Jeff Horton had made the rise from a graduate assistant at Minnesota in 1984 to the head coach at Nevada (Reno) in 1993. He was 36 and coached the Wolf Pack to a 7-4 overall record and 5-2 in the Big West. And then he made an abrupt move to UNLV, the main rival for the folks in Reno.
Five years later, Horton was back interviewing for jobs as an assistant. He went 7-5 in 1994, including a blowout of Central Michigan in the hometown Las Vegas Bowl. The Rebels were 2-9 and 1-5 in their final season in the Big West in1995, then 4-30 overall and 3-22 in three seasons in the WAC.
Horton was fired and wasn't a head coach again until serving as the interim after Tim Brewster was fired with five games left in the Gophers' 2010 season. Horton now sits on a two-game winning steak as a head coach, as those Gophers closed with victories over Iowa and Illinois.
Minnesota wasn't the only Big Ten team looking for a head coach. Michigan fired Rich Rodriguez in early January, after the Gator Bowl, and hired San Diego State's Brady Hoke. Rocky Long was promoted to head coach with the Aztecs and he brought in Horton as the assistant head coach.
San Diego State is in the Mountain West, which is also home to UNLV. The Rebels have had four winning seasons in the past 28 years. They are 24-84 over the past nine seasons.
UNLV opens the season on Thursday night against the Gophers. Bobby Hauck is entering his third season as the Rebels' coach, and it will be his last unless there's a significant turnaround.
Horton was asked in a phone interview for his opinion on what has kept UNLV in the sub-basement of Division 1A (aka, FBS).
"The administration has never really made a commitment to football,'' Horton said. "They talk about it, about providing the resources to compete, but not much changes there.
"They still have the same building we had in 1996. They still have an older, off-campus stadium. They have been trying to fill the cracks for 30 years, but you can only use so much putty before you have to rebuld a house.''
Horton was asked how the football "building'' at UNLV compares to the one that Kill wants replaced at Minnesota.
"Not even close,'' Horton said. "Minnesota might not have a palace, but it's a palace compared to the cramped place the football players are squeezed into at UNLV.
"You want to blame the coaching, go ahead, but it can't go on for 30 years and be all coaching. Bobby Hauck is a great coach. Look at his record. That tells you he's a great coach. Talk to people in the business. Everyone will tell you Bobby Hauck's a great coach.''
Craig Thompson, the commissioner of the Mountain West, was asked about UNLV's lowly football status. He mentioned that basketball and its tradition is so strong at UNLV that football has been completely overshadowed. Horton mentioned the same thing: that basketball has the new facility, basketball has the resources, and football lobbies for what's left.
Thompson is a Minnesota graduate. He didn't apply when the Gophers were looking for an athletic director in 2012, but he did "call around'' and ask other Big Ten people what they thought about the football situation.
"The consensus of the people I talked to was that Minnesota is the toughest job in the Big Ten, mostly because the Gophers are in a pro market and that's how they are judged,'' Thompson said. "They mentioned that Glen Mason did a good job there. In their opinion, Mason got fired because the Gophers are competing for attention and dollars with the Vikings, the Twins, the Wild and the Timberwolves, not because he didn't win enough.''
Horton was asked about this theory that Gophers football is hurt by competing in a market with teams in the four major pro leagues.
"In a way, it is tougher, because it can be about where you are in the pecking order,'' Horton said. "Where is your niche? In the Twin Cities, the niche for Gophers football is behind the Vikings, behind the Twins, the Wild, maybe behind the Timberwolves and Gophers basketball. It's not like Lincoln, Nebraska, that's for sure.
"I will say this. That's a great new stadium the Gophers are playing in. I can't imagine a better stadium than that.''
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