Potential top 2 picks for Wolf Pack are good ones, says Joe Santoro | NevadaAppeal.com

Potential top 2 picks for Wolf Pack are good ones, says Joe Santoro

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

The next Nevada Wolf Pack head football coach will actually deserve the job.

Imagine that.

Two names — Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin and Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig — have surfaced all over the Internet as the leading candidates for the Wolf Pack head coaching job. That low hum you hear off in the distance that keeps growing louder and louder is confidence and hope returning to Wolf Pack football.

Baldwin and Ludwig would be among the most qualified coaches to ever take over the Wolf Pack football program. Baldwin has been Eastern Washington’s head coach for nine seasons and has won a Football Championship Subdivision national title (2010), something that not even Chris Ault could do. Ludwig has been an offensive coordinator for two decades at schools such as Wisconsin, San Diego State, California, Utah, Oregon and Fresno State.

What a difference four years and 27 losses in the last 50 games can make. Brian Polian was a career special teams coach when he was given the Wolf Pack job in January 2013. He was the Forest Gump of football coaches. He was around successful football programs (Notre Dame, Stanford, Texas A&M) and met some successful football coaches but he really had nothing to do with that success. All he did was take his mail at the same address, sort of like an elf next to Santa Claus at the North Pole.

Polian’s lack of qualifications for the Pack’s top job, though, were nothing new on north Virginia Street. Ault only had three years as a position coach in college (UNLV) before he was given the Pack job. Jeff Tisdel was a Pack assistant. Dick Trachok was a high school coach. Jerry Scattini was the Pack’s defensive coordinator and before that a graduate assistant at Stanford. Jake Lawlor was the Pack athletic director and basketball coach.

Chris Tormey (Idaho), Joe Sheeketski (Holy Cross), George Philbrook (Whittier College), R.E. Courtright (Pittsburg State), Jim Aiken (Akron), Gordon McEachron (Pepperdine) and Buck Shaw (North Carolina State) all had head coaching experience but most of those were in the days when coaches were as interchangeable, disposable and cheap as dirty sweat socks.

Baldwin and Ludwig, though, both qualify as the type of coach that should have replaced Ault back in 2013. Ault spent three decades building the Pack from an unknown Division II independent in the mid-1970s into one of the rising Cinderella stories of Division I in 2010. He put Nevada football on the map. He gave it an identity. He made the Nevada job coveted around the country. He made Nevada a permanent part of college football’s bowl party. Coaches at all levels of football were running Ault’s Nevada pistol offense.

But that didn’t stop the Wolf Pack from handing all of the fruits of Ault’s blood, sweat and tears to Polian, a guy with a Fool’s Gold resume. He wasn’t even qualified to be a Wolf Pack coordinator back in 2013, let alone its head coach. And the Pack has been spinning its wheels in the mud ever since.

Polian, though, was whisked through the interview process because he was nominated for the job by the search firm (Collegiate Sports Associates) that was connected to then Wolf Pack athletic director Cary Groth. All Polian needed to do to get the job was to say all the right things, drop some fancy names and never once list Ault as a reference.

Well, thankfully, the Wolf Pack has done more than simply spin its wheels in the mud the last four years. It hired Doug Knuth to replace Groth as athletic director and Knuth has revitalized two of the Pack’s three most high profile sports by hiring Eric Musselman (men’s basketball) and Jay Johnson and T.J. Bruce (both baseball). Ludwig or Baldwin each has the potential to do in football what Musselman, Johnson and Bruce have done in their sports.

Baldwin has run his own program since Eastern Washington made him head coach in 2008. He’s gone 84-31 (11-1 this year) overall and 58-14 in the highly competitive Big Sky Conference. While Polian constantly complained that he didn’t have enough resources at Nevada to compete, Baldwin has simply gone to work everyday and made something out of nothing with little to no resources, like all FCS coaches. He would think Nevada is Notre Dame with a pot of gold sitting in the corner of his office.

Baldwin’s Eastern Washington teams have taken their tiny budgets and competed against big-money schools. Baldwin beat Oregon State in 2013 and Washington State this year. He nearly beat Washington in 2011 (losing just 30-27) and 2014 (just 59-52). His Eagles scored 42 points against Oregon in 2015. He also brought Eastern Washington to Mackay Stadium and made the greatest Wolf Pack team sweat and nervous before losing 49-24 in 2010.

Ludwig might have the deepest and most impressive resume of any coach that was ever seriously interested for the Wolf Pack job. He’s been an offensive coordinator in the Pac-12 and SEC as well as the Mountain West. Kansas State (Big 12) also hired him as offensive coordinator in 2009 but Cal refused to go away and stole him two months later.

“The thing we want to make sure fans see and appreciate,” Ludwig told ESPN radio before the 2015 season, “is the level of physicality, the level of toughness, the confidence with which our players play. I want to put players in position to play fast. The faster they play, the more violent they’ll play.”

A quote like that sends chills up your silver and blue spine after four years of Polian excuses.

Baldwin and Ludwig are both highly creative offensive coaches. They know how to entertain. They know how to make players better. They know how to coach. They know how to win. A former UNLV assistant who transformed the Wolf Pack starting in the 1970s could do all those things, too.

The only question that remains, therefore, is whether or not either one of them will become the next Wolf Pack head coach.

The 44-year-old Baldwin has been connected to a couple other jobs (Colorado State, Oregon State) in recent years. He’s coached at just two schools (Central Washington, Eastern Washington) in his career over the last two-plus decades and might just be too comfortable at Eastern Washington to pull the trigger and leave. Job security is a difficult thing to find in college sports and it should never be taken for granted. Ault, don’t forget, always enjoyed flirting with other schools but he never left the friendly confines of north Virginia Street.

The 52-year-old Ludwig, it seems, would have a ton of Division I job possibilities. Successful coordinators in the SEC are always at the top of everybody’s coaching wish list, especially for Group of Five schools like Nevada. It is, quite frankly, amazing that the Wolf Pack can even begin to afford a SEC coordinator with as much experience as Ludwig. While Vanderbilt’s coaches salaries aren’t public knowledge because it is a private school, Ludwig did make $480,000 at Wisconsin in 2014 (Baldwin’s base salary is $212,000). Ludwig might come to the conclusion that a meager salary bump to about $575,000 a year at Nevada (or lower) isn’t worth the risk of leaving the SEC.

But there are also a ton of reasons why both Baldwin and Ludwig have clearly expressed serious interest in the Wolf Pack.

Ludwig is at the point in his career where it is time to become a head coach. At 52, his window of head coaching opportunity is heading into its final stage. He can come to Nevada now, build a winner and go back to the SEC or Pac-12 as a head coach and still offer a school a decade’s worth of service. He might also simply be tired of putting his career in the hands of another head coach. Vanderbilt, don’t forget, will never be a SEC power. Odds are Ludwig will be looking for another job in a few years anyway.

There is also another huge reason why Ludwig would come to Nevada. He worked with Knuth at Utah from 2005-08. A guy like Polian is rare. He was so desperate to take any FBS top job that he was willing to overlook the fact that his athletic director at Nevada still hadn’t been named. There’s nothing head coaches like more than an athletic director they can trust. That’s the reason why Ault wanted to become A.D. at Nevada. He was, after all, the only athletic director he could trust as head coach.

Ludwig, like Baldwin, has strong ties to the western United States after coaching at Cal, Fresno State, San Diego State, Utah, Oregon, Boise State and Idaho State. A place like Reno would feel like home.

Baldwin also might be ready to make the jump to Division I-A. Yes, he will never win a national title at Nevada like he did at Eastern Washington in 2010. But going to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or Arizona Bowl gets you more national coverage and attention than winning the FCS title. Also, Baldwin got just a $10,000 bonus for winning the 2010 FCS title. Polian got $15,000 for simply getting the Pack on a weekday national TV game in the middle of October. He earned $25,000 just for doing a weekly TV show that nobody watches, let alone another $15,000 for doing a weekly radio show that nobody has ever heard.

The money coaches make in the FBS, even at a school like Nevada that rarely wins anything with significance outside the McCarran Circle, is ridiculous. FBS coaches win the lottery each and every year and don’t even have to be good at their jobs. Polian, don’t forget, will earn roughly $3 million from Nevada by the end of the 2017 season. It just might be time for Baldwin to make the move from the comfort and safety of Cheney, Wash., and take care of his family tree for generations to come.

Knuth, who says he isn’t using a search firm, seems to know how to get value for his Wolf Pack money. A school like Purdue, which will likely never win anything of note in football, can wave $2 million or more a year at Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm. All they have to do is check Twitter to see who is the latest hot coaching candidate. The Wolf Pack, on the other hand, needs to get at least three years out of coach for $2 million. That’s why the Pack needs to do its homework, find the right fit and get someone who has earned the job and not simply hire the first special teams coach a search firm wants to find a job for.

Knuth has obviously done his homework. He’s been making his list of available and interested coaches and has checked it twice for some time. He didn’t just fire Polian on Nov. 27 the minute the first brush slapped blue paint on the Fremont Cannon and then started his search that afternoon. Knuth has uncovered a pair of hidden gems in Baldwin and Ludwig, two guys that might be well known and respected in college football circles but aren’t exactly the hottest thing on Twitter.

The next Pack coach, it seems, will be hired quickly, probably by the end of this week. More importantly, it will be done correctly.