She’s the one.
According to a recent college sports diversity report by Dr. Richard Lapchick, white men held 78.9 percent of the 128 athletics director positions at FBS schools, white women held 7.0 percent of the jobs and athletics directors of color 14.1 percent. What was missing in the report (titled Assessing Diversity among Campus and Conference Leaders for Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Schools in the 2016-17 Academic Year)?
Not a single woman of color was an athletic director of an FBS school.
That changed in April, when Desiree Reed-Francois, 45, was appointed athletic director at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"This community believes in meritocracy, and as an institution, UNLV lives up to its values," said Reed-Francois of her pioneering role, giving credit to UNLV president Leonard Jessup for her hire.
Reed-Francois is modest about all she had done to make herself an excellent candidate for her new role. The sense of athletes as family has propelled Reed-Francois at every level of her career. Family was a big part of the reason why she went into the athletics administration field in the first place. Reed-Francois' darkest day in athletics administration was a loss, not of a game, but a person. Darren Hankins, only 21, was a promising wrestler at Virginia Tech when he drowned in a 2014 swimming accident at an abandoned quarry.
For Reed-Francois, it doesn't matter that Hankins wasn't on school property or at a sporting event -- or that she was an associate athletic director at Virginia Tech at the time.
"The athletes are our responsibility," said Reed-Francois, still getting choked up remembering Hankins' death. "That's the toughest part of this job."
A position related to sports was a longtime dream for Reed-Francois. She was in sixth grade and her beloved younger brother, Roman Reed, was in third grade when they first discussed the idea of a symbiotic job track and decided to make it happen. The children of a Mexican mother and an English father, they grew up in Northern California. In their grand plan, Roman was going to play in the NFL and Desiree would be his lawyer.
Both were on their way later, with Reed-Francois in law school and Reed a 6-foot-4 linebacker in college, when on Sept. 10, 1994, a tackle changed everything. In that moment, Reed broke his neck and became a quadriplegic.
In addition to completing her law degree at Arizona, Reed-Francois made sure to visit her brother every weekend. She also researched for hours online, finally finding a drug treatment that eventually improved his mobility, even though it was available only in Switzerland at the time.
Reed-Francois then embraced a new calling -- to help college athletes. She worked in various administration capacities at San Francisco, Cal, San Jose State, Santa Clara, Fresno State, Tennessee, Cincinnati (where she served as interim athletic director), Virginia Tech and now UNLV.
Her task at UNLV, as Reed-Francois sees it, is threefold. She aims to graduate leaders with a pathway to a meaningful career, relentlessly compete and win championships and serve as a point of pride and unity for the community.
"We appreciate all that Las Vegas does to support UNLV," Reed-Francois said.
Community support for UNLV has wavered of late. Freddy Hernandez is a lifelong Las Vegas resident and season-ticket holder for over a decade of the Runnin’ Rebels. He was dismayed while faithfully attending every home basketball game last season. He often saw paltry crowds of what he estimates were half of the venue’s capacity of nearly 18,000 at the Thomas and Mack Center.
"Fans were unhappy," Hernandez said.
Fairly or not, many fans judge an athletic director's effectiveness by how well one or two of the main programs perform. The tenure of Tina Kunzer-Murphy, the director that Reed-Francois is replacing, was likely doomed by how many fans perceived as botched handling of the men’s basketball program, which won a national championship in 1990. Coach Dave Rice was given a contract extension in 2015, then fired midseason in 2016, with his assistant Todd Simon named interim. New coach Chris Beard was only on the job at UNLV for 19 days before departing to Texas Tech. UNLV had to scramble to replace Beard with Marvin Menzies, the current coach.
While the football program at UNLV has never reached the historic highs of the basketball program, expectations for the program have climbed partly due to a brand-new football complex being built and anticipation the team will eventually share a stadium with the NFL's Raiders when the team arrives in the city.
UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez was pleased to welcome Reed-Francois as a partner in the cause of improving the football program.
"I was really excited, knowing her background," Sanchez said of first hearing about Reed-Francois' appointment. "She's had a lot of success."
Fundraising has been a particular skill of Reed-Francois, and unlike her predecessor, Reed-Francois has direct control over campus venues, including the stadium, to plan for events.
"That's going to be a big deal," said Sanchez, who has proved to be no slouch at fundraising during his two years as a Rebels coach. "There's a lot of things an athletic director can do to help us be more successful."
Under Sanchez, the UNLV football program's progress has been incremental but steady. Overall, Sanchez is 7–16–0 since 2015,, with a .304 win percentage.
"We are really trying to change the history and the culture of the football program, which hasn't had a lot of success in a long time," Sanchez said.
Las Vegas residents could lose interest in a rebuilding program, with new sporting options around such as the NHL's Vegas Golden Knights or the Raiders -- when they arrive. Reed-Francois isn’t overly concerned.
"It is a great opportunity for us to highlight Las Vegas as a top sports city," Reed-Francois stated. "We have, with the Raiders, the Knights, with UNLV, with the new stadium coming on board, with UFC, this amazing city."
While at Virginia Tech, Reed-Francois was in charge of day-to-day operations for 22 programs and more than 600 student-athletes. She helped ticket, marketing and licensing revenue climb more than 20 percent over the last two years of her time there.
Hernandez believes Reed-Francois has the potential to help transform UNLV into a much better program, which fans long to see. He pointed out her experience at schools in more prestigious conferences and how a long-time ambition of UNLV has been to depart the Mountain West Conference.
"Our main focus is to get into a Power 5 conference," Hernandez stated. "We think Desiree can help us do that."
Difficulty might arise if the football program doesn't start to win big. Schools with middling records aren’t invited to a better conference.
"If we're still 4-6, or 6-6, she’s going to have a tough decision," Hernandez said, wondering if Reed-Francois would be willing to move on from Sanchez.
Tough calls might lie ahead for Reed-Francois, but for now, she is getting situated at UNLV in a hands-on way. She officially began her tenure at UNLV on June 1. Instead of staying in a hotel, Reed-Francois lived in an on-campus dorm for her first month of the job before joining her husband, Joshua, and son, Jackson, in a Las Vegas residence.
It's clear she already considers her UNLV colleagues part of the family, just as she does the athletes. Reed-Francois said she is honored to make NCAA FBS history as a Latina, but she also believes her accomplishment fits into the larger story of UNLV.
"We have a Hispanic football coach, athletic director. We have an African-American basketball coach. We have a woman who coaches our women's basketball program," Reed-Francois pointed out. "We talk at UNLV about being, 'Different, daring and diverse.'"
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