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University of Nevada, Las Vegas

2022 was an unusually disappointing season for UNLV football. Every year is a disappointing season for UNLV, but the hot 4-1 start gave us fans and alumni actual hope that UNLV could be a contender in the Mountain West. Then injuries happened, and UNLV only won a single game in the second half of the season to close out with a 5 and 7 record.

After blowout losses to San Jose State and Air Force while starting quarterback Doug Brumfield (and several wide receivers and defensive leaders) sat out with injury, an embarrassing loss to a 2-win Hawai'i team in the penultimate game that guaranteed a losing season and no bowl game, and barely pulling off a last-second win against a 2-win Nevada team, UNLV's athletic director decided to fire head coach Marcus Arroyo after only 3 seasons. The decision is understandable, even if a bit sudden. Completely blundering the second half of the season after such a hot start is bad. Losing that must-win game against Hawai'i (one of the worst teams in the conference) was inexcusable. I get why the new athletic director decided to fire Arroyo.

I get it. But I don't really agree with it.

Marcus Arroyo
Photo credit: Steel Brooks, LV Review Journal.
Marcus Arroyo has not had much success as UNLV's head coach, but does he deserve to be fired?

Competitive losses

Yeah, this season ended in disappointment, but Arroyo's team has seen steady and consistent improvement in its 3 years. I, personally, don't hold the COVID-shortened 2020 season against Arroyo. He was coming into a tough position. A former offensive coordinator with no head coaching experience coming into a pandemic situation in his first year with a perennial losing team. Business closures prevented the team from holding many of the normal training activities. Yeah sure, every team around the country was dealing with COVID as well, but only a handful of them were doing so with a brand new coaching staff, which made Arroyo and UNLV's position particularly disadvantaged.

2021 showed incremental progress, in terms of win-loss record, with UNLV only winning 2 games. But that 2021 UNLV team (which started out 0-6, by the way), was surprisingly competitive in almost all of its losses, which lead me to call them "the best 0-6 team that I've ever seen". Many of those losses in 2021 were by a single score, with UNLV playing competitive football well into the 4th quarter. That was impressive considering that I was used to seeing previous UNLV teams come out completely flat to start the second half, and only get worse as the games would progress into the 4th quarter. They weren't winning, but Arroyo had his players playing! Every. Single. Game. And that was something that I hadn't really seen before.

Early in the 2022 season, UNLV seemed to have finally turned the corner. But the collapse in the second half of the season, culminating in the loss to Hawai'i that knocks UNLV out of bowl contention, is absolutely heart-breaking. Arroyo has a 7-23 record with UNLV. Many are pointing out that both Bobby Hauck and Tony Sanchez were consistently putting together 4 or 5-win seasons in their 5 years with the team. So looking at just the records, Arroyo's tenure seems to be even worse, compared to Sanchez and Hauck.

loss to Hawai'i
Photo credit: Marco Garcia, Associated Press.
Losing to a 2-win Hawai'i team in penultimate game surely knocked UNLV out of bowl eligibility, despite a 4-1 start.

But the win-loss record isn't the whole story.

Hauck and Sanchez's records were inflated by scheduling multiple games against FCS, DII schools, and non-conference FBS bottom-feeders. And UNLV still managed to lose some of those games! Remember that loss to Howard? Which I believe is still the largest upset against the spread in college football history!

Under Hauck and Sanchez, UNLV went 6-3 against the likes of Southern Utah, Prairie View, Howard, Jackson State, Idaho State, Northern Colorado, Western Illinois, and Northern Arizona. Hauck's scheduling was generally much tougher than Sanchez'. To be fair, Hauck also played quite a few ranked opponents in his 5 years, including games against Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Sanchez, however, had no such top-tier non-conference opposition, and further padded his win total by going 3-3 against poor non-conference FBS teams like Idaho, UTEP, Arkansas State, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt. Not exactly marquee opponents.

In contrast, Arroyo only had 2 matchups against non-FBS teams in his 3 years. They were Eastern Washington and Idaho State, and UNLV split those games 1-1. As for his non-conference FBS matchups, they included the likes of nationally-ranked teams (at the time UNLV played them) like Iowa State, Arizona State, and Notre Dame. Throw in some good-but-not-quite-ranked teams like 2022 Cal and 2021 UTSA (which went 11-1), and this was a tough 2-year schedule.

Had Sanchez, in particular been scheduling games against teams like UTSA, Cal, ASU, and Notre Dame, instead of Jackson State, Prairie View, and Vanderbilt, then his 3 and 4-win seasons would probably only have been 1 or 2-win seasons. And if Arroyo had the benefit of matchups against Southern Utah, and Northern Colorado (or heck, even just Colorado!) instead of Cal and Notre Dame, then 2022 would likely have resulted in a 7 or 8-win season, bowl qualification, and a contract extension for Arroyo. Add to that the fact that Arroyo's losses felt much more competitive and close than the vast majority of Sanchez and Hauck's.

loss to Notre Dame
Photo credit: Mark Lebryk, Associated Press.
Arroyo's UNLV teams played multiple ranked opponents between 2021 and 2022.

Put simply, Arroy's record may have been worse overall, but (in my opinion) Arroyo did more under tougher conditions than either Hauck or Sanchez.

Surprise! UNLV may be bowl-eligible after all!

And here's the real kicker. UNLV isn't actually eliminated from a 2022 bowl appearance after all! Due to a series of fluke technicalities (and on very tragic accident), there aren't enough 6-win teams to fill out all the bowls in 2022. Four 5-win teams are currently still in the running for three potential bowl bids, and UNLV is one of them. One of the tie-breakers for bowl qualifications is a stat called "Academic Progress Report (APR), which is essentially a measure of how many scholarship athletes stay with the school and are on track to graduate. Of the dozen or so 5-win teams eligible for a bowl bid, UNLV has the 2nd-highest APR behind Rice.

The other 2 teams at the top of the list of candidates are Buffalo and New Mexico State. Buffalo will be playing a re-scheduled game this weekend (during conference championship week) which could give them 6 wins and actual bowl-eligibility. New Mexico State had a game canceled due to a player's tragic death prior to the game. They have scheduled an extra game against Valparaiso, but Valparaiso is an FCS school. Since New Mexico State has already beaten an FCS school this year, a second win against an FCS team would not qualify them for a bowl, unless their waiver is accepted by the NCAA.

NMSU Aggies would need another win
and a waiver to play in a bowl.

If both Buffalo and New Mexico State win their games, and New Mexico State is granted the bowl waiver, then they and Rice would be the 3 teams to fill the remaining slots, and UNLV would be left out. But if either Buffalo or NMSU loses their games this coming Saturday, or NMSU's waiver request is not granted by the NCAA, then UNLV will get a bowl appearance in 2022, despite a 5-win record.

So UNLV fired its head coach, despite still having a strong possibility of going to a bowl game!

So Arroyo improved his team's record each year, against increasingly-difficult opponents. The team played competitively in most of its losses. And, UNLV could probably still go to a bowl! Yet UNLV fired him.

Conflict of egos?

From what I've been reading and hearing on sports talk radio, it seems there's also some behind-the-scenes issues with Arroyo that I'm not privy to, being that I'm an amateur blogger with no insider access. There may have been some personality conflicts between Arroyo, Athletic Director Eric Harper, some of the school's boosters, and other people with their fingers on the strings of the football program, which probably contributed towards Arroyo's firing. He certainly didn't seem to get along well with the media. Eric Harper was only hired as UNLV's athletic director this past January. He wasn't here when Arroyo was hired, and Arroyo wasn't his choice for head coach. It's not entirely fair when a new boss swoops in and sacks staff. But at the same time, if Arroyo is hard to get along with, that's kind of on Arroyo.

Personalities and egos aside, looking at this strictly as someone who has watched UNLV football all my life, I believe Arroyo deserved another year. But then again, I'm a big softie, and despite having been very critical of Sanchez in his final year, I still kind of felt Sanchez deserved another year, so that he would have a full year in the fancy new training facilities that he is largely responsible for being built, and to play in Allegiant Stadium, considering that he pushed hard for UNLV to build a new football stadium.

In general, I think that college sports teams firing head coaches every 3, 4, or 5 years is just bad for the program overall. Quality recruits don't want to sign with a university that can't keep a head coach for longer than it will take for a player to graduate. Recruits sign with schools in large part because they like the coaching staff and/or their philosophy. There's no guarantee that a new coaching staff would have the same philosophy or play style. Further, the coaches are stuck for up to 3 or 4 years with players recruited by the previous coaching staff, for the purposes of playing in those previous philosophies and schemes. The existing players may not be suitable for the new coach's philosophy or schemes, and it may take years for that coach to recruit the kinds of players that he wants, and start running the schemes that he is best at. Changing coaches frequently, thus, seems like it sets up both the recruits and the new coaches for failure.

It's very likely that many of the players that Arroyo recruited may transfer to other schools, and some (or all) of the recruits that had committed to Arroyo may de-commit. Whoever gets hired as UNLV's next coach will be taking over a team that had possibly gone to a bowl the previous year, who is under even more pressure to win immediately, but who will also likely have a roster full of underclassmen and walk-ons. Whoever gets the job next is going to need a lot of luck so that he doesn't also get fired after just 3 years.

Fremont Cannon
Photo credit: UNLV Athletics.
Expectations may be un-fairly high for UNLV football's next head coach.

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