He's now calling them the "UNLV Wildcats."
That's the moniker former No. 1 overall pick and Vegas great Larry Johnson has given to his alma mater in the wake of him not getting the Rebels' head coaching job this offseason. Dave Rice took over after Lon Kruger left UNLV for Oklahoma.
And yes, you read that right: Larry Johnson, that Grandmama of years past, was hopeful he'd receive the keys to rev the program back into the national spotlight. Critical fact: Johnson has no head-coaching experience.
And now a once-repaired, formerly damaged relationship is apparently in tatters again. Johnson told GamingToday.com that the UNLV athletic director, Jim Livengood (who came from Arizona, hence the mocking moniker Johnson's appointed to the school), and others with Arizona ties at the school don't like him -- and he returns that feeling with mutual force.
"It’s not UNLV Runnin’ Rebels no more, it’s UNLV Wildcats right now. ... Outside of gambling, we put Las Vegas on the map," said Johnson, who at age 42 is a successful businessman with a 15-year-old son, Lasani. "I was bitter for years at the way they treated us and Coach Tark. The administration looked at us as villains. Tark was like my father. If they messed with him, they messed with me."
Now, in recent years, Johnson had cozied -- or at least warmed -- up to the program, thanks in large part to what Kruger had done. The mild-mannered former head coach of the Runnin' Rebels made a concentrated-yet-quiet effort to connect the community, specifically the university, with its former greats. Members of those late-'80s/early-'90s teams have said many times before how they felt ostracized by the program -- even when the city still embraced who they were.
Kruger was a catalyst for reform and renewed relationships. Things were on the mend. Then Kruger left, and it seems Johnson was perhaps a bit misguided in how he would figure into UNLV basketball's future. He claims anger over the fact he never got so much as a phone call from the athletic department as they went through their search for Kruger's replacement.
"People all over town, wherever I went, asked me if I wanted to coach," Johnson said. "They wanted me and Stacey [Augmon], knowing he had been an assistant coach. They had to hire him (as an assistant), knowing they would never consider me. ... It’s all about recruiting and identification with past performers at the school. The administration turned its back on us and consequently players have left for Texas, Duke and other top national programs. Today, I would probably do the same."
Harsh words -- and is this something that's even fixable at this point? It's important to note the source of this article isn't a traditional news outlet, and the piece slants in favor of Johnson. That said, those are his words quoted, and it's hard to take them out of context.It's never beneficial when former great players at a school aren't embraced by their alma maters. But we see it, usually after a scandal plagues a program and flushes out a number of people related to it. But LJ, Augmon, Tark, Greg Anthony -- all of those guys, and others, really made Vegas what we think of it today. Right or wrong, they created something more than a basketball program.
Now it looks like a shattered relationship with little chance of recovery in the near-future. A shame.