They compiled the worst record in school history. Yet every member of the 1958-59 basketball team is in the UNLV Hall of Fame—from the student managers to the coach.
That 5-13 mark is a deceptive measure of accomplishment, because it was recorded by the first basketball team. In fact, it was the first collegiate team of any kind here.
The program started out with nine straight defeats, but by the time Coach Michael “Chub” Drakulich turned over the reins five years later, he left with a record of 68 wins and 45 losses, capped by a 21-4 season in 1962-63. These critical, formative years were tough and they were exciting. And when they were over, the Drakulich era had set the stage for big-time college sports in the Valley.
Drakulich died in 2004 at age 80, leaving behind a program that had been to four Final Fours and become, for a time, an international pop-culture sensation. In the years since his death, UNLV basketball has entered another period of national success: The program has the nation’s fourth best all-time winning percentage, and Coach Dave Rice has been a master at deploying the Rebel past in building enthusiasm—among both fans and recruits—for its future.
Much of the credit for all this winning goes, reasonably enough, to Jerry Tarkanian, the coach who built a global brand on Maryland Parkway between 1973 and 1992. But Tarkanian took over a program that, with occasional blips, had been successful ever since Drakulich built it. By the time the Shark arrived, success was not a dream for UNLV basketball, but an expectation.
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Building a program from the ground up took grit. There was no campus in 1957 for this new southern satellite of the University of Nevada. Classes were held at Las Vegas High School until Maude Frazier Hall was built out among the dunes and creosote. Dean Bill Carlson, head of the 13 faculty members at “Tumbleweed Tech,” as it was called, believed an athletic program would help establish a rapport with the community and set roots for the school. The key was finding the right man for the job. Carlson lured Drakulich away from Rancho High School with a salary of $5,500 to teach physical education, develop and direct athletics, and coach.
The school got its money’s worth: Besides basketball, Drakulich began the baseball program in 1960 and coached the team until 1967; he brought in Bill Ireland to start the football program in 1968; he was athletic director until 1973; and he was head golf coach from 1973-87. “Chub was everything as far as sports went,” says James Bilbray, who was basketball student manager and student-body president in those first years (and later a four-term congressman). “His enthusiasm and hard work built the program.”
Not to mention some “smart politics,” said Dave Shay, one of the school’s early basketball players. “Drak was clearly the father of UNLV athletics. He got the recruits, he built the buildings, he got the money—he even got the meal tickets.”
In 1960, when he started the baseball program, Drakulich called the basketball players into his office with recruitment on his mind: “I said to Dave Shay, ‘What position do you play?’ And before he could answer, I said, ‘Well, you’re a catcher now.’ And he was.”
But basketball was mission No. 1. “The objective given to me by Dean Carlson,” Drakulich told me in a 1999 interview, “was to get some sort of team representing the university—even if we have to put a team in the city league.”
But Drakulich was able to go far beyond that. “Chub went out and got a full schedule,” Bilbray said, “including some powerhouse junior colleges.” In the first game, the Rebels were narrowly defeated by Southern Utah State, 57-52, and other losses followed to the likes of Dixie and Compton junior colleges. But the season ended with twin victories over the freshman team from the state’s big school, the University of Nevada, Reno.
The athletic budget in 1958 was $10,000, which had to cover the purchase of new equipment and uniforms, travel, referees, visiting-team guarantees and more. So the situation called for something beyond coaching—a combination of politicking and scrounging—to put the program together. Fortunately there was Chub, and a town hungry for a university with sports.
“We got tremendous support from the community,” Drakulich said. “The principals of Fremont and Martin junior highs let us use their gyms for practice.” And the director of the Dula Recreation Center, at Bonanza Road and Las Vegas Boulevard North, accommodated the Rebels, free of charge, for two practices a week and all the home games during their first two seasons.
There was no such thing as a training room at the Dula Center, according to Corky Poole, a student assistant who served as trainer. “I did most of the taping on the concrete steps leading to the handball court,” said Poole, who died in 2010 at age 71. “There was one small locker room, which we used for practices. But for games, the visiting team got that, so we dressed in the handball court.”
Jerry Hamel, a starting guard for the Rebels, remembers talking with opposing players after games—while sharing the showers. But the court was good, he said, and the sliding bleachers could hold quite a few fans. The crowds at the Dula Center are variously estimated to have run between 40 and a few hundred. It was a far cry from the 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center—and there certainly were no fireworks, decibel meters, nor spotlighted player introductions. But there were cheerleaders, including Landra Gould, the future wife of Sen. Harry Reid. And there was a mascot, Beauregard, a cartoonish wolf in a gray forage cap and uniform who would run around waving a Confederate flag.
Road games were another adventure. “The school district loaned us their stretch van for our trips,” Drakulich said. With this, and another car or two, trips were made to California, Utah and Arizona. “Dean Carlson often drove one of the vehicles. He was a great fan. Never missed a game.”
Another driver was the coach. “Chub had a terrible sense of direction in California,” Poole said. “He always got lost—no one wanted to ride with him. One game we had to start without him, and I had to be the coach. Fortunately, the starters were in my car.”
Within a few years the university acquired its own vehicles (a station wagon and a sedan), hired an assistant coach (Boyd Adams, then Ed Gregory) and built a 2,000-seat gym on campus (it’s now the Barrick Museum). The first game in the gym, in December 1960, was a victory over Cal Poly. “It was crowded,” Drakulich said. “The baskets were right behind the benches, and there was no parking lot. Regents would come to the game and get stuck in the sand and mud.” Completing the picture was the “Silver Fox”—Chub was prematurely gray—pulling up in his Volkswagen Beetle, cigar smoke rolling out the window.
Still light years from the Thomas & Mack, the new gym was a big improvement. By 1964 the Rebels had also begun playing a few home games at the Las Vegas Convention Center—a sign, according to Drakulich, of “entrance into big-time intercollegiate basketball.” In 1965 the school became Nevada Southern University and entered the NCAA’s college division. In 1969 NSU became UNLV, with a Division I athletic program.
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The key to building the program, of course, was assembling a winning team—and an exciting one. The first players were recruited locally. There was Bernie “Boom Boom” Fumagalli, a 6-foot-5 all-state forward from Basic High School. “We also called him ‘Bones,’” Hamel said. “He only weighed 165 pounds and didn’t look like he could play. But, boy, could he shoot.” And he didn’t hesitate. “Our rule,” Poole said, “was whenever in doubt, give the ball to Bernie and he’ll shoot it.” Fumagalli is still tied for 27th in total points scored at UNLV, tallying 1,122 over 61 games (an average of 18.4 per game) in three years. (The first graduating class was not until 1964, so Fumagalli and others finished their degrees at Reno.)
There was the 5-foot-9 Hamel from Las Vegas High, a player who “really brought the defenses out,” Drakulich said. “If only we’d had the 3-point line then.” And then there was Jimmy Jansen from Illinois, who just happened to be in town. Poole thought he was “one of the best guards in the country.”
It didn’t take Chub long to get into a regional recruiting mode. By the second year, he filled the post position when he got Don Helm, another Las Vegas High standout, to transfer from BYU. Others followed. Arlyn Hafen, an All-American guard, transferred from Dixie College. Several came from California junior colleges, including Gary Tapper, who turned down a scholarship from John Wooden at UCLA. He led the team in rebounding in 1962-63—in fact, his 14.1-per-game average that season has been exceeded only once at UNLV (in 1972-73 by Jimmie Baker, who averaged 15.1).
And then there was Tim Leonard, who led the team in scoring in 1961-62, and in rebounding both that year and the previous season. “He was our first big center, from the coal mines of Utah,” Shay said. “He was very mild-mannered, but when he got on the court he turned into an animal. He was a weightlifter with a vicious set of arms—and in those days you could use the elbows more. The lane could be a very unpleasant place.”
Shay, a Boulder City High graduate, was not recruited. He walked on in 1960, proved his mettle at guard and was awarded a Culinary Union Scholarship. Originally there had been no scholarships, and Chub worked hard to put together packages of benefits in order to draw and keep top athletes. Within a couple of years he had persuaded the university to grant tuition waivers, a value of $98.
Room-and-board arrangements were additional enticements. “There were no dorms,” Drakulich said, “so the coaches would help find them a place to live.” Often, according to some, the players wouldn’t have to worry about rent, reflecting booster enthusiasm and support. (There were no pesky NCAA regulations to be concerned about; the school was not a member.) And food? “Various places would help out by letting the players have a meal,” Drakulich said. The Flame, Plush House, Showboat and Alpine Village were among the team’s major supporters. “The out-of-town players always seemed to have meal tickets, places like the Riviera, the Showboat,” Shay said. “They would go in the back way and eat with the help.” Meanwhile, Bilbray recalled, “Chub would have barbecues in his backyard for the players—and so would Dean Carlson.”
Many players had part-time jobs during the academic year, lined up by the coach. Hamel cleaned rooms at Fremont Junior High on weekends—“and we really worked!” And Drakulich also found summer jobs for them: “I talked to one employer who said, “I’ll have three,’ Chub said. “When they reported, he said, ‘Now listen, boys. Politics got you here, but you gotta work to keep these jobs.’”
One of Drakulich’s later recruits was Silas Stepp, a high school kid from Louisiana who would visit relatives here during summer vacations and play basketball in the Dula Center league. One of the Rebels saw Stepp and reported back to Drakulich: “Coach, you better take a look at this guy.” Chub did, and Stepp, who had “fallen in love with Las Vegas,” transferred after one year at Southern University.
Stepp recalled Bob Welch, who worked for years at the Sahara, as a big booster who was at every game. “When I was in my first year, he took me down and had me fitted out for a new suit of clothes. And so we players would get some help with personal things.” Stepp had a job sweeping floors at Western High School. And he remembered getting a free meal once from Jackie Gaughan at the El Cortez. “Chub always got what he could for us,” said Stepp, who also recalled the apartment in the old Westside that “was taken care of for us, part of the scholarship.”
Stepp was the first black player on the team, but he said times were not unusually difficult for him. “Nothing overt, but some places when you played you could just feel the tension in the air.” Playing in Cedar City [Utah] once, an opponent told him that he was “the first black player he had ever seen.” But at home, “Chub treated us all like a team to make things go,” Stepp said. “We functioned like a team.”
The 6-foot, 225-pound power forward started every game for four years—106 in all. He led the team in scoring every season and was tops in rebounding his last three years. He is still the fifth all-time leading rebounder at UNLV with 895, and the fifth all-time scorer with 1,942 points.
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The 1962-63 season was transitional. Stepp’s first year turned out to be Chub’s last as basketball coach. There was the 21-4 record, the first two victories over the parent team to the north (UNR) and the win over Los Angeles State (now Cal State-Los Angeles). The latter was “the highlight of my coaching career,” Drakulich said. “Bill Sharman [an NBA Hall of Famer] was coaching them. It was a big school, about 18,000 students. We won here in overtime [103-96].”
But Drakulich will always be remembered for more than one particular win or season: His legacy is bringing the basketball program to the brink of success—to a point where, a decade later Tarkanian could step in and build a national power.
Drakulich didn’t really do it with X’s and O’s as much as enthusiasm. He was a player’s coach—direct, up front and he cared. “He could get fired up, turn red,” Shay said. “He didn’t do it often, but you definitely knew it when you had screwed up.” Stepp, who died in 2004 at the age of 60, described his coach in 1999 as a “good motivator with a smack-in-the-rear-and-get-out-there-and-get-’em philosophy. I played hard and I took pride in every game. It was part of the Chub thing.”
The “Chub thing” stuck with his players long after their glory days. “He was a big influence on everybody who played on the team,” said Shay, who went on to coach at Boulder City High for 28 years. Poole, who taught and coached in the Valley for 31 years, including 19 at Vo-Tech, spoke of “the wonderful way he treated people.”
“Chub is a good man,” Poole told me in 1999. “I have tried to model my life after him.”