Chris Ault says the Nevada Wolf Pack football program will be fighting an uphill battle in the Mountain West Conference.
"The football part will take care of itself," said Ault, who opened his 28th season as the Wolf Pack head football coach earlier this week. "The football will be good and we'll be able to compete right away. But the biggest difference for us going into this new conference are all the resources the other Mountain West schools have at this time. There is a definite gap between those schools and us right now when it comes to their support systems in place. We know there's a gap."
The Wolf Pack will open their first season in the Mountain West with a non-league game at California on Sept. 1. The Pack's Mountain West season opens, oddly enough, with a game against former Western Athletic Conference foe Hawaii on Sept. 22. That is kind of a fitting Mountain West opener for the Pack since, as Ault said, the football part on the field in the new conference won't be all that different from what Pack fans have seen in recent seasons.
More than half of the Pack's eight Mountain West games this season are against teams they played just a year ago either as a non-conference game (UNLV, Boise State, New Mexico) or as a WAC game (Fresno State and Hawaii). The only relatively unfamiliar opponents on the Pack's Mountain West schedule this year will be Air Force, Wyoming and San Diego State. They've never played Air Force and they last played Wyoming in 2000 and San Diego State in 2004.
"The conference is a good conference," Ault said. "Whether there is parity or not, I don't know yet."
The Wolf Pack was picked by the conference's media last month to finish second in the Mountain West behind Boise State, another former WAC team.
"I think that is just a nice acknowledgement to our tradition and our past successes," Ault said of the second place prediction. "But those things don't help you win games."
The Wolf Pack has had mixed success in its first year after joining a new conference. They joined the Far Western Conference in 1925 and went 3-1. They rejoined the Far Western Conference in 1954 after 13 seasons as an independent and went 2-3.
But that was Wolf Pack football B.C. (before Chris).
The Pack joined the Big Sky Conference in 1979 after another 10 years as an independent and went 5-2 in Ault's fourth season as head coach. The Pack joined the Big West Conference in 1992 under Ault, who was now also the athletic director, and went 5-1, won the league and became the first Division I-AA school in history to qualify for a bowl game in its very first year in I-A. And in 2000 the Pack jumped to the WAC and went 1-7.
"I hear a lot of people talking like this is going to be another rebuilding year," said senior guard Chris Barker, referring to last year's disappointing 7-6 season after a 13-1 season in 2010. "But as seniors we don't look at it that way. This is our last year. We don't feel we are rebuilding. We feel like we have a chance to beat every team on our schedule."
Barker said the move to the Mountain West has pumped new energy into the program.
"It's always exciting to go and see new places and play new competition," Barker said. "That's exciting. Nothing against the WAC because that was good football, too. But this is definitely a step up. But it's not a step we can't handle. We can handle it."
"Everyone is excited about going to the Mountain West," quarterback Cody Fajardo said. "We've seen a lot of those teams in the past few years so it won't be a huge difference for us. But we also know we have to work that much harder."
Ault isn't all that worried about the 2012 season on the field. His concerns right now are with the Wolf Pack's ability to compete on a consistent basis in the Mountain West well into the future.
"Right now we don't have the resources that the other schools in the Mountain West have," Ault said. "A lot of those schools have been at this level a long time, like Colorado State, San Diego State, Air Force, UNLV. And they want to get better. We're not there yet as far as resources. That's what we have to build.
"A lot of people have asked me lately what I think about the move to the new conference. I tell them the challenge is not the football part. It's the resources. Those are the things that build your football program."
Ault said the entire Wolf Pack community must take an active part in helping to build those resources.
"The best slogan we've had here since I've been here is 'One Community, One Pack,'" Ault said. "That's what it's really about. I know right now is a tough time to talk about raising money. But that's the challenge we're facing. There's no question that I'm pushing hard right now for an indoor practice facility. We've got to get that. But we need to build those resources and the first thing we have to do is fill the stadium every week. But we can't do that without the community."
The Wolf Pack averaged just 15,776 fans to its six home games in 2011, it's lowest average home attendance since 2005 (15,076). Last year's home attendance, though, was likely influenced by the fact that the Pack was just 1-3 when it played its first home game. There was also a lack of attractive opponents on the home schedule other than UNLV as well as the season being the Pack's lame-duck season in the WAC, a league last year that did not include the Pack's chief WAC foe, Boise State.
This year's home schedule includes South Florida, Northwestern State, Wyoming, San Diego State, Fresno State and Boise State. It's a home schedule that has enough new teams to at least pique the fans' interest. And the Boise game, which drew 30,712 fans on Nov. 26, 2010 at Mackay Stadium, alone should guarantee an average home attendance this season better than last year's figure.
"Everybody is optimistic right now," Ault said. "But optimism never won a football game."
Ault, who has four seasons remaining on his current contract (through 2015), also shares in that optimism despite his financial concerns about the long-term health of the program.
"When the national people start talking about college football, we're in the conversation now," Ault said. "We're not the (top) name they mention but we're in the conversation. That wasn't the case five, six years ago.
"But we have a lot of challenges ahead. But those are the growing pains we'll have to go through. The schools we're now competing against have been at the major college level a lot longer than us. We have to get to that level. But we're in the chase and that's the important thing. That's the challenge. We have to join the hunt, on the field and off the field. And we will."