Recalling days of Nevada’s ‘Wild West’
Three men have served as Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association executive director since the position was created in 1974: Eddie Bonine, Jerry Hughes and Bert Cooper.
Bonine announced earlier this month that he is stepping down in early 2015 to accept the same position as chief of interscholastic sports in Louisiana and recently took time to review his eight years on the year and some issues the successor will face. To provide further insight on the job, Cooper and Hughes shared some of their experiences during a 2012 interview.
Between them, Bert Cooper and Jerry Hughes represent more than three decades of experience in the role as NIAA executive director.
Cooper became the NIAA’s first executive director in 1974 and served 17 years until Hughes came on board in the fall of 1990 and remained until his retirement in 2006. The NIAA, a non-profit corporation, was officially founded in 1922.
In between, sort of like a Clint Eastwood western, they saw the good, the bad, and the ugly. There have been some good laughs along the way, too.
Hughes remembers his introduction to Nevada sports being a 1973 basketball game in Zephyr Cove, where he was assigned to work with former Wooster football coach Ray Gonzalves.
It didn’t take long to realize he was no longer in Ohio.
“I was officiating a basketball game at Whittell High School; I had just moved here and this guy is giving us a hard time from the stands. Ray blows his whistle, stops the game and walks over to the guy and says, ‘You open your mouth one more time and it’s you and me in the parking lot,’” Hughes said. “And I’m going, ‘Wow! This is the Wild West!’ Needless to say, the guy settled down, but I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
Speaking of the Wild West, Cooper is able to smile now when he recalls a state basketball tournament during the 1970s in Las Vegas when the NIAA was the victim of a holdup.
“We got robbed and lost $5,000,” he said. “We had these little booths set up outside, so you didn’t go in the building to buy your tickets, and that was a mistake.”
“What other state tournament has been robbed? … Like a stagecoach,” Hughes added with a laugh.
Cooper served as state director of curriculum prior to accepting the NIAA post. Before that, he spent 11 years as a teacher and coach in Nevada and Colorado.
Under his direction, the NIAA expanded from 51 member schools to 69. He also oversaw the transition of girls sports from Girls Athletic Association (GAA) status to becoming NIAA-sanctioned during the mid-1970s.
“There were no real regulations. There was no handbook … just this,” Cooper said, pointing to a four-page directory of Nevada high schools.
When Cooper retired in 1990, he talked Hughes into applying for the vacancy. Among other people, James “Fred” Huckaby, Chris Nenzel (then at Douglas High School), Bruce Miller and Judy Cameron also applied for the position.
When Hughes came aboard, the NIAA did receive funding from the State of Nevada, but operation was far from smooth sailing in 1990.
“I’ll never forget the first day I met with Bert,” said Hughes, who had previously served as director of student activities for Washoe County. “He said, ‘Now, I’ve had to borrow money to pay our salary. And I went, ‘What!’ I thought, ‘What the heck am I getting into?’”
One of the first things Hughes did after looking at the NIAA finances was revise the state championships for all sports, including a concept of holding the state basketball tournament in Reno while football and track and field championships were held in Las Vegas. It started with a brand new format in which all four state football championship games were played on a single day at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, a format that continued until the fall of 1998.
“I always thought — I’m from Ohio and high school sports are a big deal back there — if we put four football games in one site, man, people are going to come watch that,” Hughes said. “It was always disappointing to me that didn’t catch on and more people didn’t go.”
Corporate sponsorship of high school athletics was just in its infancy at that time.
“When I took over, corporate sponsorship was just starting in this country,” Hughes said. “North Carolina, Oregon were like the first states. So the first couple of meetings I was trying to figure out how we could do it in Nevada.”
Pizza Hut came in as the first corporate sponsor that covered all sports, according to Hughes. He vividly remembers the day he received a phone call from U.S. Bank, at that time the corporate sponsor for Oregon high school athletics.
“She goes, ‘Would you be interested in a corporate sponsorship?’ I said, ‘We’d be interested in talking about it, yeah.’ She says, ‘How does the figure $150,000 sound?’ I about collapsed out of my chair.”
Hughes said he didn’t want to act overly anxious but it was all he could do to try and restrain his enthusiasm. He negotiated an agreement for the $150,000 in addition to office space — plus furniture — at the U.S. Bank building in downtown Reno.
“Bert had used the same desk for his whole time, so I can tell you that in 34 years the NIAA never bought a desk,” Hughes said, laughing.
Another accomplishment Hughes takes pride is the two-day format still used for the state track and field championships. The format features scheduling in which all four classes, both boys and girls, is balanced so athletes are able to compete in separate events on each. For example, distance runners don’t have to double up in the 1,600 and 3,200 on the same day.
“It’s the only one of its kind in the country,” Hughes said. “I brought in the top track coaches in the state; they were the ones who came up with it and it’s never changed.”
Needless to say, there were some extremely challenging issues. One of the big changes that did occur through the 1980s and ’90s was a sharp rise in litigation, including judicial restraining orders on NIAA decisions.
Pat Dolan of Reno was the NIAA’s first legal counsel, and started at a salary of $500 for his first year, according to Cooper. It didn’t take long before Dolan saw how much time was involved and asked for an increase to $500 per month — still an “unbelievable” sum for legal counsel by today’s standards.
“Pat’s dad was a principal and football coach at Winnemucca,” Hughes said. “He just wanted to help us out.”
Cooper and Hughes agreed that eligibility matters are always the most difficult.
“Bert and I were in court all the time,” Hughes said. “I mean, you would literally get up in the morning and get a call telling you, ‘Hey, there’s a court case at 10 o’clock down in Las Vegas.’ That’s how much notification they’d give you, so you’d have to get your lawyer and fly down there to go to court.”
Hughes recalled another 19-year-old eligibility ruling that resulted from what would seem to be an unbelievable set of circumstances.
“It used to be you couldn’t turn 19 before Sept. 1,” he said. “This is how you interpret the rule: A set of twins is born, one before midnight, one after midnight on Sept. 1. One’s eligible, one’s not, by rule. Is that amazing? Of course, I common-sensed the rule and said we’re going to make them both eligible. But you know what? People found out about it. Then it was, ‘What’s the difference? A rule’s a rule.’”
One of the tougher calls Hughes remembers having to make involved an undefeated Las Vegas high school football team that was determined to have its quarterback ineligible academically — and had to forfeit 10 games the day before the playoffs began on Saturday. The Southern playoff brackets were completely revamped and all the teams were forced to open the playoffs on Monday night.
Hughes received another of those memorable phone calls after handing down a decision.
“A Las Vegas high school guy calls me, and he says, ‘You’re no better than Adolf Hitler lining innocent people up against a wall and shooting them.’ I said, ‘That’s a pretty strong analogy,’ and I just slammed the phone down,” he said.
Hughes remembered another time when parents filed for divorce before the start of the football season so one could move to the McQueen district and then remarried right after McQueen played in the state championship game.
Friendships on the job were constantly subject to change and challenge, he noted.
“You have to make rulings on your friends and I can tell you one of my friends didn’t talk to me for 10 years,” Hughes said. “I’ve been threatened, people have called me in the middle of the night. I remember one time when Pat and I had a case in Las Vegas and they actually called and told us to look underneath the car before we started it. I’m like, ‘What!’”
Hughes compared the executive director’s job to being a law enforcement officer. In some cases, it was a no-win situation.
“I am a guy who always likes to give people second chances,” he said. “That’s the way I coached. But in this job, you have a set of rules and you enforce them. If you don’t enforce them and you don’t do it consistently, you’re in trouble. And sometimes you’re wondering, ‘How did this rule ever come about?’”
There is at least one special aspect of serving in this post, Hughes observed.
“Probably the one thing about the job I enjoyed the most, there’s only one person in the United States in every state that has this job,” he said. “So you have a close-knit group of people. If you have a question and call these guys — and these are some big states — every single one of them will get back to you within the hour, and it’s because of the respect everybody has for each other.”