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Public battle for UNLV job brings high drama

For every boss who’s been confronted with the dilemma of dueling internal candidates for the big promotion, watching the building circus in UNLV’s basketball program is just plain fun.

First, it’s somebody else’s neck on the line.

Second, it’s playing out in the bright light of day. We got to see Coach Dave Rice’s talented team unravel at inopportune times, crushing preseason expectations. There were rumors ahead of the unusual midseason firing.

Now, we get to see the ups and downs of the product on display at the Thomas & Mack — and often on TV — as interim head coach Todd Simon and assistant coach Stacey Augmon jockey for position while Athletic Director Tina Kunzer-Murphy twists on the spit, getting lots of advice on next steps.

Simon, who was briefly Findlay Prep coach, had the title of associate head coach under the old regime and that distinction matters on campus. He also had the support of moneyed backers so he got the first shot at replacing the deposed Rice.

Augmon, whose pedigree includes being on UNLV’s national championship team in 1990 and time as an NBA player and assistant coach, stayed quiet when Rice was bounced, not wanting to appear to be climbing over the body of a fallen teammate. Now he’s come out in a Review-Journal interview and said he wants this, his dream job.

Neither has been a college head coach.

So here we are with just a few weeks left in the season and these two rivals are sharing a sideline roughly twice a week. How does Kunzer-Murphy make sure they keep working together? Who’s looking out for the recruiting class that may have ties to Simon or Augmon or Rice or may already be looking elsewhere?

In giving Simon the interim tag, Kunzer-Murphy took the procedural route. Associate trumps assistant. Backers trump former players.

But Simon didn’t get a bargain here. The team won a few, then injuries took out some key pieces. Absent a miracle in the Mountain West conference playoffs, the resulting record likely won’t add much to his candidacy.

Meanwhile, Augmon, sensing himself running in second position, had nothing to lose from going public and trying to mount support. He showed passion and an ability to manage the media. Well played, young man.

The elephant in the room is whether it’s wise to appoint any lieutenant from a failed regime.

There are plenty of outside candidates for what’s clearly a high-profile job. TV analysts and former big-time coaches have circled, some expressing interest directly while others lurk in the shadows.

One hang-up is the budget. It’s a factor in every hiring decision. And UNLV has usually been shopping in the bargain bin.

Another factor is the big thumb of corporate, a role played here by university President Lee Jessup. What role, if any, does he want to play? Is he willing to set a priority for winning or for assuring the next coach attracts true student-athletes? And is he willing to alter the budget to broaden the pool of coaching candidates?

That all brings us back to the public face of the process, Kunzer-Murphy.

All of us who have faced important hiring decisions feel for her. She’s already missed once in extending the contract of Rice, only to fire him. She needs to get it right. Yet anything short of landing a can’t-miss coach will subject her to loud second-guessing and a messy exit by those not chosen.

The fan in me wants to jump in here and venture an opinion, but I’ll leave that for the sports columnists. Here, we’re thinking management dynamics.

So far, Kunzer-Murphy has played it close to the vest and avoided saying anything that could make matters worse. Good.

Now clear the desk and give this your full attention. A year from now, THIS will be the decision that will define your career. Speed is of the essence but being right is even more important.

Get the internal ducks in a row and understand Jessup’s priorities.

Get creative about being inclusive. Listen to the boosters. Listen to the season ticket holders and the former players. Try not to listen to the media directly, but know what’s being said. It all matters.

Do your homework and your due diligence. Understand your goals — short term versus long. Interview at LAX, if you must. Make the best decision based on the facts at hand. Then put the happiest face on the announcement and hope for the best.

At the end of the day — win or lose — that’s all any boss can expect.

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