Joe Santoro: Another coach hit by Silver and Blue flu

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

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The Nevada Wolf Pack football program can’t afford another head coaching mistake.

It’s been just five games — five torturous, baffling, confusing, frustrating and, for the most part, ugly football games — but Jay Norvell seems to have already contracted the first symptoms of Wolf Pack football head coaching disease.

“We’re going to have to find a way to get it fixed,” said Norvell after a disturbing 41-21 loss to the Fresno State Bulldogs Saturday night that handed the Wolf Pack its first 0-5 start to a season since 1964.

Norvell was talking about, as he put it for the third consecutive week, his “disappointing” football program. He didn’t know it but he was actually speaking about Wolf Pack head coaching disease, the killer of head coaching careers. Just one (Jeff Horton) of the nine previous Wolf Pack head coaches since the football team was reinstated in 1952 has survived the disease to become a head coach at the Division I level after leaving Nevada. Just ask Brian Polian, Chris Tormey, Jeff Tisdel, Jerry Scattini and Dick Trachok about Wolf Pack head coaching disease. Some, like Tisdel, started strong at Nevada. Some, like Norvell, started horribly. They all eventually left town wondering where and when, exactly, everything went wrong.

Even Chris Ault, who bravely fought off the Pack disease for nearly three decades, finally was sent into retirement dazed and confused by two fever-stricken seasons in 2011 and 2012. When Ault stepped down off his Pack pedestal he said he had taken Nevada football as far as he could. That was the Wolf Pack head coaching disease talking. Call it the Silver and Blue flu.

Norvell is already talking like a coach with the Silver and Blue flu.

“I came to the realization after the non-conference season that we as coaches have to adjust to the way that we’re playing with his team,” Norvell said late Saturday night. “That’s the reality we have at this time.”

This is the same guy who just nine months earlier was talking about making Nevada football the “flagship of the Mountain West.” Well, the so-called flagship of the Mountain West is still the only team in the conference without a victory this season. Who knew when Norvell mentioned flagship he was actually talking about the Titanic?

None of the previous 25 Wolf Pack head coaches lost the first five games of their Nevada careers. None of the previous 25 head coaches over the program’s 109-year history saw their defense allow 30 or more points in each of the first five games of any season. This is also the first season of Wolf Pack football since 1980 in which the offense has failed to score at least 30 points in any of the first five games. Just five of the previous 109 seasons started 0-5 like this one.

Is Norvell going to be the latest in a long line of head coaching mistakes at Nevada, the latest victim of the Silver and Blue flu? It’s far too early to suggest anything close to that. But at the same time it is important to recognize the early stages of Wolf Pack Silver and Blue flu and administer all the antibiotics and remedies available before it gets out of hand.

This Wolf Pack Titanic season hasn’t been completely sunk yet. But let’s just say one end of the ship is under water, the other is pointing to the heavens and all of the women and children are already on lifeboats. That’s why it’s not too early to be concerned for Norvell’s coaching health. Nevada head coaching disease, after all, takes no prisoners. We saw it before with a first-year Wolf Pack head coach. Tormey lost nine of his first 10 games in 2000, most of them in embarrassing fashion, on his way to a 2-10 debut season. He was gone after three more seasons.

Norvell has clearly started on a Tormey-like path. It’s been just five games but he already is the owner of three (Idaho State, Washington State, Fresno State) embarrassing losses. Two of losses were to teams (Idaho State, Fresno State) that had not beaten a Division I-A school in the current or previous season. He has asked his team to operate in an offense (Air Raid) and defense (3-3-5) it simply can’t execute efficiently at this time. The strength of his defense — the secondary — has become the weakness. The most important position on his offense (quarterback) has all the stability of a weekly American Idol audition.

“We haven’t lost faith that we can play well,” Norvell said.

Faith can only carry you so far. But Norvell has something more important than faith. Remember why he was brought to Nevada in the first place. It was for precisely these types of bleak moments when all looks lost, disoriented and hopeless. Norvell was hired, according to Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth, for his character, integrity, leadership and ability to be a role model.

“They wanted a man of fiber,” Norvell said last December.

Yes, it’s true Norvell has as many coaching victories right now as a loaf of whole grain bread. But right now was never the priority. Even those who bleed silver and blue didn’t anticipate anything better than a 2-3 record (3-2 in their wildest dreams) after five games. A coach like Norvell, who exudes character, integrity, grit and fiber, is here for the long haul, not for just five games. That’s why it’s imperative he succeeds at Nevada. For the sake of the football program.

The Pack, don’t forget, was broken before Norvell came to town. The Wolf Pack is now 31-41 over its last 72 games dating back to Nov. 12, 2011. The Pack has lost 14 of its last 20 games. It’s the worst extended dry spell since 1997-2004 when the Pack went 35-57.

The record in the standings isn’t the only place the Pack is suffering right now. The community is losing interest in Wolf Pack football. The Wolf Pack, which hosts Hawaii on Saturday at Mackay Stadium, has attracted less than 20,000 fans for five consecutive games. This is the same program that had 20,000 or more fans in the stands for 20 consecutive home games just recently as Oct. 6, 2012 through Oct. 10, 2015. Less than 20,000 fans have walked through the gates at Mackay for eight of the last 10 home games.

Norvell, we repeat, didn’t start these struggles. Yes, he’s adding to them but Wolf Pack struggles are as much of northern Nevada history as the Reno arch, neon on Virginia Street, divorces at the Reno courthouse and blackjack and poker in the casinos. There’s a myth Nevada football has been built on a tradition of excellence and championships. That tradition of excellence and championships is really just a tradition of Ault. Ault, don’t forget, has still won more games (233) at Nevada than all of the other Pack head coaches since 1936 combined (228). And that includes Norvell.

The Silver and Blue flu virus, unfortunately, has touched the vast majority of Pack coaches. Norvell is just the latest.

But this, we remind you, is why you hire a man of grit, fiber, integrity and character. It’s because he supposedly can handle these tough times. We’ve seen far too many Pack coaches who couldn’t.

“We’ve got to make people accountable on a daily basis,” Norvell said.

Spoken like a man filled with grit, integrity, character and fiber.

Norvell is now faced with difficult decisions over the final seven games this year and into next off-season. He has to question everything he knows and believes. What worked at Oklahoma, Texas and UCLA, after all, just might not work at Nevada. What worked as an assistant coach just might not work as a head coach. Who can play on this roster? Who can coach on this staff? Who can coach these players? Who can play for these coaches? What offense and defense works best for the types of players who want to play at Nevada?

When you’re an assistant you don’t really have to ask those types of questions. But when you’re a head coach you have to ask them every day. Ault changed his offense about a half dozen times at Nevada. It happens to the best of coaches. It’s not a sign of weakness or failure.

It’s a sign of character, integrity, grit and fiber.


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