Joe Santoro: Mackay Stadium is Nevada’s latest ghost town
September 7, 2018
Sports fodder . . .
It might become increasingly difficult from here on out for Northern Nevada to keep ignoring Nevada Wolf Pack football. Mackay Stadium has been only slightly more lively than a Nevada ghost town over the first seven home games of the Jay Norvell era. Norvell's home crowds have averaged just 16,836 fans. Just 17,525 showed up for the season opener last Friday, the fifth smallest home-opening crowd at Mackay since the Wolf Pack jumped to Division I-A in 1992. But it's really not Norvell's fault. His seven home opponents have been about as exciting as watching your 8-year-old's grammar school production of Hamilton. Think of the seven opponents as the seven dwarfs with all of them named Sleepy or Bashful. Two Division I-AA opponents (yawn, snore), Toledo, Hawaii, Air Force, San Jose State (wake me when its over) and UNLV. The 17,359 for UNLV was disappointing — you could've fired a cannonball out of the Fremont Cannon into the stands and not hit anyone — but it was at the end of a Pack nightmare in 2017. The petite Pack crowds, though, might change soon, especially if the Pack comes home from Nashville this weekend with a win over Vanderbilt. Oregon State, Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State and Colorado State remain on the home schedule. That's as good a home schedule as the Wolf Pack has ever entertained. It might even be more fun than eating ribs or watching balloons float by overhead.
Norvell's Wolf Pack has yet to attract a crowd of at least 20,000 fans. So, yes, he's no Eric Musselman when it comes to selling tickets. Brian Polian, head coach from 2013-16, had 18 crowds of 20,000 or more in his 24 home games with an average home crowd of 22,368. Chris Tormey, head coach from 2000-03, lured 20,000-plus fans into Mackay for seven of 22 home games, with an average crowd of 19,070. And his early Pack teams put the program into a coma. Jeff Tisdel, head coach from 1996-99, averaged 22,537 for his 22 (16 more than 20,000) home games. Norvell, though, is in good company when it comes to keeping fans away from Mackay. Chris Ault, during his third era as head coach from 2004-12, attracted an average home crowd of just 17,976 and had just 17 crowds of 20,000-plus over 55 home dates.
There have been a lot of factors involved in the declining and stagnating Wolf Pack football home attendance. The team is just 41-48 since 2010. Mackay Stadium's renovation two years ago squeezed capacity down to 27,000, down 3,000. Most every home game is now on television and many are played late at night. New security measures make it a hassle to even walk through the gates after an even bigger hassle of finding a parking spot. College football games now, with all of the incomplete passes, non-stop first downs, touchdowns, extra points and kickoffs, officials' video reviews and TV timeouts, seem to last two lifetimes. You go to the stadium on a Saturday and you come home on a Sunday. And everything (tickets, food, Pack T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, jerseys, gas) seems to cost about four times more than what it used to cost. It all adds up to an endurance test and a financial commitment for the fan that, quite frankly, isn't worth the effort if the team is boring and never plays for anything meaningful (see Wolf Pack football since 2010). Norvell's crowds will start to inflate. This is a fun team to watch. But it needs to go out and beat Vanderbilt and Oregon State to get the attendance ball rolling in the right direction.
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The experience of going to a Pack football game changed dramatically with the installation of lights at Mackay Stadium for the start of the 2003 season. Pack football was no longer a peaceful, serene, fun way to spend a morning and afternoon with the family cheering on the old alma mater. It's now an endurance test that lasts into the wee hours of the morning in all kinds of nasty weather. Make no mistake, lights weren't added for the enjoyment of the fans, players, coaches or anyone else who works at the stadium. Nobody likes night football games. Except television. All college football programs have sold their soul to television because, well, television pays quite nicely for souls. Coaches have become rich because of TV. Television tells schools what day and what time the games will be played and, well, coaches do what they're told because of the big paydays. And the fans have no say in the matter. That is why fans are inconsistent with their support of college football. You can't blame them.
This Wolf Pack football team is easily the most exciting to watch since 2010. Polian put the community to sleep. Norvell is making Pack football fun again. Norvell and offensive coordinator Matt Mumme are unpredictable and a little goofy but that's what makes them interesting. Quarterback Ty Gangi would have made Ault's head explode by now but the senior is an intriguing, daring, reckless combination of Cody Fajardo, David Neill, Zack Threadgill and Fred Gatlin. And this wide receiver group just might be the best in school history. The defense still has issues but that will always be the case with a Jeff Casteel defense. It will give up big plays and make big plays, from one minute to the next. This defense will win games with big plays late in the game. Norvell's Wolf Pack will win a lot of games in the coming years. There might even be a Mountain West championship or two on the horizon. It will be worth losing a little sleep as you stay up late on Saturday nights to watch.
Wide receivers Kaleb Fossum and McLane Mannix are worth the price of a ticket all by themselves. They both stand just 5-foot-9 and weigh about 185 pounds and, well, they could catch a football dropped off the top of Mount Rose in a 60-mph wind. They're tough, smart, fast, quick and simply electric talents. Washington State should be embarrassed for letting Fossum get away and every school in the Big 12 should be ashamed for letting Mannix get out of Midland, Texas. You never want to take your eyes off them because they're a Pack highlight waiting to happen. Think two sticks of dynamite. Fossum and Mannix combined for 10 catches for 271 yards and three touchdowns in last Friday's 72-19 rout of Portland State. They each could have had 20 catches if the offense called for it. You can be sure those types of numbers from those two will be the norm this year and not the exception. Mannix and Fossum ignite this team and not just the offense.
Norvell came to Nevada with the reputation as some sort of wide receiver whisperer and all he's done here is to enhance that reputation. The man clearly knows how to recruit and develop big-time receivers. Mannix and Fossum are just two of Gangi's talented receiver bounty. It's a wonder why the Pack ever hands the ball off. Trevion Armstrong, who has added 20 pounds this year and has made the transition from wide receiver to tight end, made three tough catches against Portland State. Elijah Cooks, who we last saw at the end of the men's basketball bench, had a 29-yard grab. Freshman Romeo Doubs returned a punt 80 yards for a touchdown. And wait until Brendan O'Leary-Orange and Daiyan Henley get into the act. Dominic Christian and Ian Zamudio also each caught a pass in the season opener. And there are more. The roster is full of dynamic, athletic, quick players who can catch passes and run. The Pack was four yards and a cloud of dust under Polian. Under Norvell it's 50 yards and a bolt of lightning.