Joe Santoro: Pack can’t be cannon fodder for UNLV

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Jay Norvell is now facing the single most important football game of his debut season as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s head coach.

The first 11 games this season — nine of which ended in a Wolf Pack loss — now don’t matter. Northern Nevada can forgive those nine losses as mere first-year jitters by a well-meaning rookie head coach. Northern Nevada, though, won’t forgive a loss to the UNLV Rebels at Mackay Stadium on Saturday.

There’s just something about seeing the Fremont Cannon painted red that angers Wolf Pack fans. The only thing Pack fans hate more than seeing a red cannon is seeing a blue cannon wheeled off the Mackay Stadium turf by UNLV players. Norvell simply can’t allow that to happen this Saturday, not if he wants anyone to believe his first season in the Truckee Meadows was anything but a complete calamity.

“That is our bowl game,” Norvell said a week ago, referring to the UNLV game.

Not quite. Nobody cares about the meaningless bowl games the Pack can get to out of the Mountain West. The Battle for the Fremont Cannon, on the other hand, is football life or death in Northern Nevada.

And we don’t mean that in a figurative sense. Losing to Colorado State, San Diego State, Fresno State, Washington State — the list of Pack conquerors this year is too long to complete here — all lumped together isn’t as harmful as a loss would be this Saturday. Norvell loses to UNLV on Saturday and his coaching clock — the one in the hearts and minds of Wolf Pack fans — will begin to tick.

Tick, tock, tick, tock. Another coat of garish red paint on the cannon here, another one there. And before you know it the Pack is announcing yet another decision to mutually part ways with another head coach.

Just ask Brian Polian.

Polian would likely still be coaching the Wolf Pack if he had beaten UNLV all four times he faced them from 2013-16. He would’ve had a .500 (25-25) record if he had not lost to UNLV in both 2013 and 2015. A win over the Rebels in 2013 would’ve given the Pack a 5-7 record against the toughest schedule in school history. Not even Chris Ault would’ve done better. A win over the Rebels in 2015 would’ve given the Pack an 8-5 record and a bowl win and a likely contract extension for Polian. If that would’ve happened — a Polian extension after 2015 that would have guaranteed Wolf Pack checks in his bank account, say, through the 2019 season — there’s no way the Pack would’ve fired him (“mutually parted ways”) after he won at UNLV last year to finish a 5-7 season.

But Polian is gone because he lost to the Rebels twice in four years. And he not only lost to the Rebels twice, he had the nerve to commit the sin right in front of Wolf Pack fans both times at Mackay Stadium. The sight of UNLV players dragging a blue Fremont Cannon off the Mackay Stadium turf — across the lettering “Chris Ault Field” at midfield — is a nightmare that still wakes Pack fans up in the middle of the night. It’s a nightmare that will only go away with a Wolf Pack victory on Saturday.

Norvell can save himself a lot of grief and some cold, limp handshakes from Pack fans this off-season if he simply beats the Rebels on Saturday. If that happens, if the cannon remains true blue, Pack fans will overlook a nine-loss season and dismiss it as some sort of a new coach honeymoon. Those fans, many of which were on hand in both 2013 and 2015, will consider this nine-loss season as a baby step in the right direction.

But that can only occur if and only if a bunch of players dressed in silver and blue push the cannon off the field Saturday afternoon.

Polian, it must be noted, isn’t the only Pack coach who was sent packing because he lost to UNLV. Chris Tormey coached the Wolf Pack from 2000-03 and improved his record every season. He beat Washington. He beat BYU. But he was run out of town after 2003 because of his 0-4 record against UNLV.

Beating UNLV just shouldn’t be all that difficult. The Rebels have only been to four bowl games in their school history. There has been just five Rebel winning seasons since 1984. The last seven UNLV head coaches have a losing record and that includes the guy (Tony Sanchez) who will be on the Rebel sideline on Saturday. The Rebels are a bit more competent this year with a 5-6 record but four of the victories have come against awful teams (San Jose State, Hawaii, Idaho and New Mexico). This Rebel team started its season by losing to Howard, a FCS school who came to Las Vegas as a 45-point underdog.

Pack fans aren’t a demanding bunch. All they ask is you beat one of the worst FBS teams in the nation.

Here’s all you need to know about how good the Rebels are this year. The Pack is 2-9. UNLV is 5-6. The Pack has only beaten Hawaii and San Jose State, two of the worst teams in the nation. UNLV has beaten Hawaii and San Jose State as well as three other teams, including Fresno State, which will be in the Mountain West title game next month. UNLV has scored 15 more points than the Pack this year and has allowed 33 fewer. The Rebels will finish third in the West Division and the Pack will finish fourth. UNLV has a better road record (3-2) than the Pack has a home record (2-3) this year. The Rebels have won the last two games in this rivalry at Mackay Stadium.

And the Pack still opened the week as a three-point favorite on Saturday.

Norvell has said all the right things, patted all the right backs and shook all the right hands since he got to town last December. We’re sure he will do and say all the right things and more this week. Saturday’s game, after all, is his last chance this year to make a good first impression. He knows his entire off-season depends on what happens Saturday. A loss will make all of his off-season speaking engagements around town a difficult and uncomfortable moment.

Norvell knows if he wins Saturday he can convince Northern Nevada all is well at Mackay Stadium despite a nine-loss season. He can say with a straight face his football team improved as the season went along. He can talk about a bright future and a team who has bought into what he’s preaching. He can say he did something only one other coach at Nevada has done since 1999 — he beat UNLV at Mackay Stadium.

The only other coach to do it this century is Ault. And it is Ault who could serve as Norvell’s greatest resource this week.

Ault, who understood the psyche of the average Wolf Pack fan as well as anyone ever has up on north Virginia Street, based his entire career on beating UNLV. He turned all of Northern Nevada into raging bulls, angry at the mere sight of the color Rebel red from the moment he first stepped on campus as head coach in 1976. He tapped into and fed the anti-Las Vegas hostility that flows through town like the Truckee. He made sure his players understood the importance of the UNLV game. And they always went out and played the Rebels as if their Pack careers depended on it.

That’s because it did. The last thing Ault wanted was to go around the state asking boosters for money with a loss to UNLV pinned to his head. Ault made sure he beat UNLV and the boosters loved him for it. Ault, who was 15-7 in his career against UNLV, winning 13 of his last 15 games in the rivalry, knew one win over UNLV could save an entire season and motivate an otherwise apathetic fan base to buy season tickets in the off-season.

Polian never fully grasped that concept. But the poor guy, it turns out, didn’t have a chance. He didn’t have Ault at his disposal from 2013-16. The two didn’t talk, didn’t even shake hands the night the Pack dedicated Mackay Stadium’s field to Ault in 2013. They couldn’t even fake it. Ault didn’t go to practices when Polian was head coach. He never gave his public endorsement of Polian.

All that has changed with Norvell. Norvell, who’s secure in his own football skin, isn’t threatened by Ault’s mere presence around his football program. He has made Ault feel welcome around the football program and Ault has paid him back by showing up at practice and publicly supporting Norvell.

Norvell should have Ault speak to the Pack players this week about what the rivalry against UNLV means. If they didn’t understand the importance of beating UNLV before, they will after Ault talks to them.

The same is true of Norvell and his coaching staff, many of which probably didn’t even know UNLV and Nevada were in the same state before they got here 11 months ago. Ault can make sure this week the importance of Saturday isn’t lost on Norvell, his staff and the players.

Northern Nevada’s football fans, you see, need to beat UNLV now more than ever. The sports rivalry between Las Vegas and Reno outside Mackay Stadium and Sam Boyd Stadium is getting a bit one-sided. Las Vegas, after all, has the NHL. It’s getting the NFL. It is getting a state-of-the-art $2 billion football stadium. Las Vegas has NASCAR, big-time boxing, the NBA Summer League, a college bowl game and the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast Conference and Western Athletic Conference basketball tournaments in March. It’s becoming a sports mecca, a Disneyland for jocks.

Northern Nevada right now, though, has the Fremont Cannon.

Norvell needs to make sure we can say the same thing on Saturday night.


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