Kansas-Florida matchup in 2006 was a real game changer

It paved the way for Vegas to become the capital of college hoops.

SHARE Kansas-Florida matchup in 2006 was a real game changer
Steve Stallworth can take credit for helping to make Las Vegas a big college basketball locale.

Steve Stallworth can take credit for helping to make Las Vegas a big college basketball locale.

Courtesy of the Las Vegas Sun

LAS VEGAS — Steve Stallworth began wooing Kansas and Florida to the Orleans Arena, the newish barn he managed for Michael Gaughan on the premises of a casino with a sportsbook, nearly 20 years ago.

In May 2006, the NCAA abolished a rule stating it had to certify such games. But even UNLV, where he played quarterback, declined Stallworth’s invitation, instead opting to play a home game in Utah when a rodeo occupied its gym.

Told by Gators hierarchy that they’d play if he could get the Jayhawks to commit, Stallworth finally connected with Larry Keating, a Kansas senior associate athletic director.

In the summer of ’06, Keating visited, strolled the 500 feet from the casino proper, via a connector hallway over a side street, to the horseshoe-shaped arena and said, “What’s the problem with this?”

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

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

That game helped Vegas become the country’s de facto hoops capital, and for the first time the city is playing host to five basketball conference tournaments.

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

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


After that game, Kerry Keating, Larry’s son who coached Santa Clara, pressed Stallworth about coordinating bigger holiday affairs and luring a conference into staging its tournament here.

Stallworth courted West Coast Conference brass, and in 2009, the WCC shifted its tournament to the 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 T-Mobile Arena.

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

Kliavkoff also sat on the board of BetMGM, among the three largest U.S. sports-betting entities.

Since 2007, the Mountain West has occupied the Thomas & Mack Center. On Feb. 18, a Westgate SuperBook bettor, believing its home court might springboard UNLV, risked $400 on it winning the national title at 5,000-to-1 odds, a potential $2 million windfall.

The Big West went to Mandalay Bay last year but will occupy the new $84 million Dollar Loan Center, as its maiden event in the southern foothills, beginning Tuesday.

Other elements fashioned this Vegas roundball carnival.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to let states choose their own legalized sports-betting fates, which led the NCAA to extinguish another rule that prohibited its championships from being staged where sports wagering is regulated.

Plus, Allegiant Stadium was built to house Stallworth’s beloved Raiders. The league that for so long had snubbed Vegas tourism ads on its Super Bowl telecasts will play its marquee game inside Allegiant in two years.

And the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament will take place inside T-Mobile Arena next spring. A Final Four at Allegiant soon after 2026, through which the event is set, appears imminent.

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

“Crazy,” Stallworth says. “It isn’t even a novelty anymore.”


Stallworth is persistent. When he was toiling so diligently to pit the Jayhawks against the Gators at the Orleans, even Gaughan, son of Vegas pioneer Jackie Gaughan, doubted its likelihood.

At one drawn-out point, Stallworth ducked into Gaughan’s office and inquired about borrowing the Gaughan family’s private jet to help pull off this minor miracle.

“That’s when he literally kicked me out of his office,” the easygoing Stallworth says, laughing. When he backed up Randall Cunningham at UNLV, he watched, learned, stayed hungry. As a starter, he’d beat Wisconsin his senior season.

Being so tight with Randall, Stallworth often came in contact with his older brother Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a standout fullback at USC.

Sam started in Division I football’s first all-Black backfield, with quarterback Jimmy Jones and tailback Clarence Davis. And on Sept. 12, 1970, Cunningham ran for 135 yards and two touchdowns in USC’s 42-21 victory at all-white Alabama.

Crimson Tide coach Paul “Bear” Bryant knew what he was doing by bringing USC to Birmingham, and his university soon allowed him to integrate his football team.

Don Yaeger chronicled that game and its ramifications, 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 ever thought about playing such a profound role in that region.

“And Sam said, ‘Man, I was just trying to make the travel team,’ ’’ Stallworth says.

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

“I wasn’t trying to do anything earth-shattering. The way it went down, 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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