Sports fodder for a Friday morning...You could argue this has been the worst basketball season in the history of the Nevada Wolf Pack athletic department.
This is the first season, since the women’s team began in 1981-82, both the men’s and women’s teams have each lost 20 games. It’s just the fifth time both the men and women have finished with losing records in the same season. The two programs have gone a combined 70-112 over the last three seasons. Both teams are mired in 10th place right now in the 11-team Mountain West. Lawlor Events Center has been as empty and lifeless all season as a flower shop the day after Valentine’s Day. Confidence, as well as promise and hope for the future, is at an all-time low in both programs.
Men’s coach David Carter and women’s coach Jane Albright are former athletic director Cary Groth’s parting gifts to the University of Nevada. Groth hired them both as head coaches (she also worked for 10 years at Northern Illinois with Albright) and then gave them both contract extensions. She extended Albright through the 2015-16 season after the Pack women went 22-11 in 2010-11 and she extended Carter through the 2016-17 season after the Pack men went 28-7 in 2011-12. And now current athletic director Doug Knuth is stuck watching both coaches lose. It might be time for Knuth to take time out from all his shoulder slapping and handshaking to be bold and aggressive and finally put his stamp on both programs.
Slapping shoulders and shaking hands, after all, isn’t putting people into the seats at Lawlor.
Albright has gone 153-236 in her last 13 seasons as a head coach at Wisconsin, Wichita State and Nevada. Groth hired Albright at Nevada after Albright turned in consecutive nine-win seasons at Wichita State. Carter, who was named as Mark Fox’s replacement in the spring of 2009 faster than you can say Cary Groth, has had a losing record in four of the last five years. When Carter took over the program he declared, “This program is not going backward. I promise that.”
Well, he hasn’t kept his promise. Knuth, above all else, is a businessman.
The days of old coaches like Jake Lawlor, Dick Trachok and Chris Ault running athletic departments are over. The suits, backslappers and handshakers have taken over. Everything they do is a business decision. They are show-me-the-money people. They are fundraisers. And it’s difficult to raise funds when two of your most high profile programs are putting the community to sleep.
The Nevada Wolf Pack baseball team’s success this season might be all about the baseball. The NCAA went to a flat seam baseball this season and the Pack, which leads the nation in home runs with 17, certainly loves the change. “It’s cutting through the wind,” third baseman Ryan Howell, who leads the nation with six homers, told the Associated Press this week.
“You can see it fly off the bat.” said Coach Jay Johnson, who also loves the new ball. “I’m an offensive-minded coach so I like the fact that the power element is back.” Pack baseball, which plays its home games a mile above sea level, is also back.
It’s not all about the ball, though, with the Pack. Howell is the biggest reason why the Pack seems to be headed to its first NCAA Regional since 2000. The slugger leads the Pack in hitting (.450) and leads the nation in homers (six) and RBI (22). He’s arguably the best player in college baseball right now and might be the University of Nevada’s best recruit since a skinny kid named Colin Kaepernick came to town in 2006. Howell spent two seasons on Oregon State’s bench before injuring his shoulder and losing his scholarship. Johnson, a Knuth hire, by the way, certainly justified his reputation as a great recruiter by signing Howell off the scrap heap last April.
Howell and Austin Byler, who might both be playing professional baseball in July, just might be the Pack’s best one-two punch since the days of Lyle Overbay and Joe Inglett from 1997-99. Toss in Trenton Brooks and we’re talking Wolf Pack murderers row.
Byler, Howell and Brooks have combined for 13 homers, 43 runs and 55 RBI through a mere 12 games. They have also combined for 34 walks and have been hit by a pitch 17 times. They are always on base, always driving in and scoring runs. The Pack teams of the 1990s were deeper (they also had the likes of Don Price, Matt Ortiz, Justin Martin, Corky Miller, Andy Dominique and Ryan Church among others). But those teams had supersonic bats. This Pack team just has a flat seam ball.
If there is a concern with this Wolf Pack baseball team right now, it’s pitching. Pitching is always the concern in college baseball. It was the reason the great Wolf Pack teams of the 1990s never even sniffed the College World Series. Starters Jason Deitrich and Christian Stolo and relievers Adam Whitt, Jojo Romero and Cam Rowland have combined to strike out 61 and walk just 18. Everybody else on the staff has combined to fan 28 and walk 29. If this pitching staff all starts to throw strikes consistently, look out. The Pack just might do more than simply sniff the College World Series.