Remembering a legend: Pioneering UNLV coach Wayne Nunnely dies


Courtesy UNLV

Wayne Nunnely, the only UNLV football player to also become head coach of the program, has passed away at the age of 68.

Wed, Feb 17, 2021 (11:12 a.m.)

A late-September college football game featuring two winless teams was one of the more meaningful contests in NCAA history.

UNLV beat Ohio University 26-18 in 1988 for its first win of the season — a result that arguably was secondary. It was the first time in Division I history both teams had a Black head coach — UNLV’s Wayne Nunnely and Ohio’s Cleve Bryant.

“I was fortunate enough and blessed enough to become a head coach at UNLV,” Nunnely said in a 2014 interview posted on YouTube. “That experience as a head coach at UNLV gave me a lot of name recognition (for the rest of my career).”

Nunnely, the only former UNLV player to become the program’s coach, has died, the university announced on Tuesday. He was 68.

When Nunnely became the school’s coach in 1986, he was just the fifth Black coach ever in the Division I ranks. He was the first Black coach on the West Coast, according to UNLV.

“We are so grateful for your commitment, perseverance & impact on the lives you enriched!,” current coach Marcus Arroyo posted on Twitter.

Nunnely posted a 19-25 record in four seasons at UNLV, highlighted by a historic victory against Wisconsin at sold-out Sam Boyd Stadium. That propelled him from being the program’s interim head coach to earning the job on a permanent basis.

Nunnely coached two of the program’s greats in Ickey Woods, who won the 1987 NCAA rushing title with 1,658 yards, and wide receiver Keenan McCardell. Both had notable NFL careers.

He also spent one year as the UNLV’s director of minority student affairs.

“He was a role model as our only football alumnus to later become head coach and was truly blessed to have touched so many lives while teaching the sport he loved for nearly four decades,” Desiree Reed-Francois, the UNLV athletic director, said in a statement.

Nunnely played fullback for UNLV in the early 1970s. After his eligibility expired, he asked then-head coach Ron Meyer if he could stay around the team during spring practice while finishing his education degree.

That spring, Nunnely, who shadowed running back coach Jim Anderson, fell in love with coaching. Nunnely said Anderson showed him “the key to being a good football coach is you have to be a good teacher. It’s not about intimidating kids. You have to be a good teacher.”

Nunnely’s coaching journey had many stops at different levels, everything from Valley High School in Las Vegas to a lengthy career as the defensive line coach in the NFL with the Chargers (1997-2008), Saints (1995-96) and Broncos (2009-11).

He retired at age 60 from coaching, including 17 seasons in the NFL.

“At this stage of my life, I want to devote more time to my wife, Velda, and the rest of our family,” Nunnely told the Denver Post. “They have been with me every step of the way through an incredible career that I’ve been so blessed to enjoy. The NFL has a wonderful retirement plan, and it’s time for me to begin the next chapter of my life.”

Nunnely's retirement included many visits to UNLV, where in 2018 he was named the UNLV College of Education Alumnus of the Year. Nunnely said in the 2014 interview that he wasn’t the most dedicated student during his childhood in California and at Citrus Junior College, but “when I put time into studying instead of clowning around, I can get work done.” Nunnely added that he was voted at the most outstanding male student in his UNLV graduating class.

“I am so thankful for all the opportunities I have been given to have a positive impact on others through the game of football,” Nunnely said at his retirement, according to UNLV.

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