AD Doug Knuth, hope and promise all going right for Nevada Wolf Pack fans says Joe Santoro (column)
For the Nevada Appeal
The clouds have parted, the sun is shining and the majestic skies over northern Nevada once again are as blue as Lake Tahoe on a warm summer day. Those leftover sweet potatoes, turkey and pumpkin pie never tasted so good. And it’s all because hope and promise and unlimited possibilities have returned to Nevada Wolf Pack football.
This was the best Thanksgiving weekend for Wolf Pack football since the college football gods turned Black Friday into Blue Friday six years ago. The Fremont cannon is blue, the Wolf Pack is the best college football team in the state, Brian Polian is gone and all the good folks of Packville are singing and joyous once again.
Did we mention that Brian Polian is gone?
Wolf Pack fans had a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend. Doug Knuth proved to us once again that he believes in the goodness and purity of Wolf Pack sports. The Wolf Pack athletic director and keeper of the silver and blue flame showed us that he clearly sees the promise of Wolf Pack football.
And that is why Brian Polian is gone.
“The future is very bright for Wolf Pack football and I am excited to watch and cheer for the team as they hunt for a championship in 2017,” Knuth said in a press release on Sunday.
Polian is gone and the word championship is back in a sentence about Wolf Pack football quicker than you can invent a meaningless phrase like “mutually agreed to part ways.”
Of course, Polian couldn’t mutually agree to simply fade away never to be heard from again. He was quoted on Sunday as saying that the Wolf Pack doesn’t get enough financial support from the university and that seven or eight wins in a season is “a really good job.” He even went so far as to say that his Wolf Pack teams outperformed how they were supported. Listen to Polian and he’ll have you wondering why Knuth didn’t hand him a six-year contract extension on the plane back from Las Vegas Saturday night.
But leave it to Polian to remind us all why he is no longer the Pack coach. The reason Polian is in the Pack past is because he truly believes that seven wins is a really good job. Yes, he said before this season started that seven wins wouldn’t be good enough. But that was before he went out and won five games against one of the weakest schedules in the Pack’s quarter century of Division I-A football.
Polian’s lasting legacy at Nevada is that he tried to change the perception of Wolf Pack football in his 1,417-day reign as Pack king. When he took over the Wolf Pack in 2013, he was handed a plucky little football program that prided itself on hard work and achieving lofty goals when all the odds were stacked against it. A seven-win season wasn’t considered “really good.” It was a seven-win season, after all, that prompted Chris Ault, a College Football Hall of Fame coach, to quit in frustration.
That standard, though, all changed with Polian. All Polian did for four years was tell us how difficult it is to win football games at Nevada. Wolf Pack football ceased to be about winning championships under Polian. It simply became about maintaining mediocrity.
Polian spent about five minutes on campus when he first got hired, looked around and didn’t see a Golden Dome or even one Touchdown Jesus, and then told ESPN that Nevada football had no tradition. He reminded us almost on a daily basis of how little he had to work with at Nevada, from the talent pool of players in his locker room to the locker room itself.
Polian spent his four years at Nevada remodeling the football facility like a new First Lady changing the décor in the White House. He switched sidelines and changed the uniforms and helmets. He remodeled the locker rooms. It was important to him that the track around Mackay was painted blue and the video board could be seen from space. He made his team march around campus before home games and from the Arch downtown during homecoming week.
It was all sleight of hand designed to make everyone forget that he simply had no idea how to make the football program better. The man won just 19 games in four seasons against Division I-A teams and most of those victories were against football programs on life support. Polian won just four games in four seasons against Division I-A teams that finished the season with a winning record. All 19 of his victims lost at least five games by the end of the season.
But, hey, the uniforms looked good.
He simply stole traditions from all of his previous coaching stops and made them instant Wolf Pack traditions. The one tradition he couldn’t take with him to Nevada, though, was all of the resources he had at places like Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M. Polian, it seems, believes that all head football coaches should be handed their rich daddy’s credit card on Cyber Monday to surf the Internet looking for football talent or toys to improve the facilities. It obviously surprised him to learn at Nevada that the head coach surfs the net with a dial-up internet connection and looks for talent and toys armed only with a free shipping coupon code on Amazon.
Knuth, fortunately for Wolf Pack fans, never bought into all of the excuses and doomsday talk. And neither did Wolf Pack fans. Pack fans remember the 13-win season of 2010. They remember the eight consecutive bowl games from 2005-12. They remember the eight consecutive wins over UNLV. They remember the nine wins in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 2005. The Pack’s budget was good enough in those seasons to achieve great things.
Well, the budget didn’t change starting in 2013 when Polian arrived. But the head coach did. And now, thankfully, it is changing again. Also changing is the focus of Pack football.
While Polian was still talking on Sunday about all of the problems that are inherent in Wolf Pack football, Knuth took a different approach. He talked about hunting for a championship. Right now. He didn’t talk about someday, possibly, if all goes well, moving in the general direction of a championship at some vague point in the future. He spoke of hunting for a championship in 2017. Right now. Right here. With this budget. With a new football coach.
The new coach, though, should know that he will inherit a football program that is in much worse shape than the program Polian was given after the 2012 season. That 2012 team, after all, had not lost to UNLV or failed to go to a bowl game in eight years. It was just two seasons removed from a conference championship. It had one of the most dominating and innovative offenses in college football history (the pistol) and a talented quarterback (Cody Fajardo) to run it for the next two years.
The program Polian inherited also had a ton of talent. In addition to Fajardo, players like Rykeem Yates, Richy Turner, Hasaan Henderson, Connor Talbott, Tyler Stewart, Kyle Roberts, Jonathan McNeal, Jeremy Macauley, Lenny Jones, Bryan Lane, Brock Hekking, Jordan Hanson, Jarred Gipson, Matt Galas, Jordan Dobrich, Joel Bitonio and Alex Bertrando were also on the roster.
In short, it was a turn-key program that just needed someone with the patience, work ethic, ingenuity and mental toughness to take it to the next level. Polian, though, never spoke of the next level in his three years, 10 months and 16 days as head coach. All he could do was talk about why Nevada was doomed to stay at its current level of mediocrity.
And that is why he is now gone.
What kind of program is Polian handing to the next Pack coach? Well, the next football coach will take over a program that has won its rivalry game in just two of the previous four seasons and has had a winning record in just two of its four previous seasons. The pistol? Gone. A philosophy of winning and overcoming great odds no matter how puny the budget? Gone.
But we have not come to you today to bury Polian. We are here to simply just forget him and allow the last four years to fade away. This, after all, is a time for hope and promise. This also a time for a soothing and reassuring reminder that Polian didn’t destroy everything that Ault tried to build for three decades.
Polian leaves the new coach a talented quarterback (Ty Gangi) for two seasons and a great running back (James Butler) for one. Asauni Rufus and Dameon Baber are back for two more years in the secondary and a ton of defensive linemen, led by Malik Reed, should blossom over the next year or two. And the helmets and uniforms look nice, too.
But the best thing that Polian leaves the new coach that Ault didn’t leave Polian is the athletic director. Ault’s biggest sin against Pack football is that he didn’t wait to retire until athletic director Cary Groth was long gone. He let Groth pick the next football coach and she went out and hired a guy who didn’t deserve the job and was in a jittery, defensive state of panic from the first day he stepped on campus.
Knuth gets to pick his own football coach now. And that alone is the reason for optimism surrounding Pack football. We trust Knuth to pick the right coach. He did exactly that, after all, for men’s basketball (Eric Musselman) and baseball (T.J. Bruce).
Should we expect a Mountain West championship in 2017? Just remember that the last new Pack head coach to win more games in his first year than his predecessor the previous year was Ault in 1994. The last four new Pack hires (Jeff Tisdel in 1996, Chris Tormey in 2000, Ault in 2004 and Polian in 2013) all produced the same or fewer victories in their first year than the previous coach won in his last year.
That is a new phenomenon at Nevada. It’s like trading in your used car for a new one and the new one has a bumpier ride, gets worse gas mileage and leaks more oil. Before Tormey in 2000, you have to go back to A.C. Steckle in 1901 to find a new Pack football coach who couldn’t win as much as his predecessor did the previous year. After Steckle, the next 18 Wolf Pack coaching changes, from Bruce Shorts in 1904 through Tisdel in 1996, all led the program to as many victories or more in their first year than it won the previous year.
So be patient, Pack fans. It might take more than a carefully worded press release on a Sunday afternoon to completely wipe away the Polian years.
But this next change is not only about 2017. Polian is gone because he couldn’t take the Pack to the next level. Heck, he couldn’t maintain the level he inherited. This change is about believing in the future.
What type of coach should Knuth hire for Wolf Pack football? We’ll leave that up to him. He’s earned our trust. Yes, it would be nice if the new coach had some sort of Wolf Pack ties. It would be nice if the new coach also preached toughness and grit and a no-excuses attitude. It would be nice if the new coach could coach a little, who knew what it was like to develop an intricate game plan from week to week. It would be nice if the new coach could win some big games instead of just winning the interview for the job.
But all that is truly necessary is that the new coach forgets about all of the excuses and tired clichés about why Nevada can never win big and just comes to work each day focusing on all of the hope and promise and unlimited possibilities of Wolf Pack football.
You know, just like the athletic director.