The 2006 Kansas-Florida game was a game-changer

LAS VEGAS — Steve Stallworth began courting Kansas and Florida at Orleans Arena, the new barn he ran for Michael Gaughan on the premises of a sportsbook casino, nearly 20 years ago.

In May 2006, the NCAA abolished a rule stating that it had to certify these games. But even UNLV, where he was playing quarterback, declined Stallworth’s invitation, opting instead to play a home game in Utah when a rodeo was occupying his gymnasium.

Told by the Gators’ hierarchy that they would play if he could get the Jayhawks to commit, Stallworth eventually reached out to Larry Keating, a senior associate athletic director at Kansas.

In the summer of 2006, Keating visited, walked the 500 feet from the casino proper, via a connecting corridor over a side street, to the horseshoe-shaped arena and said, ” What’s wrong with that?”

There were no problems. Dick Vitale provided the ESPN2 color, and the No. 10 Jayhawks defeated the defending national champion and top-ranked Gators 82-80 in OT on Nov. 25, 2006.

Kansas fans, who made “tons of $20 bets,” Stallworth says, towered over the raucous sold-out crowd of 8,500.

This game helped Vegas become the nation’s de facto capital, and for the first time the city hosted five conference basketball tournaments.

It could have been six, but the South Point Arena – which Stallworth has run for Gaughan since 2008 – and the Big Sky couldn’t find dates.

“It’s Vegas, man,” said Stallworth, 57. “Every event that comes here, they increase their attendance by 30%. Vegas opens the door for all of us.

SKY CIRCLES

After that game, Kerry Keating, Larry’s son who coached Santa Clara, pressed Stallworth to coordinate bigger holiday deals and induce a conference to hold their tournament here.

Stallworth courted the West Coast Conference brass, and in 2009 the WCC moved its tournament to Orleans, as did the Western Athletic Conference in 2011.

In 2013, the Pac-12 moved into the MGM Grand Garden Arena, and four years later it moved into the T-Mobile Arena.

To further inject Vegas into its cutting-edge DNA, in July the Pac-12 hired George Kliavkoff, the former president of entertainment and sports at MGM Resorts International, as commissioner.

Kliavkoff also served on the board of directors of BetMGM, among the three largest American sports betting entities.

Since 2007, the Mountain West has occupied the Thomas & Mack Center. On Feb. 18, a Westgate SuperBook bettor, believing his home ground could serve as a springboard for UNLV, risked $400 in winning the national title at odds of 5,000 to 1, a potential windfall of $2 million.

The Big West traveled to Mandalay Bay last year but will occupy the new $84million loan center as the first event in the Southern Foothills starting Tuesday.

Other elements have shaped this Vegas round ball carnival.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to let states choose their own legalized sports betting fates, leading the NCAA to remove another rule that prohibited its championships from being held where sports betting are regulated.

Additionally, Allegiant Stadium was built to house Stallworth’s beloved Raiders. The league that has so long snubbed Vegas tourist commercials on its Super Bowl television broadcasts will play its showpiece game inside Allegiant in two years.

And the NCAA tournament’s West Regional will be held inside T-Mobile Arena next spring. A Final Four at Allegiant shortly after 2026, through which the event takes place, seems imminent.

Elite programs such as Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA conduct routine visits. And in December, the South Point hosted 43 men’s and women’s teams from all divisions.

“Crazy,” Stallworth said. “It’s not even a novelty anymore.”

SPOTTED GAMES

Stallworth is persistent. When he worked so diligently to pit the Jayhawks against the Gators in Orleans, even Gaughan, son of Vegas pioneer Jackie Gaughan, doubted his likelihood.

At one point, Stallworth slipped into Gaughan’s office and inquired about borrowing the Gaughan family’s private jet to help pull off this little miracle.

“That’s when he literally kicked me out of his office,” Stallworth laughs. When he supported Randall Cunningham at UNLV, he watched, learned, starved. As a starter, he beat Wisconsin in his senior season.

Being so close to Randall, Stallworth often came into contact with his older brother Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a standout guard at USC.

Sam started in the first all-black backfield in Division I football, with quarterback Jimmy Jones and halfback Clarence Davis. And on Sept. 12, 1970, Cunningham rushed for 135 yards and two touchdowns in USC’s 42-21 win over all-white Alabama.

Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant knew what he was doing bringing USC to Birmingham, and his college quickly got him on the football team.

Don Yaeger chronicled this game and its ramifications, along with Cunningham, in his 2006 book, “Turning of the Tide: How One Game Changed the South.”

Stallworth once asked Sam, who died in September, if he had ever thought of playing such an important role in this region.

“And Sam said, ‘Man, I was just trying to get on the travel team,'” Stallworth said.

”I say this to people who ask me if I ever thought a Kansas-Florida basketball game would change so much: ‘Man, I was just trying to book the building.’

“I wasn’t trying to do anything upsetting. The way it happened, we were the very first casino with a sportsbook to host a college game. But we were just trying to get content.

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