Santoro: Can Jeff Choate break Pack’s first-year curse?

Former Nevada head coach Brian Polian leads the Wolf Pack onto the field before a game against Fresno State in 2016. Polian finished 5-7 that season, his final one at Nevada.

Former Nevada head coach Brian Polian leads the Wolf Pack onto the field before a game against Fresno State in 2016. Polian finished 5-7 that season, his final one at Nevada.
Tom Smedes | AP file

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Sports Fodder:

History is not on Jeff Choate's side in his first season as the Nevada Wolf Pack football coach.

Ken Wilson was 2-10 in his first season as Pack coach in 2022, losing his last 10 games. Jay Norvell was 3-9 in his Pack debut in 2017, losing his first five and eight of his first nine. Brian Polian was 4-8 in 2013, losing six of his last seven. Even Chris Ault, starting his third term as Pack head coach, was 5-7 in 2004. Chris Tormey was 2-10 in 2000.

The last five new Pack head coaches, therefore, have been a combined 16-44 dating back to the turn of the century. Welcome to Nevada, Jeff Choate.

It wasn't, however, always so difficult for new Pack football head coaches. Tormey's 2-10 disaster in 2000, after all, ended a pretty impressive run for newly hired Pack head football coaches that dated back almost to the start of the previous century.

Jeff Tisdel was 9-3 with a bowl victory in 1996. Ault, in his Second Coming as coach, was 9-2 in 1994. Jeff Horton was a very respectable 7-4 in 1993. Ault, in his first debut, was 8-3 in 1976. Jerry Scattini was an acceptable 5-5 in 1969, even beating UNLV in the first game of the rivalry to cap off the year. Dick Trachok came from Reno High to go 4-3 in his first Pack season in 1959. Gordon McEachron was 2-5 in his first year in 1955 and Jake Lawlor, a basketball coach and athletic director by trade, was 2-2 in 1952. Joe Sheeketski was 9-2 in 1947, Jim Aiken was 5-4 in 1939, Doug Dashiell was 4-4 in 1936 and Brick Mitchell was 3-3-2 in 1932.

Add it all up and that's a dozen new Pack head football coaches in a row from 1932 through 1996 (before Tormey came to town) who produced a combined record of 67-40-2 in their first seasons with 11 seasons out of 12 of .500 or better. Before that, from 1896 through 1929, the Pack hired 11 new coaches and six of them were .500 or better in their first year.

Northern Nevada, until Tormey arrived in Y2K, was usually pretty welcoming for new Wolf Pack head football coaches.

Why has the rookie season for new Pack head coaches been such a trying time this century? A lot of reasons. All five of the new coaches since 2000 took over depleted programs. It was Tisdel taking over a loaded program in 1996 from Ault. It has been handing the keys to a new coach for a car with three flat tires, a broken windshield, and a driver's side door and trunk that wouldn't open. The conferences got tougher starting in 2000 (Western Athletic Conference and Mountain West) and the growing inclination and need to play teams in the non-conference portion of the schedule for purely financial reasons also certainly didn't help first-year Pack coaches, starting with Tormey in 2000.

So, is Choate already doomed to suffer through a difficult losing season this fall and continue the Tormey-Ault-Polian-Norvell-Wilson trend? Not necessarily so. First of all, Tormey, Polian and Wilson were out-and-out failures as head coaches and never should have been hired. They were simply capable career assistants masquerading as head coaches, though Tormey had a little success at Idaho in the Big Sky and Big West in the late 1990s.

One must separate Ault and Norvell, somewhat, from the Tormey-Polian-Wilson era as new head coaches. Ault, of course, just needed a year to clean up the mess Tormey left him 2004 and Norvell suffered the same fate in 2017, righting the Polian ship. They both turned out to be fine head coaches, so first-year struggles are not always indicators of future failures as head coaches.

But will Choate, who certainly had a mess to clean up after Wilson, be more Ault and Norvell or will he be more Tormey, Polian and Wilson? As an experienced linebacker and defensive coach, Choate does remind more experienced Pack fans of Tormey and Wilson, more than he does Ault, Polian and Norvell. But everything does seem to be pointing to a successful first year for Choate.

He's apparently done a solid job in the transfer portal replenishing the roster and his first schedule at Nevada doesn't seem all that daunting. There doesn't seem to be a true body bag on the schedule, unlike the ones Norvell, Polian, Tormey and even Tisdel faced in their first years. Polian, for example, got UCLA and Florida State in two of his first three weeks, an especially cruel Welcome-To-Nevada housewarming gift.

There's no reason to think Choate can't be the first rookie Pack coach to get to a bowl game and avoid a losing record in his first year since Tisdel in 1996.


The Wolf Pack, by the way, is a three-touchdown underdog already for its season opener Aug. 24 at Mackay Stadium against SMU, according to Yahoo Sports. Welcome to Nevada, Jeff Choate.

That silly point spread, by the way, is just based on the Pack's 2-10 record and SMU's 11-3 record of a year ago. The spread, though it won't likely change much between now and Aug. 24, isn't truly based on reality — of course, nothing in college football is based on reality anymore. But nobody, not even the mighty, all-knowing and all-powerful Yahoo, has any idea what type of football team Choate will put on the field on Aug. 24.

But SMU was ranked No. 22 last year and the Pack was No. 12 in the 12-team Mountain West and that's how you get a meaningless 21-point spread in mid-June for a late August game that nobody outside Northern Nevada and Dallas cares about.

The Pack could surprise (cover the spread) on Aug. 24 simply because there will be no real tape on the Pack and SMU probably wouldn't care enough about the game to even watch it if there was. The Mustangs will clearly have other priorities and things on their mind when they come to Mackay.

It will be SMU's first game as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, an utterly ridiculous notion (SMU in the ACC, for goodness’ sake) that is all you need to know about how goofy college football has become. The ACC is now a 17-team monstrosity that proves it is now the unashamed hoarder of college football, collecting and buying any and all schools that will have them. SMU will meet Stanford and Cal in what will be official ACC games this year, if you can believe it.

It kind of makes you feel good about the Pack in the Mountain West, an actually stable conference that still believes in geographic rivalries.


One of the more interesting players on this year's Wolf Pack roster is linebacker Drue Watts. Watts, a gritty, 5-foot-11, 225-pound ball of energy, is one of the few remaining leftovers from the Norvell era in Nevada. Watts is also one of the few things not even the Wilson era could destroy.

Watts actually might be Wilson's top accomplishment in his two seasons as Pack coach. Watts was named an All-Mountain West honorable mention in his two seasons under Wilson. After playing in just one game as an undersized, skinny true freshman for the 2021 Pack under Norvell, Watts had 57 tackles in 2022 and 60 last year for Wilson. He was named to the College Football News Freshman All-America third team in 2021 and last year led the nation with four fumble recoveries.

Wilson, a highly respected linebacker coach, developed and helped establish Watts as one of the top linebackers in the Mountain West. And now Watts, who (for some reason) didn't immediately jump into the transfer portal as soon as the 2023 season ended, gets another highly respected linebacker coach as his head coach in Choate.

If this Wolf Pack defense takes a huge step forward this year, Watts will likely be a big reason why.


One of the best stories in major league baseball this season has been pitcher Paul Skenes of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Skenes has been brilliant in his second professional season. The 22-year-old, 6-foot-6, 235-pound righthander, the first pick in the 2023 draft out of LSU, is 4-0 in seven starts with an ERA of 2.29 and 53 strikeouts in 39.1 innings. He's also walked just seven.

Wolf Pack baseball fans, though, could have told you all about Skenes. Skenes, who led LSU to the College World Series championship in 2023 for former Pack head coach Jay Johnson, began his college career with Air Force in the Mountain West in 2021 and 2022.

He was 1-1 with 11 saves over 18 appearances as a reliever for the Falcons in 2021 and 10-3 in 15 starts in 2022. He struck out 126 over 112.1 innings in his two Air Force seasons, allowing just 90 hits. And he was no stranger to the Pack.

Skenes faced the Pack three times as a pitcher, going 1-0 with one save and allowing 13 hits and five earned runs over 14 innings with seven strikeouts and four walks. The win in 2022 and the save in 2021 both took place at Peccole Park. So, yes, the Pack hitters fared better against Skenes in 2021 and 2022 combined than major leaguers have done this year. On March 4, 2002, Nevada's Tyler Bosetti led off the fourth inning with a home run, ending a Skenes no-hit bid.

Skenes, though, also faced the Pack as a catcher and designated hitter. He was 11-for-28 (.393) against Nevada as a hitter with six walks, four strikeouts, five RBI, a double and a home run and five runs scored. The home run was at Peccole Park in 2022.

Pack pitcher Casey Burfield hit him with a pitch and Skenes was also called for catcher's interference and had a passed ball as Air Force's catcher.


Former Wolf Pack men's basketball coach Eric Musselman is working his magic already for USC. Musselman, speaking of undersized balls of energy, has completely re-tooled and rebuilt the USC roster since becoming head coach in early April.

Musselman, who cut his basketball teeth watching his dad Bill coach in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, was made for the transfer portal era. It really is, after all, no different from his time in professional basketball's minor leagues, working the phones and the free agent lists as a general manager and coach for the Rapid City Thrillers, Florida Beach Dogs, Florida Sharks and, later, the Reno Bighorns.

Musselman, even before his family joined him in Southern California, rented a house in Manhattan Beach, Calif., immediately after getting the USC job. He became roommates with his assistant coaches, a group that included his son Michael and loyal assistant Anthony Ruta. Ruta, who has been attached to Musselman's hip since their Wolf Pack days, even shared a bunk bed with Michael Musselman.

Muss and his coaches feverishly worked the phones and the computers at all hours of the day and night, attacking the transfer portal and building an almost entirely new program at USC faster than you can say Bronny James.

"It wasn't a frat house," Musselman told every media member who was interested the last two months, "it was a portal house."

Knowing Musselman and how he thrives on public relations and seeing his name in lights, it won't be long before he finds some friendly media member to write a book about his two grueling months in the lavish portal house in Manhattan Beach rebuilding the Trojans, something along the lines of Bear Bryant's “Junction Boys” boot camp at Texas A&M before the 1954 season.


Now that Musselman is back in the Wolf Pack neighborhood on the West Coast (sort of) after five years in Arkansas, will we ever see the Muss Bus pull into Lawlor Events Center or the future Pack arena at the Grand Sierra Resort?

Trent Johnson never brought his Stanford, LSU, TCU or even Cal State Northridge teams to Lawlor after he left the Pack. We never saw Mark Fox's Georgia or Cal teams come to town. But that was likely more because Johnson and Fox never wanted to coach against each other or against David Carter, who was Pack head coach from 2009-15.

Musselman doesn't have any real connection with current Pack coach Steve Alford and his staff so maybe he would be willing to bring his Trojans to Reno. Why not? Muss would be the King of Reno for a night, something he would no doubt enjoy.

If the Pack wants a guaranteed sellout (they could double the price of the tickets and still sell out), Musselman can certainly do it. It was Musselman, after all, who brought Lawlor and Pack fans back to life starting with the 2015-16 season and made it the hottest ticket in town for four years through the 2018-19 season. And Alford, as far as we can tell, is not afraid of a little competition. Alford, a former UCLA coach, might even get a kick out of beating a current USC coach.

Keep your fingers crossed, Pack fans.


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