Nevada Wolf Pack football fans expected more, Joe Santoro says (column)
For the Nevada Appeal
Brian Polian expected more out of this Nevada Wolf Pack football season. Wolf Pack players expected more out of this Wolf Pack football season. Northern Nevada expected more.
We all got less than we expected.
Polian, the Nevada head coach with the perfect hair and perfect excuse for every occasion, sat in front of the northern Nevada media just days before the 2016 season opener and talked about expectations.
This was Donald Trump enjoying some locker room humor with Billy Bush bad. This was John McCain taking on Sarah Palin as his running mate bad. It was Bill Clinton getting to know his White House interns bad. In the end, as far as Polian’s long-term future as the Wolf Pack head coach, it just might be Abraham Lincoln going to Ford’s Theatre bad.
“I just feel that where we are in the development as a program that it’s just time,” Polian said on Aug. 30. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just a gut feeling that I have, but I just feel like we’re capable of more.”
The Pack head coach obvious confused acid indigestion with optimism.
But there was Polian, on the eve of his fourth season as Pack coach, for no apparent or sane reason suddenly changing a letter or two in his famous last name and turning into Brian Palin and stating, “I can see FBS respectability from my house.”
At that moment, you just wanted to run up to him and save him from himself. The Nevada media services department should have rushed him away from the press conference like a Republican presidential nominee in Reno on a Saturday night. Polian was breaking rule No. 1 of the coaches handbook right before our eyes, smart phone cameras, microphones, voice recorders, pens and pencils and talking to the media about expectations.
“I do feel like we’re capable of more than 7-6 and that’s what we’re striving for,” Polian said.
Yes, he did go there. Talking about football season expectations in vague we’re-going-to-play-hard-and fight-to-the-end generalities is one thing. But Polian even went so far as to put a number on those expectations. This is an over-the-top superstitious guy who will only go so far as to say in the regular season that his only goal is to go 1-0 every week. But there he was back in the August heat, putting a nice, neat bow on an entire season and saying that seven wins is not enough.
“I’m not going to apologize for that,” Polian said. “And I don’t want people to think that’s arrogant.”
Arrogant? No, nobody was thinking that. Stupid? OK. Suicidal? We will find out on Nov. 27 the day after the Pack football season ends.
The 2016 Wolf Pack football season, according to Polian back in late August, is now an unequivocal, no-way-around-it, failure. The Pack, losers of five of their last six games, are now 3-6 with just three games remaining in the regular season.
This Pack season cannot end with more than seven wins now. And even that would require the Wolf Pack to walk on water and rise from the dead and somehow beat San Diego State, Utah State and UNLV to finish the regular season and then qualify for a bowl and then win that bowl.
Dorothy had an easier time finding a brain for the Scarecrow, a heart for the Tin Man and some courage for the Cowardly Lion than Polian will have trying to find a way to win seven games this year. It’s time for reality to set in. Even Dorothy woke up in the end and realized it was all a dream and she didn’t actually give a heart to a tin man, courage to a lion or even a brain to a scarecrow.
To be honest, we didn’t see this type of season coming. Not this year. But maybe we were blinded by that gaudy Arizona Bowl trophy Polian held high last December in the Tucson night air.
“I think we should have won more than seven last year,” Polian said three months ago.
The Pack lost to woeful Wyoming and UNLV teams last year and should have ended up with nine wins. But those losses were kind of taken in stride up on north Virginia as sort of a quirky Wolf Pack football tradition. The Pack, after all, even in the Chris Ault era, found some very creative ways most every season to lose a game or two that it shouldn’t have lost. The Pack won a bowl last year, finished 7-6 and Polian went around telling everyone that it was a successful season. And everyone believed him.
We believed him again this summer when he said the goal was to win more than seven games this year. But what we didn’t realize back in August was that Polian at the time was also handing athletic director Doug Knuth a get-out-of-Polian-jail-free card.
“Look, we’re not Alabama,” Polian said. “If our fans expect 10 or 11 wins a year, that’s being unrealistic.”
It’s cute how Polian always reminds us that the Wolf Pack is not Alabama or Ohio State or any other traditional FBS power, like we can’t tell the difference. He’s coached at a few of those FBS powers, in case you haven’t heard him say it over and over, so he knows first hand that Nevada is not Alabama.. This is just Polian channeling his inner Lloyd Bentsen and saying to Dan Quayle, “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Nevada, you’re no Alabama. And this year you’re not even Hawaii, San Jose State and New Mexico.
Alabama, by the way, would have won all 12 games on the Pack’s schedule this year by playing just freshmen and a half dozen debate team members on special teams. Even the Wolf Pack should have won eight games this year with six debaters on special teams.
That’s how Pack friendly the schedule was. Or should have been.
The first game was Cal Poly, a mediocre FCS team that runs an offense right out of 1947. The Pack, though, turned in one of its most embarrassing efforts in recent memory before escaping with a 30-27 overtime victory. Yes, we said overtime. Against a FCS team. At home. Some Nevada professor can go back and teach Foreshadowing 101 based on that game.
The next two weeks were against Notre Dame on the road (a loss) and Buffalo (a win) at home. “I think everyone expected us to be 2-1 right now,” Polian said heading into a Week 4 game at Purdue.
Polian and the Pack then proceeded to give us a whole bunch of surprises that we didn’t expect. There was a loss at Purdue, a Mountain West team that masquerades every week as a Big 10 team. A stunning loss at Hawaii came next. Then came an ugly win at home against Fresno State, a team that would fire its head coach two weeks later. A hide-your-eyes loss at San Jose State was next followed by fun-but-typically-frustrating losses to Wyoming and New Mexico.
Yes, the Wolf Pack is 3-6 against a FCS team and eight FBS teams. It’s a group that featured just one team (Notre Dame) that won more than seven games a year ago. Seven of the nine finished under .500 in 2015. Four of them won three or fewer games. But the Pack still has just three wins right now. And, don’t forget, they were lucky to win two (Cal Poly, Fresno State) of them.
Polian is right. The Pack is not Alabama.
Polian, though, has said repeatedly this year that last year’s records mean absolutely nothing when trying to predict the outcome of this year’s games. OK, fair enough. But what about this year’s records?
The Pack’s nine opponents right now have a combined record of 35-49. And even that is inflated by Cal Poly’s 6-3 record. Of those 35 wins, just 23 have come against FBS teams and just 17 have come against FBS teams not named Nevada (or Alabama). The eight Wolf Pack FBS opponents this year are a combined 29-46 this year. The Pack, by the way, is 2-6 against those eight teams. The only FBS teams the Pack has beaten this year are 2-7 Buffalo and 1-9 Fresno State.
Polian thought his program was ready to take the next step this year and escape the mediocrity of a 7-6 season. It was a reasonable expectation, given that this was Year Four of his regime. His recruiting, after all, was ready to pay dividends and the schedule was extremely manageable and not filled with the likes of UCLA, Arizona, Florida State or even Boise State.
“The things that led us to lose some games that I thought we should have won, we’ve tried to address those things,” Polian said in August. “And hopefully we have. We can be mature. We can keep our poise, including me. And we can take a step forward. That’s what I want.”
Nobody has gotten what they want this year. The Wolf Pack problems, it turns out, run deeper than a few harsh words directed at officials during a game.
“You are what your record says you are,” Polian said back in August.