How much does Doug Knuth care about the sport of football at the University of Nevada?
We are going to find out in the next few weeks.
If the Nevada athletic director believes that football is the great untapped natural resource of the Wolf Pack athletic department, he will fire head coach Brian Polian within 48 hours after the season’s final game on Nov. 26 at UNLV.
If Knuth believes that football is merely an exhibition sport serving as a glorified bake sale to raise funds for the rest of the athletic department, he will do nothing. He will lazily delay any decision about football’s future and allow Polian to serve out the final year of his original five-year contract next season.
What’s it gonna be, Doug? Can you see paradise by the Mackay Stadium lights?
We gotta know right now.
Knuth has three choices later this month. He can award Polian an early Christmas gift in the form of a two-year contract extension. He can do absolutely nothing regarding Polian’s future and let the head coach, his staff, the players (current and future), the fans and the entire program twist in the wind for another year. Or he can axe Polian after the official end of the regular season.
The first choice would make everyone question Knuth’s sanity. The second choice would be cruel for everyone involved. The third choice would win Knuth the popular vote and the approval of the electoral college.
What’s it gonna be, Dougie? OK, you can sleep on it for the next two weeks.
Nothing, though, that happens in the next two weeks should affect Knuth’s decision. The decision should already be made, the rocket should already be locked in, pointed to the sky and awaiting just the final countdown. Wins over awful Utah State and UNLV teams the next two weeks are not proof that Polian is the right man to lead the Wolf Pack into the future. Two more losses also should not make any difference at this point. If Knuth is still undecided this morning whether or not Polian should stay or go after 10 games this season and 48 games over the last four years then maybe it’s time we start looking at his contract situation.
What should Knuth do?
Giving Polian a contract extension, given all that we’ve seen this year, would be unthinkable. The soon-to-be 42-year-old career special teams coach - before former athletic director Cary Groth quickly ramrodded him in as head coach in January 2013 - has done nothing to earn a contract extension.
He has a career record of 21-27 overall and 17-27 against Division I-A (FBS) teams. He has no division titles and just one ugly bowl victory. Polian’s .438 winning percentage ranks him eighth among the 12 men who coached the Pack program for four or more years. His record in conference games is 12-18. His overall record after Sept. 30 is 11-20. His record away from Mackay Stadium is 7-18. He’s never given Pack fans the gift of beating UNLV at Mackay Stadium.
If all that screams “contract extension” to Knuth, well, there will be a lot of screaming around Northern Nevada and there will be more high definition televisions at Mackay Stadium than fans.
Not doing anything concerning Polian’s future also sends a bad message. Knuth, it seems, won’t merely peak his head out of his comfy little athletic director’s hole on Nov. 27, look at the sky above for a moment and then crawl back in and sleep for another year. If that was the case, David Carter would still be the Pack’s men’s basketball coach. Knuth didn’t come to Nevada to watch his career stagnate or die on the vine like a green tomato still clinging to the plant at Thanksgiving.
If he does nothing with Polian later this month, then he is allowing the football program to die on the vine. A lame duck head coach is a slow death for a program. It doesn’t fix a problem. It prolongs a problem. Why would any recruit, other than those with no other options, come to Nevada to play for a coach who could be fired after a year? Why would the assistant coaches do anything other than work on their resumes all season long? Why would an already fickle fan base have even a sliver of confidence in the program?
Wolf Pack fans have already told Knuth what to do. Now it’s just a matter of Knuth caring about what they want. Attendance has gone down in each of Polian’s last three seasons. The program got a small attendance bump of about 1,500 fans a game from Chris Ault’s final year in 2012 to Polian’s first year in 2013. And that was after a 7-6 season in 2012 by a head coach that will forever be the standard by which all Pack coaches are judged. Imagine what kind of attendance bump the Pack will get in 2017 after replacing a guy that wins five or fewer games.
Polian’s attendance numbers, though, have dwindled in each of the last three years, down about 1,000 in 2014 and about 1,700 in 2015. This year the average attendance has shrunk over 2,600 from last year to just 19,523. Last week just 16,730 showed up to see one of the best teams (San Diego State) in the country and one of the greatest running backs (Donnel Pumphrey) in NCAA history.
Knuth is a bottom line guy. If the Pack is looking for a new head coach next month you can be sure the number of empty seats at Mackay Stadium this year is the reason.
Pack fans have grown tired of Polian’s stale Emperor’s New Clothes act. The last three years he paraded around town naked and telling everyone that he had on the best and finest suit of clothes. He told everyone that the program was improving and growing and if you didn’t agree, you were too stupid or incompetent to see it. Well, this year everyone, either vocally or by their absence, is screaming out, “Hey, he isn’t wearing anything at all.”
The Pack is clearly not improving. The football program is simply running around naked these days. A quick glance at the numbers suggests that the 3-7 record isn’t merely the product of a few unfortunate bounces of the ball. Polian keeps telling us (before last week’s 46-16 debacle against San Diego State, that is) that the team is losing close games because it simply hasn’t paid enough attention to the details.
Well, the following “details” suggest that there are some gargantuan problems.
The Wolf Pack offense is 11th in the 12-team Mountain West in scoring and yards gained. The Wolf Pack’s time of possession is 11th in the conference. Yes, this is the Wolf Pack we’re talking about, for decades known as the Biggest Little Offense in the nation. The defense is last in the conference in rushing defense and 11th overall in yards allowed. And it’s not just offense and defense. The Pack’s special teams are arguably the worst in the conference. Nevada is 11th in the conference in kickoff returns, eighth in kickoff coverage, seventh in punt returns and sixth in punt coverage. Their kickers are last in both extra points and field goals.
Not even Emperor Polian can deny all those numbers. That’s why, from about the middle of the season on, he has changed his story. He’s no longer parading around town and telling us he’s dressed in a fine suit of clothes. He’s now going around town telling us someone stole his suit.
Polian wants you to believe that the reason for the team’s 3-7 record right now is because of unfortunate injuries, that the team is a Mash unit hobbling home from the war. He has said repeatedly that the team has been decimated by injuries.
Decimated might be too strong of a word.
The entire starting offensive line has remained in one piece almost the entire season. Four of the starters (Austin Corbett, Nathan Goltry, Jeremy Macauley and Jacob Henry) have started all 10 games. The other (Sean Krepsz) has started eight.
Starting tight end Jarred Gipson and running back James Butler have both started all 10 games. Starting wide receivers Wyatt Demps and Jerico Richardson have both played in all 10 games and started nine. Another wide receiver, Andrew Celis, has played in all 10 and started two. Hasaan Henderson has missed just two games.
Starting quarterback Tyler Stewart suffered a season-ending injury in the eighth game of the year but his replacement (Ty Gangi) has been even better. Polian, typically, is quick to criticize Gangi every game (after previously always defending Stewart) because, well, heaping over-the-top praise on Gangi doesn’t really fit into his woe-is-me-we’re-decimated-by-injuries narrative.
The defense has been just as healthy. Defensive linemen Malik Reed, Jordan Silva, Nakita Lealao, Hausia Sekona, Korey Rush, Kalei Meyer and Patrick Choudja have all played in all 10 games. Jarid Joseph has played in nine. Polian, though, will only tell you that defensive tackle Salesa Faraimo, a guy with just 68 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss in his three previous season combined, suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 and that is the reason why the Pack allows nearly 300 yards rushing a game.
The three starting linebackers (Alex Bertrando, Gabe Sewell and Jaden Sawyer) have all played at least nine games. Backup linebacker Austin Paulhus has played in nine and L.J. Jackson has played in eight. Another backup, Travis Wilson, played in seven.
All four of the starters in the secondary have played in at least nine games. Three of them - Asauni Rufus, Dameon Baber and Kendall Johnson - have started all 10. Backup E.J. Muhammad has played in all 10 games and Elijah Moody has played in eight.
Polian, though, wants you to believe that the Wolf Pack is going out there each week after going to Meadowood Mall on Monday morning to find three defensive linemen, two linebackers and a couple safeties. And on Tuesday they go to the Summit Mall to find an offensive linemen or two and a couple wide receivers.
Let’s hope Knuth is smarter than that.
Polian’s weekly excuse of blaming this ugly season on injuries (real or imagined) is also damaging to the fabric of the team. He is basically blaming the losses on the backups (even though hardly any of them are actually playing). Whatever happened to the old Next Man Up philosophy? Isn’t an injury just an opportunity for someone else to show what they can do? Not on this Pack team. An injury is merely part of Polian’s This is Not My Fault plot to this season.
Polian falls just short of telling us after every loss that because of injuries the Pack is playing just eight guys on defense and only nine on offense. Well, it might look that way at times (especially on defense) but I can assure you there are 11 Pack players on the field at all times. And, for the most part, those 11 are the starters he chose at the beginning of the season.
Nobody is saying the Pack hasn’t suffered injuries. All football teams suffer injuries during a season. But we are saying that injuries aren’t the reason why this team has underachieved this season.
It is now up to Knuth to figure out the real reason. It is also up to the Pack athletic director to determine why his university even offers the sport of football. That’s how important his decision later this month will be for the university moving forward.
Does the Wolf Pack have football merely to help pay for all of the other sports? Does the sport exist at Nevada just so the school can share in the television riches that run college sports? At Nevada, after all, you don’t have to be good to get on national TV. All you have to do is play at 7:30 p.m. Is the ceiling for this football program just 5-7 victories every year and a meaningless bowl game? Is the best Nevada football can do is finish a game or two over .500 with a nine or 10-win season sprinkled in once a decade?
If that is truly the case then it really doesn’t matter who is the head coach. It can be Brian Polian or Brian Griffin on Family Guy.
If mediocrity is the reality of Pack football then Knuth doesn’t have to do anything after this season concerning his head football coach. He can continue to simply dump millions of dollars into Mackay Stadium and turn it into the biggest outdoor sports bar in northern Nevada complete with gigantic high definition televisions that can be seen from space. The more alcohol you consume, after all, the less the final score hurts after the game.
But here’s hoping that Knuth sees all of the tremendous possibilities that this football program once flashed before our eyes. Remember the post 2010 glow? You might not have been able to see that Wolf Pack glow from space but you can bet they saw it in Boise.
Chris Ault’s dream was to make the Wolf Pack the next Boise State. Yes, it was his fault that the Wolf Pack wasn’t the first Boise State. But he was dedicated to fixing that problem. Polian tells us almost every week that the Pack is not Alabama or Ohio State, that Mountain West schools should only expect to win six or seven games most every year, that the Pack budget is too small and the facilities aren’t good enough. He’ll tell you the athletes they get are all long-term projects.
Ault told us about the facilities and the budget, too. He told us about the players he signed. But he also told his team to go out and win nine games. Every single year. No excuses. It didn’t always happen but when it didn’t he made sure everyone knew that it was unacceptable.
Mediocrity wasn’t Ault’s dream. That’s why he fired a football coach (Chris Tormey) after that coach won six games and had his best season out of four. If Ault was the current athletic director, he probably would have fired Polian on Monday morning just so he could take over the team and go beat UNLV in two weeks.
Mediocrity was never the Wolf Pack ceiling when Ault was the coach. The dream was to become the next Boise State, a mid-major that does indeed win nine or 10 games every year. A mid-major that competes for a conference championship each and every year.
That was Ault’s dream. That was the dream of all Pack fans.
Now we’ll find out if it is Knuth’s dream.