Basketball may have pushed UNLV to national sports prominence, but October 2016 saw the university join the world stage in politics and policy.
More than a year in the making, and countless hours of campus preparation later, Republican candidate Donald Trump was finally set to meet Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton on Oct. 19 in the third and final presidential debate of the 2016 election.
It was a strange day on campus with traffic around the university tightly controlled. Nonetheless, it was festive. Chris Matthews mugged for the crowd from the MSNBC stage set up on the Alumni Amphitheater. CNN dominated the lawn between the Chemistry and William D. Carlson buildings. Supporters of Trump, Clinton, Jill Stein and Gary Johnson marched back and forth between the two sets, trying to get on camera. One protestor wandered around in a papier-mâché Trump head. It got weird.
It was also a day that started impossibly early for the people who had to make sure the event went off without a hitch. Members of UNLV’s media relations team arrived on campus at 3 a.m., and didn’t leave until after 10 p.m.
At least history professor Michael Green could sleep in. “I got there that morning around 5:15 to be interviewed by C-SPAN,” Green said. “I wound up on Nigerian television and Swedish television. I was interviewed by the French, and I was thinking the whole time, ‘I hope they’re translating me.’”
If campus outside the Thomas & Mack Center was a beehive of activity, inside the building it was a full-on bee tsunami. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mark Cuban, Jesse Jackson, and Rudy Giuliani were all there as surrogates or guests of the candidates. Major national and international journalists, some 5,000 strong, crammed in for a bustling night on deadline — including Charles P. Pierce of Esquire.
“Charlie was trying to get back to his seat and there was a guy from a Mexican television network standing on top of two chairs doing his report and blocking Charlie,” Green recalled. “He saw that Charlie needed to get through, lifted one leg onto the other chair, Charlie moved the chair, got through, put it back. The guy was doing a headshot so nobody saw it.”
That’s more than could be said for one CNBC broadcast, when a reporter and Cuban were in a heated exchange over the semantics of the debate, while a third, unaffiliated reporter watched. “It was two people, obviously live on TV, pointing at each other arguing over what was just said at the debate,” said Francis McCabe, a media relations specialist. “The guy on the side just walks right into the shot and says, ‘How can you say that?’ The woman Mark Cuban was arguing with was like, ‘We’re live. On TV.’”
The frenzy of daytime activity settled into an eerie calm during the debate proper, both outside on campus and inside the Thomas & Mack’s media room. It was a rare down moment for staff to grab a bite to eat and take a breath.
Immediately after Trump and Clinton concluded their remarks, the whole machine lurched back into its redlined gear, with surrogates swimming through the spin room and professors processing what just happened on the fly for news channels around the world.
Once the chaos ebbed, though, what was left was a burnished moment in the school’s history.
The moment, Green said, “was a statement of our maturation, that we did this.You can’t always see it automatically, but there are students who will come here because they or their families saw this debate on UNLV. We’re going to see the benefits of this for years to come.”