year won four, representing the first time since Hall of Famer John Robinson roamed the sidelines that the program improved its victory total in back-to-back seasons.
For Sanchez, everything is connected: success on the field, discipline in the weight room, guidance with nutrition, and, most importantly, focus on academic goals. So improving facilities is part of his strategy for rebuilding the program.
In September, the Fertitta family pledged $10 million — the largest single gift in UNLV athletics history — to help construction of a state-of-the-art facility for the up-and-coming Rebels. The 73,000-square-foot facility, which will be known as the Fertitta Football Complex, will mean a world of opportunities, and sustained success, for the UNLV football program.
We talked with Sanchez about the importance of this facility — as well as the possibility of a new stadium — to his plans.
Tell us how the Fertitta Football Complex came to fruition.
There were a lot of challenges in place when we first got here. Something we’ve been lacking dearly is infrastructure — we just haven’t done any substantial investments in the football program in a long time.
But, we also knew we had to engage our community much more broadly. We got a bunch of other people in [and secured several lead gifts first] so that when we did go to the Fertitta family, they were going to add on to a project that had some momentum, that had buy-in from more than just them. The Fertitta family really made this a possibility through that large donation.
The Fertitta Football facility is something that we really, really need to help move this program forward, as far as the way we develop our players, as well as the way we engage our recruiting and our alumni. It’s going to be our home base.
What components of the facility are the team most excited about?
When we (planned) the facility, we thought about long-term: We need to build something that will stand the test of time, that will allow this program to grow the way it needs to.
Number one is strength and conditioning — being able to train our athletes at a high level. With the toll the game takes on you, you want to make sure you have a first-class medical facility. But the facility is also going to have a brand new locker room, computer lab, and a players lounge — I think sometimes people forget, a lot of these kids are a long way from home, and this is where they congregate. It’s a safe place to come around, to hang out together, to focus on their academic success.
We also received a donation toward the dining hall, which is huge. We’ll be able to bring in a chef to cook for the guys so we’ll be able to take care of the nutritional aspects. Also, in the weight room, there is a nutrition center with protein shakes, things like that.
On top of that, we have our upstairs recruiting lobby and recruiting facilities. For our administrative staff, we included extra offices because as our program grows, we’re going to be able to put the kind of people in those offices that a lot of our peers have.
What will the facility mean for the student-athlete experience at UNLV?
It all starts with recruiting. Every one of these kids was recruited by multiple schools. We’re fortunate to have the group of young men that we do. In that recruiting process, we expose them to UNLV football. We expose them to the way in which we’re going to train them physically; the way we’re going to help them academically; the way we’re going to take care of their nutrition; and how we’re going to help the social aspect.
Kids go around and they see these other schools that we’re competing against, and they see the investments that the universities and the communities have made in those programs. … [The new facility will ] set the statement that we are committed to moving this program forward.
How do you keep the team consistently striving for success and buying into your goals?
It’s a constant conversation. It’s the way we’re lifting weights; it’s the way we’re running out there on the field; it’s our conversations about doing things the right way. I tell them, “This is not just about your 5-year journey while you’re at UNLV, but it’s the 50-year journey that results from your 5-year journey at UNLV.” I’m always talking about building the person up for a lifelong career of success. Inspiration comes from opportunity, and I think we’re showing them opportunity.
Do you have a different, daring, or diverse story about your time at UNLV?
We took a chance that no one else here ever had: We embraced Las Vegas. We threw the Welcome to Las Vegas sign on the helmet, our opening video is all about Las Vegas and the city … You really see it throughout the entire university now. We’re not afraid of Vegas; we love Vegas, and we can’t wait to support this community every single day.
What would you most like the community to know as efforts to build the team a new stadium continue to unfold?
We’re rooting for the community, and that means an NFL team. The jobs that it will create, and us being able to play in that stadium — it would be fantastic. I know there are other options for an on-campus stadium if that doesn’t come to fruition.
The biggest thing I want the community to know is how hard we’re all working in the building. We’ve done a great job of improving wins here. For the first time since 2001, we’ve improved in back-to-back years — and guess what, we’re going to get a whole lot more next year.
There’s a lot of little things that people don’t see on a daily basis. We’ve done a great job of improving our academic success, improving the way we’ve surrounded our guys with academic support staff and strength staff, and. I’ll tell you what: we’re building this program to the point where it’s going to compete for championships and continually go to bowl games.
The community has more power than they realize. Every time you buy a ticket and you show up and cheer us on, you empower us. You give us the opportunity to represent this city and play in front of a big-time college atmosphere. We’ve embraced (the community) from day one and we need them to continue to embrace us.