PROVO — When John Robinson was hired to take over the UNLV football program in December, 1998, the Rebels were in the throes of a 16-game losing streak and had lost 26 consecutive road games. They were, undoubtedly, one of the worst teams in the country. In Las Vegas, a town known in part for stand-up comedy routines, the Rebels were a laughingstock.
Turning the program around seemed like a Herculean task, if not an impossible one.
Robinson, who had spent 12 seasons as the head coach at Southern California (leading the Trojans to the 1978 national championship) and nine more with the Los Angeles Rams of the NFL, was looking for a challenge and he found one. His hiring brought instant credibility to the Rebels and, in time, he brought respectability and moderate success to the football program.
No, UNLV hasn't won any conference championships in the Robinson era. The Rebels have posted a 27-37 record, highlighted by a winning season and a bowl appearance in 2000, since his arrival. Still, compared to what he inherited, Robinson has done an impressive job building a solid foundation at UNLV. "We can compete now," he said.
However, the Rebels began the 2004 season with four straight losses — including defeats at Tennessee and Wisconsin. Then, after getting beat by Air Force, they fell at home to lowly Utah State, 31-21.
Following that debacle against the Aggies, Robinson, 69, announced that he would retire at the end of the season. Robinson, the 18th-winningest active coach in Division I-A with a 130-72-4 record, had one more year left on his contract but explained that family health issues, and his team's 0-4 start, were reasons for the decision.
So how did his team respond to the news? The next week, UNLV throttled archrival Nevada-Reno, 48-13. "The win was a non-conference win, but we desperately needed it," Robinson said.
It appears the Rebels are rallying around their coach in his final campaign. "We're going to send him out with a bang," cornerback Ruschard Dodd-Masters told the Las Vegas Sun.
UNLV is looking for more fireworks for Robinson's farewell tour when it visits BYU Friday (8 p.m., ESPN2) in a Mountain West Conference showdown. Of course, the Rebels (1-4, 0-1) aren't the only team coming off a feel-good win. The Cougars (2-3, 1-0) are happy about their 31-21 triumph at Colorado State.
Robinson downplays the win-one-for-the-coach angle.
"I think the team would been willing to have me jump off a high-rise here in town to win a game," he joked.
BYU coach Gary Crowton also softpedaled the emotional aspect of UNLV's recent victory.
"They're going to play hard for him," he said. "Even though they had some setbacks this season, they were able to bounce back. I've seen that every year I've coached against him. They're going to play hard for him no matter what."
UNLV certainly has experienced its share of adversity as the Rebels have been ravaged by injuries. "We have 17 players on our roster who aren't playing," Robinson said. "I've never seen anything like that. Despite the enormous number of injuries, we're starting to get a rhythm."
Two of UNLV's top players are healthy — running back Dominique Dorsey, who is No. 15 in the country in rushing, averaging 112.4 yards per game, and wide receiver Earvin Johnson, who has caught 32 passes for 375 yards and three touchdowns.
"It's a unique challenge this week," Crowton said. "We have to make decisions on stopping the run or pass. That creates some challenges, especially if their quarterback (senior Kurt Nantkes) gets hot. We're probably going to stay with our base stuff and make decisions as the game goes on."
Defensively, the Rebels boast All-American safety Jamaal Brimmer. Though he hasn't been as dominant as he was the last two seasons, he is still a force to be reckoned with.
Dorsey, Johnson and Brimmer are examples of the type of player Robinson has been able to recruit to UNLV, a program that has come a long way during the past six seasons.
"We're competitive in our conference, and we're playing on national television," Robinson said. "I feel it's ripe for the next guy who comes in."