Jay Norvell (at right, white pullover) leads the Wolf Pack into Mackay Stadium to face UNLV on Oct. 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)
Jay Norvell is headed where few former Nevada Wolf Pack football head coaches have ventured before.
The 58-year-old Norvell, the Pack’s head coach from 2017 through this past Sunday, is going directly to another Division I head coaching job. Norvell, who went 33-26 in five seasons at Nevada, will take over the struggling Colorado State Rams program.
A Wolf Pack head coach leaving Nevada for another head coaching job has happened just twice before in the 125-year history of the school’s football program. Jim Aiken, who coached the Wolf Pack from 1939-1946, was Oregon’s head coach from 1947-50. Jeff Horton, the Wolf Pack’s head coach in 1993, led UNLV from 1994-98.
Only one other Wolf Pack head football coach ever became a head coach at a Division I school after leaving Nevada. Buck Shaw, who coached the Wolf Pack from 1925-28, served as Santa Clara’s head coach from 1936-42 and led Air Force in 1956 and 1957. Shaw also coached the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL from 1958-60, beating Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers in the 1960 NFL championship game.
Norvell and Colorado State are scheduled to play the Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium in 2022 (the exact date will be determined this summer). He will become just the third ex-Pack head coach to face Nevada as a head coach after Oregon’s Aiken in 1947 and UNLV’s Horton (1994-98). The Pack stunned Aiken’s Ducks in 1947 (13-6) at Oregon while Horton went 1-4 against the Pack, losing his last four Fremont Cannon games.
Chris Tormey, the Pack’s head coach from 2000-03, faced the Pack as an assistant with Hawaii (2009, 2010) and Wyoming (2012). Horton has also faced the Pack as an assistant numerous times with San Diego State (2012-2021) as did Shaw as a Santa Clara assistant in 1930 and 1934.
NORVELL-HORTON SIMILARITIES: Norvell leaving the Wolf Pack for another school in the Mountain West has brought back memories of Horton’s stunning departure for UNLV nearly 30 years ago.
The Wolf Pack and UNLV were both in the Big West Conference when Horton took over the Rebel program after the 1993 season. The Wolf Pack, under Horton, was 7-4 in 1993, beating UNLV 49-14. The Rebels were 3-8 in 1993.
The Pack went 8-4 under Norvell this past season, whipping Colorado State, 52-10. The Rams finished 3-9 this year.
Norvell is the first head coach to ever leave a Mountain West school to become a head coach within the conference. Rocky Long, before Norvell, was the only coach to ever serve two Mountain West schools as head coach. Long was New Mexico’s head coach from 1998-2008 and was head coach at San Diego State from 2011-19. Long was a San Diego State assistant in 2009 and 2010 under head coach Brady Hoke. Long succeeded Hoke in 2011 and Hoke succeeded Long as San Diego State’s head coach in 2020.
NORVELL-LUBICK-AULT TIES: Norvell will not be the first Colorado State head coach with ties to the state of Nevada.
Sonny Lubick, who went 108-74 from 1993-2007 as the Rams head coach, started his coaching career in 1960-61 as head coach at Beatty High, about 120 miles north of Las Vegas.
Lubick, then just 23 years old, was the only coach at Beatty at the time, coaching all boys and girls teams as well as driving the team bus.
Norvell spent the past five years coaching the Wolf Pack on Chris Ault Field at Mackay Stadium. Ault was Nevada’s head coach from 1976-1992, 1994-95 and 2004-12, winning 234 games. Norvell will now coach the Rams on Sonny Lubick Field at Canvas Stadium. He will also likely eat a few meals at the Sonny Lubick Steakhouse in downtown Fort Collins, Colo.
Ault and Lubick coached against each other five times with Ault winning three times. Ault was 2-1 against Lubick and Montana State from 1979-81 and 1-1 against Colorado State and Lubick in 2006 and 2007.
MONEY, RESOURCES FUELED NORVELL’S DECISION: Norvell went from the lowest paid head coach in the Mountain West (about $620,000 a year) at Nevada to the highest paid in the conference (about $1.8 million a year) at Colorado State.
The lowest paid head football coach in the Mountain West is now Danny Gonzalez of New Mexico, who earns roughly $700,000 a year. Hawaii’s Todd Graham is at $800,000 a year.
The Rams also play at the 5-year-old, $220 million Canvas Stadium, Colorado State’s first on-campus football stadium since 1968. The Rams played at Hughes Stadium from 1968-2016, about five miles away from campus.
Colorado State averaged 27,096 fans for its six home games this season with a high of 34,780 for a 32-14 win over San Jose State. The Rams, though, drew just 17,465 in its season finale against Nevada. Canvas Stadium can seat 41,000 for football. The top average attendance at the new stadium is 32,062 in 2017.
Norvell’s Wolf Pack teams averaged just 17,223 fans for each of its 24 home games (fans were not allowed to attend during the 2020 season). The Pack attracted crowds of over 20,000 for just seven of Norvell’s 24 games, including the first four this season. The final two games of the 2021 season, though, averaged just 16,488 fans.
FINAL NORVELL NUMBERS: Norvell went 33-26 at Nevada over five seasons, winning 33 of his last 54 games. He was 3-2 against UNLV and 1-2 against Boise State, the school’s top two rivals. He also led the Pack to bowl games in his final four seasons with a record of 2-1 (he will not coach in the Pack’s Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 27 against Western Michigan).
Norvell did not win a Mountain West division title and was 23-17 in Mountain West games.
By comparison, Brian Polian, the Pack coach before Norvell, was 23-27 in four seasons at Nevada, 14-18 in Mountain West games and 1-1 in bowl games. Polian, who also did not win a Mountain West division title, was 2-2 against UNLV and 0-2 against Boise State.
TAUA TAKES OVER: Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said Monday that running backs coach Vai Taua will serve as the Pack’s head coach in its bowl game against Western Michigan.
The 33-year-old Taua has been on Norvell’s staff since 2017 and has coached the running backs (and brother Toa Taua) the past three years after serving in an administrative role his first two years. Vai Taua was a Wolf Pack running back from 2007-2010 under head coach Chris Ault, gaining 4,588 yards on 711 carries and scoring 53 touchdowns.
Vai Taua will be just the sixth Pack head coach to guide the team in a bowl game after Norvell, Brian Polian, Chris Ault, Jeff Tisdel and Joe Sheeketski.
Taua played in two bowl games, rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries against Maryland in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise after the 2008 season and gaining 76 yards on 22 carries against Boston College in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco after the 2010 season. He was held out of the 2009 Hawaii Bowl against SMU because of academic reasons.
NORVELL RECRUITED JOB, NOT ATHLETES: Norvell said after the Pack’s 52-10 win in Colorado State on Nov. 27 that he was going to spend considerable time in the next week recruiting future Pack athletes.
“I’m not even flying back home with the team,” Norvell said a half hour or so after the win over Colorado State. “I’m going recruiting in Colorado, Texas, Arizona and California. We haven’t been out recruiting in two years (because of COVID-19 restrictions) so it’s going to be full bore recruiting, trying to get the next crop of Carson Strongs and Romeo Doubs here to Nevada.”
Those future Carson Strongs and Romeo Doubs now might be headed to Colorado State. The Rams announced the firing of head coach Steve Addazio just five days (on Thursday) after the loss to Nevada and agreed to terms with Norvell three days later on Sunday.