In a historic move for the team, school and entire Las Vegas Valley, famed football coach John Robinson was hired as the eighth head coach in UNLV history on Dec. 3, 1998.
After quickly turning around the program's fortunes on the field, Robinson added the duties of director of athletics for UNLV on Jan. 1, 2002, and successfully served in the dual role for 17 months until stepping down as AD on May 20, 2003.
Now fully focused professionally on continuing to build the Rebel football program, Robinson is two wins shy of becoming the school's all-time second-winningest coach and this fall will tie Tony Knap (1976-81) for longest-serving UNLV head man at six seasons each.
Bringing instant credibility to a program that was staring at a move into the newly formed Mountain West Conference, Robinson came to town as one of college football's most successful and recognizable figures and the former national champion has done nothing while leading the Rebels to tarnish his winning image.
Just this past year, the legendary coach earned two nationally recognized honors as he was voted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in conjunction with the New Year's Day game that featured his former school, and then was selected to serve as head coach of the famed East-West Shrine Game, which was played Jan. 10 in San Francisco.
Still passionate about the game he teaches, Robinson's stunning move to the desert more than a half-decade ago has not only mined a football spirit not before seen in Southern Nevada, but also transcended the West and into the national college scene.
Consider that a program that had been on network television just 10 times during its first 31 years of existence made its 24th appearance under Robinson last fall. Consider a group that five years ago was winless for the first time in school history made big enough strides under Robinson to be ranked in the 2001 preseason top 25 by Sports Illustrated for the first time ever and then last fall reached a school-record 30th in the nation in the coaches' poll after five games.
"The hiring of John Robinson should be proof positive that UNLV is committed to its football program and is serious about its membership in the Mountain West Conference," UNLV President Dr. Carol Harter said. "My goal is to keep John Robinson for life."
Robinson, 69, got the Rebels serious about winning in a hurry while leading the program from zero wins to eight in just his first two seasons. In fact, UNLV won five more games in his first 24 games as coach than the team's previous four seasons combined. On Oct. 5, 2002, the Rebels' 21-17 victory over rival Nevada, Reno gave Robinson his 200th win as a head coach in pro and college football.
Entering 2004 as the nation's 17th-winningest active coach with a career record of 130-68-4 (.653), Robinson's 31-14 Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arkansas in 2000 tied him with Pat Dye for the 11th-most wins after 14 seasons in the history of major college football. In addition, his 8-1 bowl record gives him a higher winning percentage in the postseason (.889) than any college coach in history with a minimum of eight games.
Robinson, who earned his 100th career victory at the University of Southern California in 1997 with a win, ironically, vs. UNLV, had two stints with the Trojans. He first became head coach in 1976 and spent seven years leading Troy. His teams won 82 percent of their games (67-14-2) in his original run, averaging nearly 10 victories a year. In fact, Robinson tied a NCAA record for most wins by a first-year head coach after his team went 11-1 and earned a Rose Bowl berth.
He won the 1978 national championship with a 12-1 mark (USC was ranked No. 2 in both 1976 and '79), led the Trojans to three Pac-10 titles and guided Troy to five postseason bowls. Also, from 1978 through 1980, USC posted a school-record 28-game unbeaten streak.
Along the way, he coached two Heisman Trophy winners (running backs Charles White in 1979 and Marcus Allen in 1981) and a Lombardi Award honoree (guard Brad Budde in 1979). Also, Robinson was named National Coach of the Year in 1979 following an 11-0-1 campaign.
After spending four months as USC's senior vice president for university relations, Robinson headed to the NFL to take over the Los Angeles Rams. His stint in pro ball produced the most victories (79) in Rams history. During his nine years with the club (1983-91), he reached the playoffs six times and twice advanced to the NFC championship game (1985 & '89).
He spent 1992 as a television analyst before returning to USC for the 1993 season. His second term at Troy lasted until 1997 and featured three more bowl victories, including the Rose Bowl title over Northwestern following the 1995 season that improved his career record in the Grand Daddy of Them All to a sparkling 4-0.
Robinson began his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater, the University of Oregon, for 12 seasons (1960-71). He moved to USC to direct the school's offense for three years (1972-74) before serving as the backfield coach for the NFL's Oakland Raiders in 1975 under childhood friend John Madden.
Considered an expert on the running game, Robinson has produced four NFL rushing champions and two NCAA rushing leaders. That tradition hasturned UNLV into one of the nation's top ground-gainers, including boasting two 1,000-yard rushers in the last three seasons.
Overall, Robinson has tutored 25 first team All-Americans, 22 NFL first-round selections and a total of 92 NFL draft picks. His professional coaching stature was further bolstered in 2002 when he was asked to give the induction speech of his former Rams pupil -- and new NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman -- Jackie Slater, in Canton, Ohio.
Born on July 25, 1935, Robinson grew up in Daly City, Calif., and starred in football and baseball at Serra High School San Mateo. He then lettered as an end for Oregon when the Ducks won the 1957 Pacific Coast Conference title and played in the Rose Bowl. He received his bachelor's degree in education in 1958.
Robinson is the author of two books: "Coach to Coach: Business Lessons from the Locker Room," which is geared toward businessexecutives and football fans, and "Conquest," which is about USC's football heritage.
Robinson and wife, Linda, have six grown children: daughters Teresa, Lynn, Karilyn and Beth and sons David (a third-year assistant with UNLV) and Christopher. The family also includes eight grandsons and one granddaughter.
Robinson quickly became a major presence in the community and is a heavily sought-after speaker for both public and private groups in Southern Nevada, as well as across the nation. The citizens of Las Vegas think so much of Robinson's work that they voted him Best Local Coach for three consecutive years as part of the Las Vegas Review-Journal's annual poll.
"We love it here," Robinson said of his home in the Silver State. "I think there's a spirit in this community that has really captured me and the fun of coaching is as enjoyable at UNLV as it was with the Los Angeles Rams or USC. I'm having as good a time now as I've had in my life."
John Robinson's Head Coaching Record
WINNINGEST ACTIVE I-A COACHES
COACH, SCHOOL YRS W-L-T PCT 1. Bob Pruett, Marshall 8 88-17-0 .83810 2. Bob Stoops, Oklahoma 5 55-11-0 .83333 3. Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee 12 113-28-0 .80142 4. Bobby Bowden, Florida State 38 342-99-4 .77303 5. Lloyd Carr, Michigan 9 86-26-0 .76786 6. Joe Paterno, Penn State 38 339-109-3 .75499 7. Chris Ault, Nevada, Reno 19 163-63-1 .72026 8. Bill Snyder, Kansas State 15 127-55-1 .69672 9. Urban Meyer, Utah 6 48-21-0 .69565 10. Nick Saban, LSU 10 82-39-1 .67623 11. Tommy Bowden, Clemson 7 56-28-0 .66667 12. Terry Hoeppner, Miami (Ohio) 5 40-20-0 .66667 13. Dennis Franchione, Texas A&M 21 159-82-2 .65844 14. Paul Pasqualoni, Syracuse 18 135-70-1 .65777 15. Pat Hill, Fresno State 7 55-29-0 .65476 16. Lou Holtz, South Carolina 32 243-127-7 .65385 17. JOHN ROBINSON, UNLV 17 130-68-4 .65347 18. David Cutcliffe, Mississippi 6 40-22-0 .64516 19. John L. Smith, Michigan St. 15 118-65-0 .64481 20. Sonny Lubick, Colorado State 15 112-63-0 .64000