Joe Santoro: A hire the Pack was forced to make

Former Nevada player Virgil Green, new coach Ken Wilson, and athletic director Doug Knuth on Dec. 10, 2021 at Mackay Stadium. (Photo: Nevada Athletics)

Former Nevada player Virgil Green, new coach Ken Wilson, and athletic director Doug Knuth on Dec. 10, 2021 at Mackay Stadium. (Photo: Nevada Athletics)

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What should you never forget about the Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s switch from head coach Jay Norvell to Ken Wilson? Well, just one thing. The Wolf Pack didn’t want to have to hire a new head football coach last month.
The Pack was perfectly thrilled, maybe even giddy, over Jay I’m-just-so-proud-of-this-football-team Norvell. They likely would have put yet another raise and contract extension and maybe even added the title of university president under his Christmas tree if he wanted it. But Norvell loaded up the truck, filled it with Pack coaches and football players and headed to Fort Collins, Colo., in the middle of the night, leaving the Pack cupboard bare.
And now the Pack once again is mired in the seemingly never-ending, tedious process of rebuilding its football program. They did it back in 2017, 2013, 2004 and 2000. And that’s just this century. So don’t blame the Wolf Pack if things turn ugly this fall. And next fall. And the fall after that. The Pack, after all, didn’t want this change. It didn’t force it, desire it or, it seems, even plan for it or think it was possible. Not right now. They are winging it as we speak, rapidly hiring the first and only name on their list of head coaching candidates roughly three minutes into the search because he agreed to never leave.
This is all new for the Pack. The last head coach to voluntarily leave the Pack, other than Chris Ault, that is, because nobody really knows if any of the three times he left the team were exactly his idea, was Jeff Horton after the 1993 season. Before that it was Dick Trachok, who decided in 1969 that hosting Governor’s Dinners and booster three-martini lunches as athletic director was preferable to getting your brains beat out by Willamette and San Francisco State on the football field.
So, if the scoreboard is frightful this fall, remember to be kind to the Pack football team. This situation, don’t forget, was not their idea. It was thrust upon them by a me-first, forget-what-I-said-about-loyalty, ungrateful head coach.
The choice of Ken Wilson as head coach is, well, a bit strange. We’ve had a month to let this all sink in and, well, it is still strange and weird.
The Wilson hiring, first of all, goes against athletic director Doug Knuth’s philosophy of ignoring anything and everyone connected to the university before he got here in 2013. Knuth’s old philosophy of hiring the anti-Nevada candidate, after all, worked. See Eric Musselman, Steve Alford, Jay Johnson and, yes, Jay Norvell. I guess he simply ran out of Jays. The Wilson hire is the anti-Knuth. It’s a hire Ault would make. And he probably did. Wilson, after all, is just the modern day version of Jeff Tisdel and Jeff Horton. There is certainly a been there, done that, when-will-it-all-blow-up-in-our-faces feel to this hiring.
Wilson is a nice guy. Tisdel and Horton are nice guys. Wilson is a solid football coach and an Ault disciple. Tisdel and Horton were solid football coaches and Ault disciples. Wilson got the job because of his connection to Ault. Tisdel and Horton got the job because they used to walk by Ault’s office door. Wilson loves Nevada and Ault and has said he will never leave. Tisdel and Horton did the same. Yes, Pack fans, the dream of the ‘90s is alive in Reno. So put that cell phone away, make sure to rewind that VHS tape before returning it and get out your Britney, Jewel and Pearl Jam CDs. It’s the 1990s up on North Virginia Street all over again.
Wilson is 57 years old, the oldest head coach the Pack has ever hired. Wilson has never been a head coach before and has only been a coordinator for a few years and usually had to share that job. He took five years off in the middle of his coaching career to follow Ault around the athletic office and complain about Tormey.
Wilson now seems to be hiring assistant coaches based on whether or not their phone numbers are already in his cell phone. He’s just hiring coaches from Oregon and Washington State who weren’t getting promoted. That’s all well and good but Wilson is turning Nevada into some sort of coaching school. Nevada alumni connected to Wilson and Ault, of course, love this hire because they finally feel connected to the university again after nine years of exile in the Brian Polian and Norvell eras. Maybe that’s why Knuth hired Wilson, you think? There’s nothing, after all, Knuth likes better than a deep-pocketed, grateful alumni group.
But Northern Nevada, those that didn’t play for or coach with Ault or Wilson, that is, has responded to the Wilson hiring with a collective yawn, if they even noticed at all. Colorado State, on the other hand, is ecstatic over Norvell. Don’t be shocked if the name of their town is changed from Fort Collins to Fort Grit before too long. The Rams have already named their offense “Fort Air Raid.” It’s as if John Elway has taken over the program.
There is one benefit of Norvell heading to Colorado State. Wolf Pack fans now have another school to hate. And when Pack fans hate a school they usually buy tickets to see it. UNLV and Boise State will always be at the top of that Pack fan hate list but Norvell’s band of carpetbaggers is right behind them now. This is just what the Pack ticket office, a room that featured tumbleweeds and dried out cattle skulls during the Norvell era, has needed.
The Pack’s game against Colorado State at Mackay this fall should be the hottest ticket on the 2022 schedule, an enticing slate that also includes Boise State, Fresno State and San Diego State. The Colorado State game is already bringing back memories of when Horton first brought his UNLV Rebels to Mackay on Oct. 28, 1995. Wilson was there. Fights broke out before and after the game. A crowd of 33,391 showed up to boo and swear at Horton and point various fingers at him as well as toss beer cups and other objects his way. UNLV’s Quincy Sanders tossed his helmet at Ault. It was college football’s version of the cage match. There should not be an empty seat at Mackay this fall when Norvell shows up on the sideline.
Pack fans, you better not miss those Boise State and Colorado State games at Mackay this fall. That’s because it will be your last chance to see those two hated rivals in Reno for quite some time. The Pack, because of the always-present stupidity of the Mountain West’s schedule makers, will not play either Colorado State or Boise State in 2023 and 2024. Boise State and Colorado State will not play at Mackay Stadium after this fall until 2026.
Who knows who will be the Colorado State or even Nevada head coaches in 2026? Wilson will probably still be at Nevada (or so he says) but knowing Norvell, he could be at San Jose State or Hawaii in 2026.
The Wolf Pack was just getting accustomed to playing Boise State again. The Pack’s 41-31 win at Boise on Oct. 2 was the first meeting between the two schools in three years. The Pack and Broncos, which played each other 41 times from 1971 through 2014, have only played each other three times over the last seven years. That is ridiculous. And now the Broncos and Pack will take another two years (2023 and 2024) off from each other.
The Mountain West has so few football rivalries that anybody wants to see. Boise State against Nevada is one of the few. It might be the best rivalry in the conference, maybe only surpassed by UNLV-Nevada. The Broncos and Wolf Pack need to be play each other every year. Stick Hawaii in the Mountain Division and Boise State in the West Division. Make it happen.
Why is Nevada still going to play at Iowa on Sept. 17? Iowa, we remind you, is only on the Pack football schedule, of course, because it is Norvell’s alma mater. Well, OK, there is another reason why the Pack hasn’t replaced a road game at Iowa with, say, a home game with UC Davis. The Pack will head to Iowa City and take home a $1.5 million payout for going to Big Ten country, rolling over and taking a pounding.
That, unfortunately, is what Wolf Pack football is right now. It’s a glorified bake sale sport. It’s why Knuth hired Wilson, to appease the boosters and alumni. The Wolf Pack football program is not only about winning championships. Winning championships is far down the list of Pack priorities, somewhere between reducing ticket prices and getting new carpet in Cashell Fieldhouse. If winning championships was the priority then Knuth would have taken more than three minutes to hire Wilson. He would have looked at another candidate. And he would have been more tuned in to Norvell’s frustrations and never would have allowed Coach Ungrateful to even entertain an offer from Colorado State.
The Pack football program’s main purpose is to simply help fund the rest of the athletic department. That $1.5 million in Iowa is Norvell’s parting gift to the Pack.
Norvell’s Rams, by the way, will open the 2022 season at Michigan. The Rams are getting $1.8 million for getting blasted at The Big House. So, yes, Nevada isn’t the only Group of Five school who trades wins for big paydays. The more things change for Norvell, the more they stay the same. But that’s what happens when you take another job in the same conference.
That $1.8 million, by the way, will just about pay Norvell’s salary in 2022.
The Rams will also play at Washington State next year. Odds are, the good folks of Fort Collins will likely hold off on renaming their city Fort Grit until long after the Michigan game. Then again, if Norvell goes to Ann Arbor and wins, they might change the Pike’s Peak to Jay Peak.
Wilson’s Pack, in case you were wondering, will have to play bake sale games at USC in 2023, Minnesota in 2024, Penn State in 2025 and UCLA in 2026. Hey, those $1 million-a-year salaries for Wilson and basketball coach Steve Alford aren’t going to pay for themselves.


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