Joe Santoro: A mere 144 inches from utter ruin
RENO — The Nevada Wolf Pack football team came within four yards of total devastation on Saturday at Mackay Stadium. A dozen feet from chaos. A mere 144 inches from utter ruin. Less than two Cameron Olivers from anarchy.
When Chason Virgil’s fourth-down misguided desperation heave fell harmlessly to the plastic grass in the end zone, preserving the Wolf Pack’s unsightly 27-22 victory over the Forlorn State Bulldogs, a sigh of relief that could be heard in Elko wafted over Mackay Mausoleum. The Wolf Pack football program somehow survived to live for another seven days. Head coach Brian Polian’s head coaching career endures. So hold off on building those Polian gallows. Unplug that electric chair. Take the blindfold off of Polian, remove the cigarette from his mouth and put down those vintage Wolf Pack pistols.
Polian Purgatory, where a tortured fan base feels like it got kicked in its silver and blues even when its team wins, is alive and well.
“The score was, frankly, closer than I thought it should have been,” Polian said after the fool’s gold victory.
It was a game that neither team deserved to win. At times it didn’t even look like that either team wanted to win. The 22,411 in attendance didn’t know whether to cheer, cry, cover their eyes or put a bag over their heads for fear that they would be recognized walking out of the stadium. Nevada-Fresno State used to be one of the most under-appreciated and entertaining college football games on the west coast. Now it is merely a contest of two gimpy-legged, muscle-fatigued, heat-sapped hikers hobbling away from an angry grizzly bear where the survivor feels grateful he was one step faster than his poor buddy.
“We won the game,” Polian said over and over last Saturday night as if he couldn’t really believe it himself. “That’s all that matters.”
The Pack players won the game. Polian won the game. His assistant coaches won the game. Everybody else — Wolf Pack fans and the Wolf Pack athletic department — lost a piece of their football soul after sitting through that three-hour, 18-minute fright fest. It was like watching a scared puppy try to cross six lanes of congested highway during rush hour. This was the Mountain West’s version of Coaches Survivor. Two struggling, overwhelmed, overmatched, out-of-answers head coaches stuck all alone on a deserted island with only a tattered pair of shorts and their wits and only one comes out alive with a job. Polian, as he reminded us repeatedly after the game, won. Sort of. Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter was eaten by the bear. No, he hasn’t been fired yet. But at this point it seems inevitable and the only humane thing to do.
But what if one of Virgil’s final four ill-conceived passes — imagine your girlfriend playing a game of darts after consuming six beers — from the 144-inch line had found a teammate in the end zone in the final minute last Saturday? We don’t know if Pack athletic director Doug Knuth was hoping the Bulldogs had scored in that final minute. We do know that if Virgil had connected, Knuth would have been justified in changing the direction of Wolf Pack football. He could have sent Polian packing on Monday morning and nobody would have been shocked. It would have been the humane thing to do for everyone — fans, administrators, players, assistant coaches, team mascots – and would have speeded up what looks to be the inevitable.
A loss to an ill-fated, feeble Fresno State football team would have been the worst setback in the Pack’s 24-year Division I history. Yes, they have played worse in other games. And, yes, they would have suffered more lopsided losses. But those other ugly losses would have come against much better teams and the vast majority of them wouldn’t have come at home in front of the few fans who are still brave enough to venture into the stadium.
Fresno State is a football program in chaos right now. DeRuyter has proven to be a guy who can’t win without a future NFL quarterback (Derek Carr) on the field. The Puppy Dogs Caught on the Congested Freeway have lost 18 of their last 20 games against FBS teams. You don’t beat a team like Fresno State by just five points at home. You obliterate them and make them quit by halftime. Fresno never quit against the Pack. They kept getting stronger and finding more confidence. And should have won the game. But, in the end, they are still Forlorn State. The football could have been on the one-inch line on that final Fresno drive and the Bulldogs still wouldn’t have scored. That’s just what teams in chaos do. They don’t gobble up victory even when it is presented to them on a plate.
But this is a horrible loss disguised as a lucky victory for the Pack for more depressing reasons than just that. The Pack has played poorly even in victory against bad teams before. See Cal Poly in Week 1. This latest loss-disguised-as-a-win was an eye-opener. The Pack should have come out, punched feeble Fresno in the teeth and then proceeded to pummel them all afternoon and early evening long. See Michigan 78, Rutgers 0. Show no mercy. Take your shirt off and flex your muscles. Go down the line of cheerleaders and boldly kiss them all.
That’s what you do when you are a mediocre (or awful) football program. When you get a team you can abuse, you abuse them because it builds your confidence. UNLV, which treats football like a necessary evil, whipped Idaho State 80-8 last year. They beat Jackson State 63-13 this year. They pounded this same Fresno State team 45-20 two weeks ago. But Polian’s teams never pummel anybody, except their own fan base. They lose even when they technically win.
The Wolf Pack, let’s not forget, was coming off the most embarrassing loss in its Division I history. The 38-17 wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-in-a-cold-sweat loss to the Hawaii Rainbows was Wolf Pack rock bottom. If there was ever a football program in need of a cure-all victory that cleansed all of the ugly demons and diseases out of its system, it was the Wolf Pack last Saturday night against Fresno State.
And Fresno State, we thought, was the perfect foil, the cure to all of the Pack ills. The Wolf Pack, though, came out and played as if they wanted to get their head coach fired. What we saw last Saturday wasn’t a team that played with passion and intensity and ran around as if their feet were on fire. They played as if they were an eight-week-old puppy afraid of messing up the carpet but in the end couldn’t help itself.
Had one of Virgil’s final four passes produced a touchdown, Knuth would have made a lot of Wolf Pack fans happy by pole-axing Polian. Knuth, make no mistake, is a bottom line, how-much-money-can-we-make-from-this type of guy. That’s why he has made every effort to turn Mackay Stadium into the world’s largest sports bar by adding an outdoor beer garden and gigantic high definition TV above one end zone before this season. Knuth knows as well as anyone that Pack fans just want to be entertained. And Wolf Pack football, right now, is about as entertaining as a vice presidential debate.
It’s no secret that northern Nevada has zero confidence in Polian’s ability to turn the Wolf Pack into the next Boise State. They are tired of his excuses, his lack of answers, the losses to UNLV, the way he has shunned all things Chris Ault and acts as if Wolf Pack football began the day he was hired on January 11, 2013. If he won games in bunches all those things would be overlooked, much the same way all of Ault’s faults were overlooked or at least swept under the rug like spilled potato chips and popcorn. Ault, don’t forget, wasn’t any more liked than Polian. Polian, in a lot of ways, is more likeable than Ault even on Ault’s good days. Polian is funny, smart, passionate and a guy you would like to have a beer with and talk football. But those qualities get hidden because, well, he hasn’t won nearly enough. So he comes off as defensive, excuse-filled and disrespectful like a privileged rich kid who gets everything handed to him by his famous daddy.
If and when Knuth fires Polian it will be because of one reason and one reason only. It will be because Knuth feels that Wolf Pack football with Polian as head coach is simply never going to maximize its bottom line. It was the reason why David Carter was cut loose from the men’s basketball program and replaced by instant excitement Eric Musselman. That’s also the reason why Jane Albright has not yet been slashed from women’s basketball because, after all, there is no pie in the women’s basketball sky.
Polian Purgatory, though, is a very difficult thing to dispose of. No matter how feeble the Pack looks right now, the schedule just can’t kill them. The beauty of the Mountain West is that there is always another patsy on your schedule right around the corner waiting to bend over and take a beating. That should be the conference’s motto, right next to Where Big Time Bowl Games and NCAA Tournament Dreams go to die.
The Wolf Pack is still going to win seven or eight games this season. Yes, they could also soil the carpet and win five or six and make Knuth’s decision an easy one. But the curse of Polian Purgatory is that nothing is easy. That’s why it is almost a guarantee that the Pack is going to win seven or eight games and go to a bowl game, making it impossible for Knuth to purge Polian Purgatory from his tortured fan base. All Knuth could do then is grit his teeth, offer Polian an obligatory two-year contract extension and then go concentrate on men’s basketball for 24 months until Musselman finds a better job.
That’s what Polian Purgatory does to you. It traps you forever, somewhere between victory and a fresh start, like being the eighth seed in the NBA playoffs. Even when you win you go home feeling like a loser.