Nevada head coach Jay Norvell works the sidelines against New Mexico State in Reno on Oct. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes)
The Nevada Wolf Pack football program is, right now, a desolated, bleak and barren mess. Thank you, Jay Norvell, and any of the other coaching carpetbaggers you will poach from Nevada and take with you to the Colorado State Rams.
The Wolf Pack has been gutted, abandoned and picked clean. There are Nevada ghost towns with more potential, hope and signs of life right now than the Wolf Pack football program.
Was that a lonely tumbleweed we just saw rolling across campus? Hurry up and go get it before Norvell paints it green and takes it with him to Colorado. Is the Fremont Cannon still blue and sitting in Cashell Fieldhouse? Or has it, too, been painted an ugly Colorado State green and sitting in a U-Haul van on its way to that endless strip mall known as Fort Collins, Colorado?
The Wolf Pack has no head coach. The Air Raid has flown to another town for its next mission. The program doesn’t have direction, leadership and guidance. It barely has players with most of its roster gutted by graduation, the lures of the NFL or the promise of the transfer portal. Who knows how many Pack players and recruits Norvell will steal? Thank you, Jay Norvell.
Is this the lowest the Wolf Pack football program has sunk in school history? It is certainly its lowest point since Chris Ault gave the sport meaning starting in 1976. Jeff Horton leaving in the middle of the night after the 1993 season was similar to what happened this week. But the Pack had Ault in 1993 to right the ship. The Pack also had Ault in 2003 to right the ship that Chris Tormey almost sunk in 2003.
Ault is now 75 years old. The only thing athletic director Doug Knuth wants from a 75-year-old Nevada graduate is their signature at the bottom of a check.
All of the other Pack coaching changes in the television era (Jake Lawlor, Gordon McEachron, Dick Trachok, Jerry Scattini, Horton, Jeff Tisdel, Tormey, Brian Polian) were more or less welcomed and met with a yawn and also would have been met with a parade down Virginia Street, you know, if the Pack had such a budget.
Horton’s classless move, like Norvell’s classless move, also gutted the program. But Ault was there to question Horton’s character and lick the Pack wounds. All Knuth has done so far is thank Norvell.
The Pack has gone from one of the best and most exciting football teams in the Mountain West to one of the worst. When your battle cry goes from “Nevada Grit” to “Hey, at least we’re not New Mexico” in the span of less than a week, well, you have issues.
Colorado State? Really? At least the Wolf Pack was the only game in town. Colorado State ranks on the Colorado sports fan’s list of things to do behind the University of Colorado, the four major sports franchises in Denver, the Air Force Academy, racing up and down Pike’s Peak, skiing, thinking about skiing and buying skiing equipment.
And then there are those ugly green and white uniforms that make an offensive and defensive lineman look like a highway sign. But Norvell acted this week like he had just been hired by USC, citing all of the Rams’ resources. He even said the Rams’ Canvas Stadium, which is basically just Mackay Stadium on steroids, ranks with all the great stadiums he has coached in during his career. The chuckle you just heard came from the Rose Bowl, Lincoln, Neb., Norman, Okla., and Austin, Texas.
Norvell, though, has made a career out of telling people what they want to hear. He is a professional job seeker. He knows what to say, when to say it, how to act, what color tie to buy for his initial press conference and who to flatter.
Abandoning the Wolf Pack is how Norvell has thanked the only program in the nation that would dare give him a head coaching job five years ago. It also gave him a contract extension just two years ago after he lost the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and compiled an 18-20 record his first three years. It reportedly was going to give him another raise to $1 million a year this week.
When the Pack hired Norvell in December 2016 his career had leveled off. He was a wide receivers coach at Arizona State, for goodness sake, after failing as an offensive coordinator at football factories such as Oklahoma, Nebraska and UCLA. He was 53 years old, a football lifer who was destined to toil in obscurity, teaching young men how to run a pass route and catch a football.
But the Pack, enamored by his clichés, took a chance on him when nobody else would. Pack fans didn’t know Jay Norvell from Jay Leno and, judging by attendance figures the past five years, might still not know. Norvell, though, rewarded the Pack for its loyalty in him by taking the money and running away this week. Who leaves Nevada for Colorado State? Well, Jay Norvell did.
Norvell didn’t acknowledge the Pack during his initial press conference in Fort Collins on Tuesday. He didn’t thank the Pack for giving him the opportunity to be a head coach. He basically had his script of clichés (“leadership, accountability, hustle” and, of course “grit”) and stuck to it like he did for five years in Nevada.
Why did Norvell go to Colorado State? The first reason is he obviously wanted to get out of Reno. But, more importantly, his window of opportunity for getting a Power Five head coaching job shut down this year by losing four games with a team that should have gone undefeated.
So he took the Power Five money (close to $2 million a year) without the Power Five pressure. Call it Norvell Nirvana. The guy preached respect, accountability and integrity for five years at Nevada. But it turned out to be mere words in his coaching cliché handbook. A man with true respect, accountability and integrity would have treated the Wolf Pack, its players and fans with more respect this week.
Norvell taking a job with Colorado State is a slap in the Pack’s faces. It basically told Northern Nevada that any job, as long as it paid enough, was good enough to abandon the Wolf Pack. Norvell didn’t criticize the Wolf Pack directly this week but he didn’t exactly sing its praises either.
“This place supports football,” Norvell said of Colorado State. “This place is committed to football. This place wants a championship program.” Norvell also added, “We’re going to have a much easier time bringing (top athletes) here after we show them these facilities and the support the program has.”
The Wolf Pack’s shoddy facilities and the lack of support from the community and the university, therefore, is the reason why Norvell choked away three Mountain West games this year. And we thought it was Norvell’s shoddy playcalling.
Norvell’s leaving, of course, has given so-called Wolf Pack fans yet another opportunity to berate the university for not supporting its football program enough financially. It’s as if they believe Knuth is pocketing the extra money he is not spending on football and buying new uniforms for the cheerleaders or new rackets for the tennis players.
The Pack is what it is, a school that is barely surviving in Division I solely because of television money. The Pack’s problem always starts with the lack of support it doesn’t get from the ticket-buying community. The Pack simply doesn’t draw enough fans. Colorado State can build a new $220 million stadium. The Pack puts a $12 million facelift on its 50-year-old erector set of a stadium. The Pack has never filled its football stadium with fans, even in the days when the school was in the running to win Division I-AA national titles.
Don’t forget this is a program that had to shut down for a year (1951) because of a lack of money. And then they ran a glorified high school program with no scholarships for roughly two decades just to keep the program alive. Chris Ault then pushed it kicking and screaming into Division I-A in 1992 just to make sure the program would make money.
Money troubles is not a new Pack problem. The football program just doesn’t mean as much to the community as the Wolf Pack wants you to believe. The Pack averaged under 18,000 fans a game for Norvell’s five years. It was his job to build support for the program and he simply didn’t do it.
How difficult will it be to replace Norvell? Norvell never won a Mountain West division title, let alone a conference championship. He never lost fewer than four games in any of his five seasons. He basically lost every big game he coached in. Beating Boise State this year was probably his signature Pack win and the Broncos lost five games and counting this year. Norvell lost twice to horrific UNLV teams with the second one ending in a disgusting, embarrassing brawl on the field. He lost to a Division I-AA team (Idaho State in 2017). He was embarrassed by Hawaii at Mackay Stadium two years ago.
Norvell did lead the Pack to four bowl games in five years but leading a Mountain West team to a bowl is sort of like leading a 4-year-old out of a corn maze at Halloween. All you need to be is bigger than four feet tall. Make no mistake, Norvell is a solid head coach in the world of the Mountain West, a world he apparently is afraid to leave. But it won’t be impossible to replace what he did the past five years.
Yes, of course, it truly does not matter who takes over the Pack program sometime in the next few weeks. The new coach, whoever it might be, will only be here four or five years and either get fired or abandon the Pack for that coveted San Jose State job.
But since we are back once again in the who-do-you-want-as-Pack-coach? season, we’ll toss out a few names worth looking into. Nick Rolovich and Jim Mastro top my list. Matt Mumme would also be fun but he seems to already be shopping for some ugly green ties and scouting those Colorado fishing holes. How about Timmy Chang, the ex-Hawaii quarterback who has toiled in obscurity on Norvell’s staff the last five years? He would combine the June Jones run-and-shoot with the Mumme Air Raid and light up the Northern Nevada skies with footballs.
Rolovich, the former Pack offensive coordinator who let the pistol die on the vine, would be the safest choice, having had moderate success at Hawaii and Washington State as a head coach. And, unlike Norvell, he might not leave for the first school that waves some shiny coins in his face. Rolovich, after all, refused to get a COVID vaccine and lost his $3 million-a-year job at Washington State this year.
Mastro, a Pack assistant from 2000-10, helped Ault invent the Pistol. He’s been coaching running backs at UCLA, Washington State and Oregon since leaving the Pack. Like Rolovich, Mastro has a great personality, loves Nevada and players love him.
If the Wolf Pack truly wants to give the middle finger to Norvell and put the Nevada Grit era behind them, then what about Colin Kaepernick as head coach? Kaepernick would likely hire Ault as his offensive coordinator and put the pistol back into the Pack. He also would make the Wolf Pack one of the most interesting teams in all of college football. Imagine Kaepernick walking into the living room of recruits. Heck all he’d have to do is send them an e-mail or text.
Vai Taua, the Pack’s interim head coach in the Quick Lane Bowl, could be his running backs coach. Dontay Moch could be his defensive coordinator. The possibilities are endless.
Would Kaepernick work for $1 million a year? Why not? What else does he have to do? Save the world from social injustice? Dare to dream, Pack fans. Fantasy land, after all, is a whole lot better than the real world the Pack is stuck in right now.