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25 UNLV John Robinson's gamble will continue to pay off for the up-and-coming Rebels

When former USC and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson
accepted an offer to take over the moribund UNLV football
program 2 1/2 years ago, he didn't overanalyze the situation. "I
thought it would be an exciting challenge," says Robinson, 66,
the ninth-winningest active coach in Division I-A. "It wasn't
until I got here that I realized how bad it really was."

Everywhere he looked, he saw defeat. The record book was bad
enough--among UNLV's feats of futility were an 0-11 in 1998 and no
wins on the road and no bowl games since '94--but the players'
state of mind was worse. "Their confidence was horrible," recalls
Robinson. "Football was like punishment to them." The practice
field, a bleak patch of turf surrounded by fencing topped with
barbed wire, even suggested a prison yard.

Thanks in part to skillful transplantation by Robinson, the
program is much more respectable. Among the improvements are a
roster larded with Division I-A and junior college transfers, a
ring of palm trees around the practice field and 11 wins over the
last two seasons, including a 31-14 pasting of Arkansas in the
Las Vegas Bowl. This summer the sports information office is
cranking up a Heisman Trophy campaign.

"UNLV's not chopped liver anymore," says junior quarterback
Jason Thomas, the focus of that campaign and, aside from
Robinson, the biggest reason for the program's rise. A 6'4",
230-pound lefty who can throw the ball 70 yards, Thomas was
recruited out of Dominguez High in Los Angeles by Robinson
before USC fired the coach in 1997. Thomas redshirted his first
year with USC, then transferred when it became apparent that he
wouldn't get to compete for the starting spot the following
fall. After sitting out in '99, he had a dazzling 2000, throwing
for 1,708 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 599 yards--the
school's career record for a quarterback--plus 11 more
touchdowns. "You know when you're playing tag and some guys
never get caught?" asks Robinson. "That's Jason. He has great

That'll be important this fall because improving on last year's
8-5 record won't be easy given a schedule that is probably the
toughest in school history. "I say, if you're going for the
ride, go all the way, don't hedge your bets," says Robinson. For
this Vegas gambler, that could turn out to be a winning strategy.

--Kelli Anderson

COLOR PHOTO: CLINT KARLSEN/LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL One of many transfers sparking UNLV's turnaround, Thomas hurts foes with his elusiveness and his arm.


2000 record: 8-5 (4-3, 3rd in Mountain West)
Final ranking: Not ranked


Sacks by the Rebels' defensive line in 2000, doubling its 1999

An opposing team's coach sizes up the Rebels

"When I started looking at tape of them in the spring, I
thought, If we play well, we'll beat them. Now I'm watching it
thinking, They are exceptionally well-coached.... I haven't seen
many teams block as well as they do, no matter what scheme you
line up in. You don't see opposing defensive people getting into
their backfield.... Jason Thomas can be sloppy, but he's a
big-play quarterback.... The question is, How good is their
running back? Coach John Robinson has always had good tailbacks."

Strength: 57th of 117

Aug. 30 at Arkansas
22 at Arizona
29 BYU
Oct. 6 at Nevada
27 at Wyoming
Nov. 3 UTAH
10 at New Mexico
17 at Air Force