Santoro: What has improved for Pack football? The buyout

Wolf Pack running back Jacques Badolato-Birdsell (23) looks for space against Wyoming on Saturday night.

Wolf Pack running back Jacques Badolato-Birdsell (23) looks for space against Wyoming on Saturday night.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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Sports Fodder:

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the University of Nevada will fire head football coach Ken Wilson after Friday.

The Pack would owe Wilson a $1.5 million buyout if it fired him before Dec. 1 and just $1 million after. Call it Wilson’s personal Black Friday. That $500,000 savings, after all, just might be the only reason he has yet to be fired after turning in his second consecutive 2-10 season.

Wilson, who has three years remaining on his nearly $1 million-a-year contract, has been more babysitter than head coach since he was hired in December 2021.

He took over a program that was devastated, demoralized and without hope and promise after head coach Jay Norvell abandoned it and, well, two years later the Pack is still devastated, demoralized and without hope and promise.

You could argue Pack football is at its lowest point since it went 1-9 in 1950, turned the lights out on the program for a year (1951) and then brought it back with almost no financial resources in 1952.

Wilson, after all, has lost 20-of-24 games since becoming head coach. It took Chris Ault seven years to lose 24 games. Brian Polian only lost 27 games and Jeff Tisdel only lost 22 over four seasons and they still got fired.

The Pack is simply not improving under Wilson.

The offense scored fewer points this year (208) than the year before (226). The defense gave up more points (401) this year than in 2022 (371). The offense scored 26 touchdowns in 2022 and just 20 this year.

The quarterbacks threw fewer touchdown passes this year (six) than a year ago (seven) and were intercepted more often (12-8). The offense had fewer yards this year (3,600) than last year (3,654) and the defense gave up more yards this year (5,312) than in 2022 (4,754).

So, yes, the buyout is the only thing that has improved over the last two years for the university since Wilson was hired.


It is not likely, however, the Pack will fire Wilson anytime soon.

The Wolf Pack, after all, has never fired a head football coach after just two years or fewer. The eight Pack coaches who stayed just a year either resigned to do something other than football in the late 19th or early 20th century or left in the middle of the night to coach UNLV (Jeff Horton). Every other Pack head coach stayed at least three years, except the Second Coming of Chris Ault in 1994 and 1995, and he simply walked away to concentrate on athletic director duties.

Should the Pack fire Wilson by the end of this week? Cutting their losses with Wilson right now, after all, would send a direct, succinct and unmistakable message to the community that football’s success is paramount to the university.

Sending Wilson on his way to another job coaching linebackers would be the proactive move. The alternative might just be a lazy, clueless, cheap administration simply delaying the inevitable.

Giving Wilson a third year could suggest that the university is treating football like it was swimming, golf, tennis, skiing, soccer or any of the other sports that don’t move the financial needle.

If you don’t keep moving the financial needle forward in these days of Name Image Likeness money, well, your program becomes meaningless.

Welcome to meaningless, Pack fans.


Wilson, of course, could blossom as a head coach in 2024.

Maybe he will finally find a legitimate starting quarterback. Maybe his defense will learn how to tackle. Maybe the offensive line will learn how to block. Those basic ingredients to football success have not happened in the 24 months since he was handed the keys to the program, but keep your Pack fingers crossed.

There was, after all, another Mountain West head coach in recent years who had a nightmare first two seasons and finally blossomed in his third year. Brent Brennan went 2-11 and 1-11 his first two seasons as San Jose State head coach in 2017-18.

Brennan, like Wilson, after two years was just a nice guy in well over his head. But San Jose State stood by Brennan and were rewarded with a promising 5-7 season in 2019 that turned into a 7-1 record and a Mountain West championship in 2020.

Thank you, pandemic.

The last three years the Spartans have been treading water at 5-7, 7-5 and 7-5 but this year won their last six games. Treading water, when there isn’t a pandemic around to obliterate half the conference’s rosters, is about all that you can ask from a nice-guy coach like Brennan and Wilson.

But, hey, it beats 2-10.


Wilson will never turn this Wolf Pack program around until he finds a consistent, productive starting quarterback. He should have learned that in his two-and-a-half decades as an assistant for Chris Ault and Mike Leach.

The Pack has averaged just 18 points a game with Wilson in charge for 24 games. The offense has scored more than two touchdowns in a game just seven times in those 24 games.

The Pack scored 52 points and the offense scored seven touchdowns in the last game Jay Norvell was the head coach. Unfortunately for the Pack, though, the lure of the NFL and Norvell stole just about all of that offense.

The Wolf Pack offense that Wilson and his staff has created the past two years is the island of misfit toys. And it’s not getting better.

The Pack, this year, is 125th out of 130 FBS team in third-down success rate (.304), 114th in total first downs (200), 112th in passing yards (175.2 per game), 99th in rushing yards (124.8 per game), 118th in sacks allowed (3.42 per game), 125th in scoring (17.3 per game), 130th in tackles for loss allowed (8.42 a game) and 123rd in total offense (300 yards a game).

Scoring points in college football shouldn’t be this difficult. It never used to be at Nevada.


Don’t feel sorry for Wilson if he’s unemployed by Monday morning.

He’s made a ton of money in his three decades in college football and has had a remarkable career for a former Division III linebacker from central Illinois.

He’ll be 60 in February. He’ll be more than fine if he has to give the keys to the program back soon. He’s always been fine.

He took five years off from coaching and even that didn’t ruin his coaching career. Ault suddenly retires after the 2012 season (that’s the official story, at least) and the next thing we know Wilson is an assistant at a Power Five school (Washington State).

After six years at Washington State and two at Oregon, he then gets the head coaching job at Nevada out of the blue after a two-minute coaching search and is given the biggest contract in the history of the program.

If he gets fired soon, he will likely get another job coaching linebackers after another two-minute job search. Nice-guy, loyal, offend-nobody, everybody’s-buddy linebacker coaches will always be in demand by paranoid, selfish head coaches who trust nobody. The sport is full of them.

Wilson just might not have the right personality to be a head coach. Chris Ault was an obsessive, driven, neurotic seeker of success at Nevada. He never cared who he offended, fired, ignored or stepped on.

He was always just about Chris Ault, and he wanted recognition and an important, meaningful life. That’s what it takes at Nevada to win consistently. We know that because, well, Ault is the only one who has ever done it.

The other head coaches at Nevada since Ault took over in 1976 (Jeff Horton, Jeff Tisdel, Chris Tormey, Brian Polian, Jay Norvell and Wilson) did not have Ault’s personality, drive, ambition and bloodthirsty will to win.

The only one who came close to Ault was Norvell, who had an abundance of confidence, a distinct game plan, a never-ending ego and a thorough disregard of anyone else’s opinion. You know, just like Ault.

Unfortunately for Pack fans, Norvell didn’t have one very important thing that Ault had. And that was a love for the University of Nevada.

That is the only quality Wilson shares with Ault. But a love for Nevada football doesn’t translate to victories on the field without that ego, drive, ambition and bloodthirsty will to win.

It’s been two years and nobody has any clue about whether or not Wilson has an identity or even a personality as a head coach. He has clearly not taken the job by the collar, ears and scruff of the neck, shook it silly and made it his own.

Maybe that will happen next year. Maybe not. That’s what the Pack powers-that-be need to figure out. Hopefully they will take more than five minutes to come up with an answer.

Wilson and Pack fans deserve that consideration.


The Boise State Broncos, who fired head coach Andy Avalos a few weeks ago, will play in the Mountain West championship game against UNLV this Saturday at Allegiant Stadium.

Yes, the Wolf Pack’s two biggest football rivals will be in the championship game, you know, like we needed further evidence that this just might be the worst season in Nevada’s FBS history.

UNLV, though, shouldn’t even be in the title game. They choked on Saturday against San Jose State. At home, no less.

Boise State beat San Jose State this year and San Jose State beat UNLV. Common sense would tell you, therefore, that in a three-way tie between Boise State, San Jose State and Southern Nevada (did they change their name?), Boise State and San Jose State should meet in the title game.

But the task of figuring out how to break the three-team tie was given to the computers simply because UNLV didn’t play Boise State.

The Mountain West should do us all a favor and just let the computers play all the league’s games in 2024.


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