Joe Santoro looks back at the last decade in Nevada Wolf Pack sports | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro looks back at the last decade in Nevada Wolf Pack sports

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal

The past decade saw the Nevada Wolf Pack football and men’s basketball programs take us on a wild rollercoaster ride.

The Pack changed conferences and athletic directors, fired and hired coaches, took us to the Sweet 16 and numerous bowl games and finished everywhere from one of the best in the nation to one of the worst in the conference.

All in all the decade of the 2010s was equal parts exciting, thrilling, amazing and magical as well as frustrating, disappointing and heartbreaking. But it was never boring, at least not for long.

We saw buzzer beaters and unbelievable comebacks. We painted the Fremont Cannon blue, drove the Muss Bus and at times even filled Lawlor Events Center and Mackay Stadium to the rafters and beyond. And we shed a tear or two bidding farewell on bittersweet Senior Nights as legends like Colin Kaepernick, Luke Babbitt, Deonte Burton, Cody and Caleb Martin, Jordan Caroline, Armon Johnson and others graced Mackay and Lawlor for the last time.

The men’s basketball team went from coaches David Carter to Eric Musselman to Steve Alford. It went to three NCAA tournaments, two NITs and won a CBI national championship.

The football team went from Chris Ault to Brian Polian to Jay Norvell. It started the decade with an unforgettable dream season and ended it with an equally unforgettable nightmare with a Mackay melee.

The next 10 years, which opens with a Mountain West basketball game at Lawlor on Wednesday night and a bowl game in Boise on Friday afternoon before the decade is even 72 hours old, promises to be even more packed with unforgettable memories.

But, first, a look back at the 10 greatest Wolf Pack football and men’s basketball moments and events of the 2010s . . .

10. Knuth era changes Wolf Pack sports

There were no miracle comebacks the day it happened. No championships were handed out, Mackay or Lawlor wasn’t filled, ESPN wasn’t even there and Eric Musselman didn’t even take off his shirt. But the most important Wolf Pack athletic moment of the decade likely took place in April 2013 when Doug Knuth became the school’s new athletic director. Knuth, who comes equipped with the standard-issue smile and pat on the back that all athletic directors seem to have in these fund-raising heavy days, has transformed the athletic department. He led a $12 million renovation of aging Mackay Stadium, turning it into the area’s largest outdoor sports bar complete with a scoreboard that can be seen from space. “We’ve got to figure out a way to be successful in the conference,” said Knuth when he was hired. That way, it turned out, was to hire great coaches. Knuth’s ability to hire difference makers in the coaching ranks has been unmatched by any athletic director in school history. Knuth first hired Jay Johnson in baseball, the architect of a 41-15 season in 2015. He then replaced Johnson with T.J. Bruce, who won a Mountain West regular-season title in 2018. He hired Jay Norvell in football. Norvell has taken the Pack to two bowls and possibly two eight-win seasons in his first three years. Knuth hired Eric Musselman and then Steve Alford in men’s basketball. All Musselman did was bring the Pack to three NCAA tournaments and one CBI title in four years and made Lawlor Events Center the hottest ticket in northern Nevada. Alford, who has won eight of his first 13 games, has the most impressive and accomplished resume of any Pack coach in history. He’s just getting started.

9. Stefphon steps all over Rainbow Warriors

It takes a special effort for a running back to carve out his rightful spot in Nevada history. This is a school, after all, that has produced such amazing running backs as Frank Hawkins, Marion Motley, Vai Taua, Chris Lemon, Chance Kretschmer, Charvez Foger and others. Jefferson, though, might have had the greatest night of them all. The junior tied an NCAA record with seven touchdowns in a Wolf Pack 69-24 victory in Honolulu on Sept. 22, 2012. He scored on six short runs of 5, 3 (twice), 2 and 1 (twice) yards and also caught a 55-yard touchdown pass from Cody Fajardo. He owned the end zone. His seven touchdowns as well as his 42 points scored are still Wolf Pack records. His six rushing touchdowns equaled Kretschmer’s afternoon against UTEP in 2001. Jefferson, who would go on to score a school-record 25 touchdowns in 2012, shredded Hawaii that evening for 170 yards on 31 carries. The only thing that stopped him was the end zone. The Pack had 30 first downs and 575 total yards despite having the ball for just 28 minutes. Fajardo was 14-of-20 for 220 yards and two scores. Nick Hale had a 52-yard scoring run. The Pack ran for 355 yards on the ground and seven scores.

8. Wolf Pack becomes king of Mountain West

The move to the Mountain West in the 2012-13 season had not treated the Wolf Pack all that well. That all changed in the 2016-17 men’s basketball season. Musselman’s Wolf Pack, coming off a CBI national title the previous April, streaked to the Mountain West regular-season title with a 14-4 record. But the Wolf Pack’s crowning achievement that season took place on the afternoon of March 11, 2017 at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas for the entire state and conference to see. The Wolf Pack won the conference tournament 79-71 that afternoon over Colorado State, wrapping up its first NCAA tournament bid in 10 years. Jordan Caroline had 23 points and 10 rebounds and Marcus Marshall had 21 points, despite missing 8-of-9 threes. Cam Oliver also chipped in with 14 rebounds despite scoring just four points on 2-of-9 shooting. The Pack then took its nine-game winning streak to Milwaukee to face Iowa State in the NCAA tournament (an 84-73 loss). This is still the Wolf Pack’s only Mountain West tournament championship in school history. It should not be overlooked.

7. Pack messes with Texas

The Wolf Pack had not won an NCAA tournament basketball game in 11 years. So when the Pack found itself down 40-26 early in the second half in Nashville to the Texas Longhorns, well, it looked like just another we’re-just-happy-to-be-here type of moment in the making. The Pack still trailed 68-65 with 45 seconds to go before a Jordan Caroline layup with 33 seconds left and a Caroline free throw with three seconds left sent the game to overtime. Texas jumped out to a 73-70 lead in overtime but Caleb Martin drained three 3-pointers the rest of the way and assisted on a bucket by his brother Cody as the Pack stole an 87-83 first-round victory. It showed everyone in silver and blue that amazing things could happen. Kendall Stephens had 22 points on five threes. Caleb Martin had 18 points and 10 rebounds. Cody Martin and Josh Hall had 15 points and Caroline had 14. This was the game that proved that the Pack belonged on a national stage for the first time since 2007.

6. A dream season starts to take shape

The Wolf Pack football team stepped on the Mackay Stadium field on the night of Sept. 17, 2010 in front of a crowd of 28,809 with a world of confidence. Yes, the California Golden Bears were in town for the first time in the rivalry’s 111-year history. And, yes, the Pack had a record of 1-21-1 against Berkeley’s Bears. But it didn’t matter. There was so much silver and blue confidence in the air that night, in fact, that Pack coach Chris Ault couldn’t wait to show it off. So when the Pack won the pre-game coin toss and elected to take the ball, Ault had a simple message for his quarterback. “We told Kap (Colin Kaepernick) to take the ball and score,” Ault said. Kaepernick did just that, capping the game’s first drive with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Tray Session and a 7-0 Pack lead. The Pack would go up 21-7 and eventually hold off the Bears 52-31, kick-starting the magical 2010 dream season. The Pistol offense also proved, maybe for the first time, that is was not merely just a gimmick offense designed to beat up on mid-majors. It could also now beat up on Power Five bullies. Vai Taua (151 yards, one touchdown) and Kaepernick (148, 3) combined for 299 rushing yards and four scores. Kaepernick threw just 15 passes, completing 10 for 181 yards and two scores. Marlon Johnson, Duke Williams and Doyle Miller picked off Cal passes. “This is the reason anybody would want to play Division I football, for a game like this,” Miller said. The Mackay Stadium crowd started chanting late in the fourth quarter, “We want Boise. We want Boise.” They would get Boise two months later.

5. Sweet Caroline

The Wolf Pack basketball team found itself down 74-49 with 11 minutes to go against the New Mexico Lobos at The Pit in Albuquerque, a place where Nevada had never won. “Anybody would tell you it looked bleak,” Pack coach Eric Musselman said. It didn’t look any brighter for the Pack with 1:29 to go, still trailing 90-76. The final 63 seconds of regulation and the five minutes of overtime, though, showed Wolf Pack fans that the Muss Bus could indeed fly. Charlie Tooley hit a 3-pointer with 1:03 to go. Marcus Marshall hit four threes in a span of just 45 seconds to send the game into overtime. The Pack was then down 103-98 with 2:52 left in overtime. Devearl Ramsey hit two free throws, Cam Oliver had a dunk and Jordan Caroline won the game, 105-104, with a 3-pointer with two seconds left. Caroline would finish with 45 points in arguably the greatest single-game performance in Wolf Pack history. “I’m speechless,” Musselman said. “It’s the greatest game I’ve ever been a part of. It was a miracle, for sure.”

4. A national title at Lawlor

A Wolf Pack men’s basketball season was now heading to April. The Wolf Pack, winners of just nine games the year before, were now a game away from making history. A crowd of 9,043 Pack fans jammed into Lawlor the night of April 1, 2016 to watch the Pack take on some school called Morehead State in something called the College Basketball Invitation. But it didn’t matter. A national title was on the line. The Pack trailed 82-81 in overtime but Tyron Criswell put in a layup with 13 seconds to go and D.J. Fenner drained a pair of free throws with two seconds left as the Pack won the CBI title, 85-82. Criswell had 21 points, 11 rebounds and four assists and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Criswell said of his layup with 13 seconds to go. After years of disappointing finishes, the Pack finally had a season that ended with a party. “I can honestly say I’ve helped build a legacy,” senior guard Marqueze Coleman said. Musselman grabbed a microphone after the game and addressed the crowd and told them, “This is only the beginning.” He then told the media after the game, “Mission accomplished. Nevada basketball is really going to be trending now.”

3. Wolf Pack completes dream season in style

The Wolf Pack took a 12-1 record, a Top 25 national ranking and a Western Athletic Conference title with them to San Francisco’s AT&T Park on the night of Jan. 9, 2011. And, oh yeah, about 40,000 Wolf Pack fans came along, too. The Wolf Pack, about six weeks removed from a still-unbelievable victory over Boise State at Mackay Stadium, now had to finish off the dream by beating the Boston College Eagles in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. It wasn’t pretty. And there were some nervous moments. But the Pack beat the Eagles 20-13 to wrap up a historic 13-1 season. Kaepernick was carried off the field by his teammates and Wolf Pack fans. Rishard Matthews scored on a 27-yard pass from Kaepernick and an unforgettable 72-yard punt return. The defense held Boston College to 12 first downs and 185 yards. “You always hope you can be the player everybody wants to get a picture with,” Kaepernick said. “To actually have that happen is surreal.” “Colin is the poster child for Nevada football,” Ault said. “He’s the greatest player to ever play here.”

2. How sweet it is

The Wolf Pack basketball team trailed Cincinnati 65-43 with 11:37 to play in Nashville in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 18, 2018. A Sweet 16 berth was on the line but now the Pack was just hoping to lose by less than 16 points. What took place was one of the greatest comebacks in NCAA tournament history. The Pack, which trailed 18-4 before it broke a sweat, went on a 16-0 run in less than three minutes, cutting Cincinnati’s lead to just 65-59 with just under eight minutes to play. “We had a deer in the headlights look,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said after the game. The Wolf Pack looked like a pack of hungry wolves, licking their teeth. Caleb Martin hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 73-73 with 54 seconds to go. Josh Hall then rebounded a Cody Martin miss and scored in the lane with nine seconds to go for the game-winner. Northern Nevada remains stunned to this day. The Pack, 75-73 winners over the No. 6 team in the nation, was headed to the Sweet 16 on a victory that seemed like a fantasy. “The locker room right now, “Musselman said after the game, “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s the happiest I’ve ever seen. This feeling is never going away the rest of our lives.” He might be right.

1. The ultimate Mackay Miracle

The Wolf Pack football team trailed Boise State 24-7 at halftime the night of Nov. 26, 2010. Black Friday, it seemed, was going to Black and Blue Friday for the Pack with yet another loss to Boise State. The Pack’s dream season was going to evaporate in front of 30,712 fans at Mackay Stadium. Kaepernick, though, led the Pack on a remarkable comeback against one of the greatest Boise State teams in history. The Pack tied the game at 31-31 on a 7-yard Kaepernick-to-Richard Matthews touchdown catch with 13 seconds to play in regulation. But this was Boise. The Pack doesn’t beat Boise. So when Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore connected with wide receiver Titus Young down to the Pack 9-yard line with two seconds to play, nobody was really all that shocked. It was almost expected. But when Boise kicker Kyle Brotzman missed a chip-shot 26-yard field goal, well, the night became the stuff of legend. Brotzman also missed a 29-yarder in overtime, allowing freshman Anthony Martinez to win the game with a 34-yarder of his own for a 34-31 Pack win. Wolf Pack fans flooded the field and then marched up and down Virginia Street into the wee hours of the night, celebrating the greatest win in Wolf Pack history. It is still the only Pack victory over Boise State since 1997. “We felt like we owed them one,” Kaepernick said. Ault’s illustrious career finally had its unquestioned signature moment. “It’s not Black Friday anymore,” Ault declared after the game. “It is now Blue Friday.” The game, even nine years later, still seems like a dream. “We’re a team of destiny,” Ault said. “When he (Brotzman) missed that field goal (at the end of regulation), I said, ‘We got it now, guys. Let’s go.’”