Joe Santoro: Coaches who found success after leaving Nevada Wolf Pack

Then-Nevada head coach Eric Musselman questions a call during an NCAA Tournament first round game against Florida on March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP, file)

Then-Nevada head coach Eric Musselman questions a call during an NCAA Tournament first round game against Florida on March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall/AP, file)

Eric Musselman doesn’t waste any time.
The Nevada Wolf Pack men’s basketball team won a national tournament (College Basketball Invitational) in Musselman’s first year as coach in 2015-16. Musselman then guided the Pack to three Mountain West regular season titles, one conference tournament title, three NCAA Tournament appearances and one Sweet 16 in his final three seasons in Northern Nevada.
The driver of the Muss Bus left Lawlor Events Center filled and Wolf Pack fans happy, bloated and wanting more when he bolted to the Arkansas Razorbacks in April 2019.
And now, in just his second season in Fayetteville, Ark., he is on the verge of doing the same thing with the Hogs.
Musselman’s Razorbacks jumped into the Associated Press Top 25 this week for the first time in three years at No. 24. The Razorbacks are 17-5 overall and in second place in the SEC at 9-4, have won four in a row and seven of their last eight.
The Razorbacks, less than two full years after luring Musselman away from Nevada, now have dreams of the NCAA Tournament. The Hogs whipped the Florida Gators, the team that beat Musselman in the 2019 NCAA Tournament in his last game at Nevada, on Tuesday night less than 48 hours after getting ranked.
“We didn’t want to be ranked and then lose the very next game,” Musselman said Tuesday night. “At Nevada that happened to us.”
A lot of things are happening at Arkansas that also happened at Nevada under Musselman.
The first thing Musselman did at Arkansas was immediately raise the level of expectations. “I’m not going to be easy on you,” Musselman told the Razorbacks in his first practice as head coach. “We’re shooting for perfection.”
Another thing Musselman has done at Arkansas that he also did at Nevada was win and create a buzz around the program right away. Arkansas went 20-12 last year in its first season under Musselman, finishing 12th in the nation in average attendance at 15,487 a game and selling out Bud Walton Arena five times.
“I’m just real proud of our team’s growth,” Musselman said this week.
The Razorbacks, boosted by freshman Moses Moody (16.2 points a game), won their first nine games this season, are 13-1 at home and are averaging 82.5 points a game. And, just like at Nevada, the Razorbacks seem like a lock to go to the NCAA Tournament in Musselman’s second season.
There is one other thing that has happened at Arkansas that also happened at Nevada.
“Getting ranked is great for the fans, alumni, boosters and former players, and we’re proud of that,” Musselman said. “But we have to move on and keep getting better.”
There is one other thing Musselman brought to Arkansas from Nevada. After Arkansas beat No. 10 Missouri 86-81 on Saturday in Columbia, Mo., Musselman exploded into the locker room with his shirt off.
“Somebody poured Gatorade on the back of my shirt,” Musselman explained, “and that led to me taking the shirt off. Someone then said, ‘Hey, why don’t you just go in the locker room like that?’”
Musselman, never one to back down from a YouTube moment, did just that, flashing his 56-year-old abs as his team erupted in the locker room.
“That wasn’t really planned,” said Musselman, who flashed his abs almost every time his Wolf Pack teams did something significant. “You want to have some fun. You want to enjoy the wins.”
Musselman has already joined an elite group of former Wolf Pack football, men’s basketball and baseball head coaches who have enjoyed coaching success after leaving Nevada.
The Wolf Pack’s three most significant men’s sports have historically been the place where coaching careers come to die or fade away. But a few of the departed head coaches have succeeded after leaving Nevada and some have even flourished.
Where does Musselman’s performance at Arkansas so far rank among former Wolf Pack football, men’s basketball and baseball head coaches? Well, it’s not the best. It’s barely in the Top Ten. But give him time. He’s only been gone 22 months.
A quick look back at the Top 16 (in honor of Musselman’s unforgettable Sweet 16 season at Nevada) coaching careers of former Wolf Pack football, men’s basketball and baseball head coaches after their Nevada careers ended.
16. JOE SHEEKETSKI
Sheeketski, a former Notre Dame football player for coach Knute Rockne, went 24-18 in four seasons as Pack coach from 1947-50. His teams, led by quarterback Stan Heath, were a combined 18-4 in 1947 and 1948 and went to the first two bowl games in school history. The Wolf Pack shut down its football program in 1951 because of a lack of funding and Sheeketski left for pro football. He coached the backfield for the New York Yanks of the NFL in 1951 before that franchise, too, folded and later moved to Dallas and eventually Baltimore. Sheeketski resurfaced in coaching for one year as the backfield coach of Dayton University in 1954. He also worked for the FBI and, like many of his Wolf Pack players in the 1940s, also worked for Nevada casinos after his coaching career ended.
15. SONNY ALLEN
Allen led the Wolf Pack to its first two NCAA Division I basketball tournaments in 1984 and 1985. His Pack teams, the first to play at Lawlor Events Center, were a combined 114-89 from 1980-87. Allen, just 51 years old when he left Nevada, surprisingly never became a head coach in college again. But he was the head coach of the World Basketball League’s Las Vegas Silver Streaks (1988) and the CBA’s Santa Barbara Islanders (1989-90). Allen, who passed away this past September, then became an assistant with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks (1997-98) and spent three seasons in the WNBA (1998-2001) as an assistant with the Detroit Shock and head coach of the Sacramento Monarchs.
14. BRIAN POLIAN
Polian, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian, lasted four seasons (2013-16) as Nevada football coach, going 23-27 with one bowl victory. Polian, now 46, has spent the last four seasons as Notre Dame’s special teams’ coach, a role he previously held in South Bend, Ind., from 2005-09.
13. DAVID CARTER
Carter, a Wolf Pack assistant basketball coach under Trent Johnson and Mark Fox from 1999-2009, replaced Fox as head coach in 2009-10. Carter’s six Pack teams were a combined 98-97, winning the Western Athletic Conference regular season title in 2011-12, but never going to the NCAA Tournament. Since leaving Nevada Carter has been an assistant at his alma mater Saint Mary’s (2015-17), Georgia under Fox (2017-18), Musselman’s alma mater San Diego (2018-20) and now at Loyola Marymount.
12. CHARLIE ERB
Erb coached Wolf Pack football for one season, going 3-4-1 in 1924 when he was just 21 years old. Erb left the Pack after 1924, thus joining a very select group of former Wolf Pack football, men’s basketball and baseball head coaches to become a head coach elsewhere. Erb, a former Rose Bowl quarterback for Cal in 1920, 1921, returned to coaching in 1926 to become the head football coach and athletic director at Idaho. The Vandals, then members of the Pacific Coast Conference, went 10-9-5 in three years under Erb. The conference included the eight schools (USC, UCLA, Washington, Washington State, Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State) that would make up the Pac-8. Idaho was 2-0-2 in conference play in 1927, narrowly losing out on the league title to Stanford and USC, which were both 4-0-1. Erb, whose son was also a Rose Bowl quarterback for Cal, coached Humboldt State for three years (1935-37), going 15-6-1.
11. JEFF TISDEL
Tisdel, Chris Ault’s first quarterback at Nevada, was the Wolf Pack head football coach for four years (1996-99). His first Pack team went 9-3 and won the Las Vegas Bowl. Tisdel’s Pack teams were a combined 23-22. Tisdel, though, did go 4-0 against UNLV, the best record against the Rebels by any Pack coach in school history. After leaving Nevada Tisdel returned to the California junior college ranks (he coached Sacramento city college from 1989-93) and was a very successful head coach at Sierra Junior College in Rocklin, Calif.. He won six conference titles and finished second twice in 11 seasons at Sierra. Tisdel’s Sierra teams were a combined 79-32 and won six bowl games.
10. ERIC MUSSELMAN
Musselman, undoubtedly, will move toward No. 1 on this list very soon. But at this point Musselman is still less than two full seasons removed from his Nevada career. His biggest accomplishment so far at Arkansas is getting the Razorbacks into the Top 25 rankings. But he’s just getting started. He is 37-17 at Arkansas, the exact same record he compiled at Nevada after his first 54 games.
9. RAYMOND COURTRIGHT
Courtright, a former three-sport star at Oklahoma, helped transform the Nevada athletic department from 1919-23. He coached all the sports (football, men’s basketball, baseball and track) and was also athletic director at Nevada. Courtright’s football teams, led by star quarterback James “Rabbit” Bradshaw, went 26-13-6. He left Nevada to coach football and serve as athletic director at the Colorado School of Mines (1924-26), going 7-17-1. His greatest coaching success after leaving Nevada, though, was his 18 years (1927-44) at Michigan as an assistant football coach and head golf and wrestling coach. His golf teams won two NCAA titles and eight Big Ten titles. His wrestling teams won one Big Ten title. Courtright’s coaching career ended after one season (1946) as a football assistant at Fresno State under head coach Bradshaw.
8. JIM AIKEN
Aiken had a solid and underrated career as Wolf Pack football head coach from 1939-46, going 38-26-4. The Pack went 5-4 in Aiken’s first year in 1939 for its first winning season since 1925. Aiken also was the Pack basketball head coach in 1944-45 (8-9 record). Aiken left the Pack after 1946 to become the Oregon Ducks’ head football coach. The Ducks went a combined 16-5 in Aiken’s first two years with quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, even though one of the losses (13-6 in 1947) was to the Wolf Pack. Van Brocklin left after 1948 and the Ducks struggled, losing 15-of-20 games over Aiken’s final two seasons. Aiken then found work in the lumber business in Oregon and was a high school athletic director.
7. BILL IRELAND
Ireland, an assistant coach in football, was the Wolf Pack’s head baseball coach from 1960-66 after a distinguished high school coaching career at Fernley and South Tahoe. The White Pine High graduate led the Wolf Pack baseball team to a small college regional tournament victory in 1965. Ireland then left the Pack to become the UNLV Rebels’ first football coach. His Rebel teams went 26-23-1 in five seasons, including 2-2 against the Wolf Pack in the first games of the rivalry. Ireland was also credited for coming up with the idea of the Fremont Cannon as the trophy of the rivalry. Ireland is still just one of three UNLV football coaches with a winning career record at the school along with Tony Knap and Ron Meyer. He spent the final 10 years of his career as UNLV’s athletic director and is a member of the Wolf Pack and Rebel Hall of Fame.
6. CHRIS TORMEY
Tormey coached Wolf Pack football for four seasons (2000-03) and never had a winning season. His Pack teams, though exciting at times with standout players like Nate Burleson, Chance Kretschmer, David Neill, Jorge Cordova, Zack Threadgill, Daryl Towns, were just a combined 16-31 and never beat UNLV (0-4). Tormey, though, never stopped coaching after leaving Nevada until the end of this past season. He was a well-respected and well-liked assistant at Washington, Hawaii, Washington State and Wyoming from 2004 through 2013 before a wild ride through various football levels, coaching at a Washington high school in 2014 and in the Canadian Football League the past six years before announcing his retirement at the end of the 2020 season.
5. JEFF HORTON
Horton was a Pack football head coach for just one season, going 7-4 in 1993, before shocking everyone and becoming UNLV’s head coach. He had one solid season at UNLV, going 7-5 in 1994, beating Ault and the Pack to win the Big West title and then winning the Las Vegas Bowl. But Horton’s Rebels took a nosedive after 1994 and he was fired after 1998 with a 13-44 Rebel record. Horton, like Tormey, has had a long and distinguished career as an assistant after leaving Nevada. Since 2011 he has been an assistant coach at San Diego State and remains on the Aztecs’ staff. After leaving UNLV he became an assistant at Wisconsin (2000-05). He was in the NFL with the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions (2006-09) and returned to college coaching with Minnesota in 2010. He was also Minnesota’s interim head coach for five games, beating Illinois and Iowa to close out the year.
4. JAY JOHNSON
Johnson’s Wolf Pack baseball teams went 72-42 over two seasons (2014-15) and won the Mountain West regular season championship in 2015. The Pack went 41-15 in 2015 but somehow did not get selected for a NCAA Regional. Johnson then was named the head coach at Arizona, one of the storied programs in college baseball. He led the Wildcats to a 49-24 record in his first season in 2016 and a stunning runner-up finish to Coastal Carolina in the College World Series. Johnson’s Wildcats then returned to the regionals in 2017 and finished 38-21. His Arizona teams have gone 163-96 in his five seasons, winning 32 or more games his first four years. The Wildcats were 10-5 last year before the season was cut short by COVID-19.
3. MARK FOX
Fox continued the basketball success Trent Johnson started at Nevada by leading the Wolf Pack to three more NCAA tournaments from 2005-07. He stayed two more seasons at Nevada (going to the CBI twice) and ended up with a 123-43 record. Fox then left to become Georgia’s head coach and stayed nine seasons, compiling a 163-133 record and going to two NCAA tournaments. His 163 victories are the most by any Georgia coach since Hugh Durham, who won 297 games from 1979-95. Fox has been the head coach of the California Golden Bears the past two seasons, going 22-33. The Bears’ 14-18 record in Fox’s first year last year, though, came on the heels of two seasons when Cal went 16-47 combined under coach Wyking Jones. Fox is 308-209 as a head coach, 185-166 with two NCAA tournaments in 11 seasons since leaving Nevada.
2. TRENT JOHNSON
Johnson led the Wolf Pack basketball team to the Sweet 16 in 2004 and then left the program to take over Stanford. Johnson was 79-74 in five seasons at Nevada, going to one NIT and one NCAA tournament. Johnson excelled at Stanford, going 80-48 over four seasons as well as three NCAA tournaments. He returned to the Sweet 16 in 2008 and then left for LSU. He had one good season at LSU (27-8 in 2008-09) before his career trended downward. Over his last seven years as a head coach, three at LSU and four at TCU, Johnson was 90-133 and never returned to the NCAA Tournament. Since leaving TCU Johnson has been an assistant at Louisville (2017-18 under interim head coach and former Reno High player David Padgett) and Cal (the last two years under former Pack coach Mark Fox). Johnson was 276-264 over 17 seasons as a head coach, 197-189 with four NCAA Tournaments in 12 seasons after leaving Nevada.
1. BUCK SHAW
It’s hard to top a NFL championship. Shaw, who coached the Wolf Pack football team for four seasons (1925-28) to a 10-20-3 record, is No. 1 without question on this list because of what he did in 1960. That’s when he was head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and beat Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game. It was the only time Lombardi lost a championship game. Shaw retired from coaching after that game and after 12 successful seasons in professional football. He was the San Francisco 49ers first-ever head coach in the All America Football Conference and NFL from 1946-54, compiling a 71-39-5 record. He was also 19-16-1 in three season with the Eagles. Shaw, though, would be at or near the top of this list even if he didn’t coach in the NFL. After leaving the Wolf Pack, he coached Santa Clara for seven seasons (after seven years as a Broncos assistant). The Broncos went 47-10-4 under Shaw from 1936-42 and won the Sugar Bowl in both 1936 and 1937. He was also head coach at Cal in 1945 (4-5-1) and was Air Force’s first head coach in 1956 and 1957, going 9-8-2.

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