For now, Desiree Reed-Francois is enjoying the moment.
UNLV’s new athletic director has earned it. After nearly two decades in collegiate sports, she beat out some very worthy candidates to claim this job and become the first Hispanic female AD in Division I history. She put in her time, did outstanding work at her previous stops, and when she got her opportunity to interview for the UNLV gig, she knocked it out of the park.
“When we got to the interviews, we went into that with seven or eight candidates going in, and Desiree just knocked our socks off,” UNLV President Len Jessup said. “I’m thrilled that Desiree is our next athletic director. I think she’s going to do great things with us.”
Reed-Francois described her initial reaction to the offer from UNLV.
“I worked 20 years for an opportunity just like this one, so when I got the call and the job offer — when I get nervous, my hands perspire,” Reed-Francois said, laughing, during an interview at the Las Vegas Sun offices before her introductory press conference today. “I was standing on a corner in Portland, and I was in front of a Mexican restaurant, and there was mariachi music in the background, and I was trying to listen on the phone, and my hands were sweaty and I was about to drop the phone. There was all this chaos around, but I was so excited.”
That initial elation will no doubt last for a few more days, maybe a week or two. And it’s well deserved. But on June 1, when her five-year contract begins and she officially assumes her role at UNLV, Reed-Francois is going to be faced with some monumental challenges.
The Rebels are stuck in a floundering mid-major (some might say low-major) conference, the athletics department is running a multi-million-dollar deficit, and neither of the two revenue-generating sports — football and men’s basketball — are selling enough tickets to stay relevant in the local market if they remain on their current course.
That’s the gauntlet awaiting Reed-Francois when she punches in as a full-time athletic director for the first time. She believes her decades of experience in collegiate sports (including stops at Tennessee, Cincinnati and, most recently, Virginia Tech) have primed her for this job but acknowledged it will take some time to grasp the full scope of an AD’s responsibilities.
“I have a lot of listening to do and a lot of learning,” Reed-Francois said. “I really see a lot of opportunity. I’m a competitor. If we’re going to keep score, I’d like us to win … I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen so far. I really want to get in and get started and get my hands dirty and get to know our folks and listen to our people.”
Reed-Francois has already been doing some of the little things to smooth her transition to UNLV. She has spoken with all of UNLV’s head coaches, and she is in the process of reaching out to all of the school’s major boosters. In addition to her attention to detail, she draws rave reviews for her personality and interpersonal skills, and that will help her hit the ground running on June 1.
As for the big-picture items, Reed-Francois believes UNLV’s sports programs are well positioned to bounce back, despite the myriad obstacles on the horizon. With a background running Division I football programs, she understands that sport’s importance as a revenue stream and cited the new Raiders stadium and the in-development Fertitta Football Complex as momentum-builders for UNLV football.
She also understands the city’s deep connection to the Runnin’ Rebels’ basketball legacy. She knows UNLV basketball has to be good, for financial and morale reasons, and she believes Marvin Menzies has that program on the right track.
“I had a good conversation with coach Menzies [on Monday],” she said. “I know he’s a competitor and he wants to win just as badly as I do and just as badly as our community wants us to. We recognize the revenue responsibilities that we have, and we’re going to be aggressive in pursuing those responsibilities. One of my primary roles is to provide resources for our coaches to be successful and for our student-athletes to be successful, and that’s what I’m going to do. We’re excited about the future of UNLV basketball. Coach Menzies has done a great job building programs, and I look forward to working with him and building a basketball program our community can be proud of.”
Even the specter of competing against professional sports teams for local attention doesn’t seem to dampen Reed-Francois’ optimism. She thinks UNLV can still offer a unique sports experience for locals, and that with a good product on the floor, the Rebels won’t be overwhelmed by the Golden Knights and the Raiders.
“Competition can be a good thing, right? We want to create not just a basketball game and a football game — we want to create a basketball event and a football event. That will be our challenge, and that will be our opportunity.”
But all of those big issues — professional competition, budget problems, Power 5 affiliation — are in the future.
On June 1, the work begins.
“I am really looking forward to being here,” Reed-Francois said. “This is a great city and it’s a great university, great leadership, it’s a great opportunity.”
“I can promise the UNLV family that I will work tirelessly to repay their faith.”