Nevada Wolf Pack fans witnessed a tale of two programs this weekend up on north Virginia Street.
Same school, same school colors, same fan base, cheerleaders and mascots. The two Pack programs played their games a little more than a wind blown Alex Boy punt apart but it was like stepping into two entirely different worlds. Lawlor Events Center is the spring of hope these days. Mackay Stadium is the winter of despair. The men’s basketball program is in the midst of a season of light. The football program is finishing up a season of darkness.
We saw them both up close this weekend in a span of just 48 hours. And the differences this weekend had nothing to do with winning and losing. Everybody in silver and blue won this weekend. The basketball team beat Oregon State on Friday and Iona on Sunday and the football team beat Utah State on Saturday. Lawlor, though, was a non-stop party, filled with hope and promise, ear-splitting noise, bright lights, smiling, happy faces and enough energy to power every casino on Virginia Street. Mackay Stadium was a mausoleum, blanketed by gray skies and ominous clouds and filled by bone-chilling winds and not enough energy to power a $2 hand-held calculator.
Just 13,390 fans - many dressed as empty seats - showed up at gloomy Mackay on Saturday afternoon to see the final home game of one of the most disappointing football seasons in school history. There are more students in line for a quick snack on a typical Tuesday afternoon in the Joe Crowley Student Union than were present in the student section in the north end zone at Mackay Stadium on Saturday. More fans (14,465) showed up for the two basketball games combined on Friday and Sunday than showed up for the football game on Sunday. Lawlor Events Center seats 11,536 fans, so Pack fans filled up 61 percent of the arena’s seating capacity this weekend while just roughly 50% of Mackay’s seats were filled on Saturday, though the official capacity of the 50-year-old stadium remains a university secret since the stadium renovations this summer.
Pack football, unfortunately, is also becoming a secret. Mackay on Saturday resembled a Wal Mart parking lot at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning. The only thing missing was the abandoned 1995 Ford Taurus and ripped up plastic shopping bags blowing in the wind. Saturday’s crowd is the smallest in Brian Polian’s four years as head coach. Wolf Pack fans have clearly abandoned the football program. And nobody (except Polian) can blame them. Why sit in the cold, wind and rain to watch a football team on a four-game losing streak and coming off its most one-sided loss (46-16 to San Diego State) at home in a decade?
The final numbers are in and, well, this year’s average attendance at Mackay (18,500) is the lowest since just 15,776 visited the stadium for six games in 2011. The decline didn’t just start on Saturday. Attendance in the Polian era reached its tipping point on Oct. 3, 2015 with a disturbing loss to UNLV at Mackay Stadium. If you are looking for a program-changing moment in Polian’s Pack career, that was it. It was the Pack’s second straight loss to UNLV at Mackay Stadium under Polian and, well, no Pack coach has ever lost three in a row at home to the Rebels.
A healthy crowd of 29,551 showed up for that UNLV game a year ago, lifting the average attendance over the first 15 home games of the Polian era to a solid 24,546. Since the Rebels took the Fremont Cannon down to Las Vegas last Oct. 3, though, the average attendance at Mackay games (nine total) has dwindled to just 18,737. Over the last three games just an average of 16,332 showed up. That is not how you pay for a $12 million Mackay Stadium renovation or any more renovations in the near future..
Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said in a press release in the summer of 2013 before Polian’s first season that “excitement and energy in the stands is a pivotal part of game day. This is an exciting time for Nevada and we’re focused on pushing those numbers higher and higher.” The focus now is simply to get them back to where they were a year ago.
The attendance and atmosphere at Mackay and Lawlor this weekend, though, was just one glaring difference between the two high-profile Pack programs. We witnessed one other huge difference between the two programs even after the games were over and the crowds were well on their way home.
Basketball coach Eric Musselman went out of his way to praise Pack fans on both Friday and Sunday. The Oregon State game drew 8,090 on Friday night and 6,375 showed up for a goofy start time at 5 p.m. on Sunday against Iona. Musselman, as he normally does, praised the fans that showed up as if he was a 1970s rock star saluting the crowd in the middle of his 50-city tour.
“Our crowd tonight was phenomenal,” Musselman said on Friday. “Our crowd, we can’t thank them enough. The student section was awesome. Our guys feed off that.”
And Pack fans feed off Musselman. Attendance at Lawlor in Musselman’s first year as head coach last year was 6,554, up from 5,497 in David Carter’s final year in 2014-15. Don’t be surprised this year if the Pack enjoys its first season of more than 7,000 fans a game since 2007-08. If all goes as planned it will be the first average attendance of more than 8,000 since 2006-07.
The former NBA coach clearly has a love affair with Pack fans. Musselman, after all, is as much showman as he is basketball coach. You will never hear him say a discouraging word toward the fans. Six fans could show up for a Pack game and Musselman will go out of his way to credit those six amazing fans for providing tremendous energy and lifting his team to victory. He might even invite those loyal six to his house for Thanksgiving dinner.
Musselman likely gets his never-ending respect for fans from his legendary father Bill Musselman. It was Bill Musselman who turned University of Minnesota basketball into one of the hottest tickets in college basketball in the 1970s, doubling average attendance at old Williams Arena to over 16,000 fans a game. Don’t be shocked if his son does the same at Lawlor before he leaves town, nearly doubling Carter’s last year.
And then there was Polian’s press conference late Saturday afternoon.
The Biggest Little Football Coach couldn’t resist taking a few more parting shots at Pack fans - even the few brave souls who bothered to show up - after the final home game of the season. While Musselman makes sure to give the fans credit for every Pack victory at Lawlor, Polian went out of his way to tell everyone that the Pack won on Saturday despite the fans, that his team showed more heart and fight than the vast majority of the fans who bought a ticket.
“There were a couple times when people were getting up and leaving,” Polian said. “So our kids battled and they found a way to win. Some people are heading to the turnstiles and our kids keep fighting and keep fighting.”
That’s just plucky Polian at the end of a trying season giving his shrinking fan base a verbal middle finger.
Polian was lucky there were any fans left in the stands by the end of Saturday’s game. A win is a win, but the Pack played a horrible football game against a horrible football team. It was like watching two blind, three-legged dogs fight over a bone that had no meat on it. The only reason the Pack won was because the Utah State dog simply gave up and ate two of his remaining three good legs so he wouldn’t starve.
Polian, though, also made sure to attack the Pack fans who didn’t show up on Saturday.
“We’ve been surrounded by a lot of negativity,” Polian said. “In this day and age of Twitter and social media and Instagram and all that nonsense, where people can hide behind anonymous names and say nasty stuff and do it in 140 characters, our kids see that stuff and they’re beaten down and they’ve been told how crappy they are and they went out tonight and they battled their tails off.”
Take that, you nasty Twitter fans. The Pack doesn’t need any of you.
Polian, though, has had a love-hate relationship (heavy on the hate) with Pack fans since he came to town in January 2013. He hadn’t even coached a game at Nevada yet when he told ESPN in the summer of 2013 that, “There isn’t a lot of tradition here.”
Who tells a fan base that they don’t have a lot of tradition? A guy whose head coaching career is hanging by a thread after his second losing season and second non-bowl season in four years. That’s who.
Polian’s subtle verbal jabs at the fan base on Saturday are nothing new even this year when he has had nothing to puff his chest out about. He has repeatedly told Pack fans this year that their frustration, anger and disappointment pales in comparison to that of the Pack players and coaches. It’s always, after all, a competition between the Pack fans and Polian in Polian’s head.
Musselman, on the other hand, will gladly take all of those nasty Twitter and social media people with their cruel 140-character rants and show them a good time at Lawlor this year. The party is just beginning for this men’s basketball team. And everyone is welcome to join in on the fun. Don’t be afraid. If you do have to leave early for some reason, don’t worry. The head coach won’t bash you in the media. He’ll just welcome you back for the next game.
“Since we’ve been here the crowd has been more than enthusiastic and has had a great impact on how we’ve played,” said Musselman, who has a eye-opening 19-3 record at home as Pack coach. “They’ve done a really good job of providing energy for us.”
Musselman practically apologized to the fan base for his team’s sluggish first half against Iona (they were down 10). “The thing we kept talking about (at halftime) was, ‘We’re at home, we have a great crowd and we’re not giving them anything to cheer about,’” Musselman said. “You got to do something to create the energy in your own building.”
Polian criticizes fans for leaving late in the game when the home team is losing by 13 on a cold, windy, gray day at the end of a losing season. Musselman apologizes to the fans for a poor first half and blames his own team for a lack of energy in the stands.
There you have it. A tale of two coaches.