THE STORY BEHIND A COACHING SHUFFLE : UNLV Football: a New Deal : Player Incidents Cost Harvey Hyde Job After 4 1/2 Years

Times Staff Writer

Harvey Hyde was in Pasadena a few weeks ago to address the local Quarterback Club. He's known there as the former football coach at Pasadena City College, but he was telling his old buddies the tale of what he went through, establishing major college football at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

Hyde became the football coach at Las Vegas just as it was joining the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. and stepping up to Division I-A football five years ago.

After his speech and before his flight back to Las Vegas, he went over the whole triumphant nightmare once again. Hyde was intensely emotional as he gloried in the highlight of this football season.

"When I went to the Wisconsin game and looked around at that sellout crowd and watched the players I had recruited and the coaching staff that I had gathered beat that Big Ten team--I said, my 4 1/2 years were well worth it!" Hyde said.

"When we scheduled that game four years ago, people laughed at us, but after what I experienced that day, I said, 'We have brought big-time football to UNLV.' I can't tell you how proud I was."

He paused for a moment, but he didn't loose any intensity as he added, more quietly: "I'm not going to say it didn't hurt me to be there, in the stands, not being a part of the game. I bled inside. But I wouldn't have missed it for anything. I just told myself that whatever had to be sacrificed to make that happen, we made the sacrifices and we made it happen."

The president of UNLV, Robert Maxson, fired Harvey Hyde last April. He instructed the athletic director, Brad Rothermel, to buy out the remaining three years of Hyde's contract at an estimated $186,000, even though football is still operating in the red.

Maxson was that embarrassed by the program and that convinced that Hyde had to go. He decided that football would be allowed to stay.

After the Wisconsin game, a 17-7 upset in the third game of this season before the largest crowd ever drawn to its stadium in the middle of the desert, Las Vegas football was looking good.

Two days later, Wayne Nunnely, the man who had been serving as interim coach, was given a three-year contract.

It was a time of hope and celebration. The players whooped and whistled when they were told that this coach would be staying.

Maxson then made a rather unusual speech to the ecstatic football players, telling them: "Don't do anything stupid that's going to embarrass (Coach Nunnely) or yourselves. Don't go out and get in scuffles that make the front page of the newspaper. If you do, you're going to break this man's heart. . . .

"We're going to be testing for drugs shortly, and I don't want a single one of you to test positive.

"You black players here are seeing a pioneer. This is the man who's going to open the door for jobs for you. Don't ruin it for him.

"I want you to win every game you play, but if you don't, just be sure you conduct yourselves properly at all times. If you can hold your heads up with pride, then we'll be with you. Football is here to stay at UNLV and it's just going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.

"Give your head coach the respect he deserves."

Why would the president of a university give such a speech to his football team?

--Because, in the interest of integrity, he had truly been on the brink of dropping football.

--Because of the series of events that had so embarrassed the university that Maxson had fired Hyde.

--Because of the kind of publicity that comes with having players charged with everything from purse snatching to embezzlement to assault on an officer to lewd and lascivious behavior.

It got so bad last April that the Las Vegas Review-Journal admitted that its police reporter had a hefty filed labeled "UNLV Jock-Thugs."

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The University of Nevada Las Vegas is, itself, a new institution. Founded in 1958, it still bills itself as "young and growing."

It was Coach Jerry Tarkanian's basketball team that put the school on the map. Tarkanian's "Runnin' Rebels" gave the school a national reputation, albeit with the same hint of wild and crazy raucousness that fits the image of this city of night life and gambling.

Football is even newer. Las Vegas has been competing since 1968 and was an independent until joining the PCAA and stepping up to Division I-A in time for the 1982 season.

The Rebels lost their opener that season to BYU on national television, 27-0.

That was the debut of Coach Harvey Hyde.

And that was the start of something big. Depending upon who's telling it, Hyde was either the ticket to the big time or the start of big-time trouble.

Harvey Hyde rolled into town with grand plans and a cocky attitude that turned off some of the school's longtime boosters.

Hyde was replacing Tony Knap, who was retiring after six years with never a losing season. Knap has been described as "a nice old gentleman," and the adjectives thrown in by the local papers usually run along the lines of "beloved Tony Knap." In his final year, Knap's team upset BYU at Provo, 45-41--by far the biggest victory in the history of UNLV football.

So here's this Hyde fellow with his hair in his eyes, straight from Pasadena City College with no four-year coaching experience, telling them that he's going to turn the program around.

Imagine the smart remarks when he finished his first season 3-8.

Hyde's friends in the athletic department--and he does have some--say that the top players from the year before had graduated, leaving Hyde without much talent, and that it was the first year of PCAA competition.

His detractors--and he has those, too--just use the record as ammunition with which to blast him.

It was the school's first losing football season in 10 years.

That spring, the Nevada Board of Regents met to decide whether to retain football. The debate was about what some board members considered uninhibited spending when the football program did not have a balanced budget in the first place. After an emergency midnight meeting, the board voted to keep football only if the program could stay within its budget.

In Hyde's second season, the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a survey showing that one of the reasons for dwindling attendance at football games was the public's dislike of the new coach's brashness.

Then, in the fall of 1983, there was a major drug bust that the police said culminated months of investigations. Three of the people rounded up were UNLV football players. That blew over, though, when none of the three went to trial.

Imagine the reaction when, after Las Vegas won the PCAA title in Hyde's third season with an 11-2 record, the title and the California Bowl victory were later forfeited because of the use of ineligible players. Hyde claimed that the mistakes in the way the players' grades were computed had been honest ones. Eighteen games were forfeited over 1983 and 1984, and an internal investigation backed up Hyde's claim of confusion about the rules.

In the fall of 1985, attendance at the Silver Bowl dropped to its lowest point since the Rebels had moved up to Division I-A.

And then began the string of image-shattering events grabbing the headlines in the local papers:

--Oct. 10, 1985. It was reported that senior defensive tackle Greg Sims, from Manual Arts in Los Angeles by way of the University of Oklahoma, pleaded guilty to burglary charges for stealing from a 60-year-old woman tourist after entering her room at the Landmark Hotel.

--Feb. 4, 1986. Linebacker Sean McCoy was arrested for allegedly participating in the beating of an off-duty policeman.

--March 6, 1986. Hank Thompson, a linebacker who was academically ineligible at the time, and Lawrence West, a forward on the basketball team, were arrested after a tourist outside the Riviera Hotel reported a purse-snatching.

--March 19, 1986. Three former Las Vegas players were charged with beating up employees and customers and causing $5,000 worth of damage at a bar on St. Patrick's Day.

--April 3, 1986. It was reported that Hyde had intervened in February on behalf of players Reggie Farmer, Tyrone Walker, Lorenzo Anthony Gunn and Jamie Williams, all accused of embezzling $1,300 worth of video and stereo equipment from the warehouse where they worked.

--April 9, 1986. It was reported that Joey Bailey, a walk-on quarterback, had struck his wife while she was at work. He was charged with domestic violence.

--April 23, 1986. It was reported that John Nunley, who had been recruited from Porterville Junior College in California, had been convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14 just two weeks before he transferred to UNLV.

After each incident, the newspapers quoted Maxson as saying virtually the same things--"We are very embarrassed. . . . We cannot continue to be embarrassed by our athletes. . . . Something must be done to show that we will not condone this behavior. . . .

Finally, on April 23, Maxson fired Hyde.

The next day, the Las Vegas Sun printed a photograph of a confidential letter from Maxson to Rothermel, the athletic director, showing that the move had been imminent. The letter, dated April 8, said, in part:

"We don't make decisions as a result of public pressure; the decision-making process rests solely on the merits of the case, not on the publicity surrounding it. We also do not make program or personnel decisions based on the personality of the persons involved. We do make our decisions based on what we think is best for the athletic program and the university. And as we agreed, if we ever conclude that irreparable damage is being done to our football program, and our athletic department, then we will have no choice other than to make a change in the leadership of the program.

"The next few months will be important ones for the football program; we'll be looking very carefully for improvement both on and off the field. . . . Therefore, I suggest that you not roll Coach Hyde's contract for the next year, and I do not think you should consider a salary increase in light of the events of this past year.

"Brad, as I said to you and Coach Hyde on Friday, the University cannot continue having problems as we have had with football players without having damage done to our football program and athletic department. I think the breaking point is awfully close."

When it reached the breaking point and Hyde was fired, about 30 of his players went to Maxson's office and demanded to see Maxson. They settled for letting quarterback Steve Stallworth sit in on the press conference.

Junior linebacker Todd Cooks said: "It wasn't fair at all. He was a scapegoat. There isn't any coach who cares about his players like Coach Hyde did."

Tarkanian, who had known Hyde since their days together at Pasadena City College, said at the time: "I'm very disappointed. He did a great job under extremely difficult circumstances. He loved the university deeply and saved the program when it was about to crumble.

"He has done so many positive things, taken so many positive steps for the program. I'm just sick about it."

Hyde did not make a public statement at the time, and he still does not say much in his own defense. He has been determined to avoid any impression of bitterness, anything that would make him appear to be offering himself up as a scapegoat or martyr.

A week after he was fired, he sent a letter to some of his friends in the news media saying: "Although we have faced a number of incidents off the field that seemed to be publicized one after the other, a survey of the national sports news reveals that these problems are not unique to our school. I have never tolerated, sanctioned or excused this behavior. . . .

"I am proud of what has been accomplished during my tenure in terms of scheduling, facilities, an academic support system, travel and practice procedures, budgetary and financial difficulties that were faced and solved numerous times, and several other improvements. . . . Go Rebels!"

Now, when asked about his team's record at the police station, he shrugs. "We had a couple of incidents, like you have at other schools--like the stolen stereos," he said. "But we also had a guy who had a fight with his wife, another one had a scuffle in the parking lot of his apartment building with a guy who turned out to be an off-duty police officer, some former players got in a fight on St. Patrick's Day--I didn't even know they were still in town. We had trouble with former players and players who hadn't even reported to us yet.

"I'm not making excuses. These things shouldn't happen. I'm not saying it's the kind of thing that I want to put in my resume. But it was a rather unbelievable series of events."

Rothermel doesn't argue that at all, saying that there was an element of bad luck in the streak of incidents last April that gave Las Vegas football a real rebel image.

"It is very difficult to hold a coach responsible for the acts of that many 18- to 20-year-old quasi-adults," he said. "And yet, someone has to be held responsible. It's like they say in major league baseball--are you going to fire the manager or fire the team?

"We had to get control. We had to make a statement.

"You can't overlook the impact that Harvey Hyde had on our program. He made a lot of positive moves."

Nunnely, whose motto for the team now is "A New Attitude" isn't putting down his former boss, either.

"Harvey Hyde deserves a lot of credit for the progress Rebel football has made in the last few years," he said. "We now have first-class facilities, and you have to have that to compete for recruits. He spent a lot of money, but he also raised a lot of money. He knew how to go out and generate funds.

"He improved our academic programs. . . . He recruited some top-rate athletes. He's a high-powered recruiter. . . . He didn't go out and recruit bad kids. Some of the players who got into trouble were kids that were recruited by everybody.

"If you're really trying to figure out what he could have done differently to keep those things from happening, you might say he spent too much time on the other things and not enough time with the kids, disciplining the kids. But there's no way of knowing that.

"The fact is, he did a lot of good things for our football program. Harvey is a mover. He makes things happen."

It will be interesting to see whether Hyde ever gets back into coaching, now that his reputation has been so tarnished. He says that he would like to. For now, he's the host of a radio sports talk show that originates in Las Vegas and is distributed in seven states. He insists on keeping his show "positive and upbeat."

Hyde said: "I see nothing to gain in being negative. . . . It's like I told my players when I met with them the day after I was fired, I told them I want no negative things. I told them I'd be with them 100% and I didn't want them reacting negatively, in any way, to the coaching change."

He's proud that Nunnely was named to replace him. After all, he had hired Nunnely as an assistant. He considers it a credit that one of his choices is continuing the job.

"I think the program is on the right track," Hyde said. "When I went there I said I saw a tremendous potential, and I still do. I think UNLV has the same potential that Arizona and Arizona State had, and look what they've done in the Pac-10.

"When I was hired I was told to develop major college football at UNLV. I'm proud of the progress we made."

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