Joe Santoro: Polian’s Waterloo leads to Pack success

Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro

Brian Polian is the gift that just keeps on giving to the Nevada Wolf Pack football program.

The former Nevada head coach won’t grace Mackay Stadium on Saturday night with his presence when the Wolf Pack hosts the Colorado State Rams in its final home game of the season. Now the Notre Dame special teams coach, Polian will be in South Bend, Ind., as the Irish take on Florida State.

There will, however, be a distinct Polian aura and feel at Mackay on Saturday. Don’t worry. Nobody will likely mention his name in mixed company and nobody in silver and blue will dare give him credit for anything that happens on Saturday, let alone this entire season. But Chris Ault’s successor on the Pack sidelines will clearly be in the stadium just the same, if only in spirit.

No less than 11 of Polian’s former players will strut proudly across Chris Ault Field along with family and friends as part of the Wolf Pack’s annual end of the home season Senior Day festivities.

Think of it as a Polian I-Told-You-So parade.

“I can’t say enough about our seniors,” said current Pack coach Jay Norvell, who will also watch six players he brought to the program in the last two years play their final Mackay game on Saturday. “They are a big reason for our success.”

Polian’s players are, without a doubt, the biggest reason why the Pack is 5-4 right now and likely on its way to an 8-4 regular season and its first bowl game since 2015. So if you thought Polian left the Pack cupboard bare when he was booted out of Nevada hours after beating UNLV 45-10 in Las Vegas in 2016, well, think again.

“The seniors bought into what we are doing,” Norvell said.

The Wolf Pack’s roster is still full of players Polian brought to Nevada. Norvell has added some bright and shiny pieces the last two years, fabulous toys to play with like McLane Mannix, Romeo Doubs, Elijah Cooks, Toa Taua, Devonte Lee, Nephi Sewell and Jomon Dotson, but it’s the leftover Polian population that carried this Pack team and will continue to help carry it for the next two seasons.

The 11 Polian products who will leave after this season will be followed by 28 more over the next two seasons. And don’t forget Polian players like Austin Corbett, Wyatt Demps, Austin Paulhus, Travis Wilson, Patrick Choudja and Jaden Sawyer who left the program after the 2017 season and helped Norvell in his first year at Nevada.

“Coach Polian did a real nice job of recruiting high character guys for them,” former Polian offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich (now the head coach at Hawaii) said earlier this season.

It turns out Polian did exactly what he said he was going to do. He accomplished exactly what former athletic director Cary Groth said he was going to do when she hired him to help wipe out the memory of Ault in January 2013.

Polian, a career special teams coach, came to Nevada with the reputation as one of the best young recruiters in the country. He didn’t hurt that reputation at Nevada, even when his business card didn’t wow impressionable recruits with the name and colors of a glitz and glamour Power Five school.

If the Pack is on the doorstep of finally competing for a Mountain West title, it’s because Polian showed them where the door was located. Norvell’s job is to now open that door.

Yes, Polian didn’t win enough games at Nevada. And nobody is saying he should still be the head coach up on North Virginia Street. His uninspiring 23-27 overall record after four years (2013-16) also included two still unbelievable losses at home to UNLV.

But the won-loss record was just one reason why he’s back at Notre Dame right now. He argued with officials during games, he never did connect with former coach Chris Ault, he was far too blunt (for the Nevada administration’s liking) at press conferences and his offense (once quarterback Cody Fajardo left after the 2014 season) put fans to sleep. Polian wasn’t a hire of athletic director Doug Knuth and, well, attendance plummeted in his final season in 2016 (it still hasn’t recovered, by the way). Polian also never let anyone forget he once coached at places like Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M. And did we mention those two losses to UNLV?

But that doesn’t mean his four-year run as head coach was a complete disaster. It just feels that way because of those two inexcusable losses to UNLV at Mackay. Polian, it turns out, did what he does best. He raised the overall level of talent and character on the Wolf Pack roster on all four of his letter-of-intent signing days.

Some coaches, like Bill Parcells, want to be the guy who goes out and shops for the groceries and then cooks the food. Ault could do it. Norvell, so far, seems like a guy who can do both. We’ll find out more next year when he has to play his own quarterback with Ty Gangi gone.

Polian, the Pack should have known (did we tell you he was a career special teams coach?), will likely always be a guy who’s a much better shopper than a cook. It worked at Notre Dame and Stanford because there are a lot of great cooks at those schools. At Nevada, though, you better do both well or you aren’t going to get a second contract.

But, boy, could Brian Polian shop. He knew where to shop and he knew how to find a bargain, even on a Nevada budget.

Polian’s first year in 2013, after only being on the job about a month, he brought in players like Ian Seau, Matt Lyons, Elijah Mitchell and Travis Wilson. Seau is one of the best pass rushers in Wolf Pack history with 18.5 sacks in just three years. Given more than a month to recruit the following year in 2014, though, was when Polian really was able to work his magic.

Joining the Pack in 2014 was James Butler, Andrew Celis, Patrick Choudja, Wyatt Demps, Elijah Moody, Ahki Muhammad, Cliff Porter, Trae Carter-Wells, Jordan Silva, Brandon Scott, Blake Wright, Kalei Meyer, Malik Reed, Lucas Weber, Asauni Rufus and Korey Rush. Kelton Moore and Cristian Solano, juniors this year, were also originally part of the 2014 signing class but later decided to grayshirt and join the Pack in 2015.

That 2014 class is clearly one of the best in school history since the Pack joined Division I-A in 1992. Six of those players — Reed, Rufus, Rush, Carter-Wells, Meyer and Weber — will be honored Saturday night.

“To me, this illustrates the power of the University of Nevada and the people that represent it,” Polian said on national signing day in February 2014.

Reed, a defensive end turned linebacker, and Rufus, a safety and coach on the field, are destined for the Wolf Pack Hall of Fame.

Polian then brought in players like Dameon Baber, Wes Farnsworth, E.J. Muhammad, Brendan O’Leary-Orange, Hausia Sekona and Gabe Sewell in 2015. Baber, who has had a number of amazing afternoons in a Wolf Pack uniform, also might end up in the Pack Hall of Fame.

Polian’s last signing class in 2016 featured Ty Gangi, Daniel Brown, Jaxson Kincaide, Sean Krepsz, Lawson Hall, Jarius McDade and Jake Nelson. Baber, Farnsworth, Gangi, Krepsz and McDade will also be honored on Saturday.

Nelson, Kreps (and Meyer) all now start on the offensive line. Gangi is the single most important player on the roster and will go down as one of the most underrated quarterbacks in Wolf Pack history.

“Today is a celebration of the future,” Polian said on signing day in 2016.

Polian was never able to celebrate the future he was building. A lot of things combined to cut short his Pack era after just four years, not the least of which was a ridiculously tough non-conference schedule that included UCLA, Florida State, Washington State, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, BYU, Purdue and Arizona (twice).

Polian didn’t know it in 2016 but the future he envisioned at Nevada turned out to be Norvell’s present. All of that character Polian brought to the program has blended in nicely with Norvell’s grit and grind philosophy.

“This group (of seniors) has a tremendous amount of character,” said Reed, who was plucked out of Alabama by Polian. “We had to go through a lot, losing a teammate (2015 recruit Marc Ma died in a drowning incident in 2016), going through a coaching change. It’s been a big challenge for each and every one of us. To see how they handled it and become better for it shows how much character they have.”

This senior class will forever hold a special place in Wolf Pack history as the group that was able to adjust. Nothing has stayed constant at Nevada since Polian left.

Norvell and his assistants changed Reed from a defensive end to a linebacker. Meyer went from the defensive line to the offensive line. Gangi was benched for two games last year. O’Leary-Orange has battled injuries. Kincaide has had to scratch and claw for playing time in a crowded offensive backfield. Weber began his Wolf Pack career as a walk-on running back and is now a linebacker. Carter-Wells started as a walk-on special teams player and is now the starting tight end.

“All the stuff we’ve gone through, it has brought us closer together,” Gangi said.

Norvell, to his credit, has praised this group of seniors all season long.

“The way the seniors stuck together this year has been a great example for our younger players,” Norvell said. “Young players learn how to play and prepare by watching how the seniors play and prepare.”

Norvell, who never publicly references the Pack program under Polian from 2013-16 (he will, however, talk about Ault’s Wolf Pack quite regularly), recognized the raw material Polian left him. It’s just those materials needed some tweaking.

“I was a little disappointed last year,” Norvell said. “I thought we would have more that we could work with.”

That’s about as close as Norvell ever gets to criticizing the Polian regime. He has repeatedly said since the end of last year the Pack Polian left him wasn’t tough enough or strong enough to compete with the best teams in the Mountain West.

Norvell, though, didn’t simply discard all of those Polian players and let them fade away into oblivion. He went out this off-season determined to make them tougher and stronger. He took Polian’s players to the next level and they all have seemed to respond in a positive way. The 5-4 record (about to be 8-4 in three weeks) is proof it’s working.

Polian, though, clearly saw the potential in this group of Pack seniors. He was, after all, the one who convinced them they should come to Nevada.

“Our staff feels strongly that we have added another group of young men who have high character,“ Polian said on signing day in 2016, “who all place an emphasis on education and who will represent the university and the community the right way.”

Polian wasn’t right about a lot of things when he was at Nevada. But, for the most part, he was absolutely right about his players. If you’re looking for consistency in effort, production and leadership on this Pack roster, the bulk of it comes from Polian players.

“This group of seniors is a good example of having a sense of urgency each and every week,” Norvell said. “I really appreciate the commitment and focus they’ve shown this year.”

To Norvell’s credit, he didn’t ignore or push aside Polian’s players when he took the Pack job in December 2016. He didn’t run them out of Nevada, bury them on the bench or make them feel like they weren’t wanted. He embraced them, gave them ownership of the program and told them to care for their younger teammates. He brought them all together — Polian players, Norvell players — and made a grit and grind football team that practices hard, plays hard, studies hard and gets the most out of its abilities.

“Our seniors have all been invested in what we were doing as a team,” Norvell said.

Polian’s former players are the heart and soul of the rebirth of Wolf Pack football. The 11 seniors who will make their Mackay farewell on Saturday will be followed by another strong group of Polian alumni who will be seniors a year from now, players like Gabe Sewell, O’Leary-Orange, Sekona, Daniel Brown, Maliek Broady and Kelton Moore.

All of them represent Polian’s lasting legacy with the Pack. Yes, he didn’t win enough while he was here. Those two losses to UNLV will forever be a stain on the program. But it’s important on nights like Saturday night to put all of that aside and remember everyone who has had a hand in the current success.

“I felt and continue to feel that we were building a solid foundation for this program,” Polian said on the day he was removed from Pack office. “In a lot of ways we left the program in better shape than how we found it.”


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