Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack players will always have at least one friend
For the Nevada Appeal
Jay Norvell showed us all once again this past weekend that he is the right coach to lead the Nevada Wolf Pack football program.
Norvell reminded us in the Wolf Pack’s darkest hour last Saturday night that he is at his best when his team is at its worst.
And, make no mistake, the Wolf Pack was at its lowest point, arguably since the sport arrived up on North Virginia Street in 1896, in the hide-your-eyes, please-make-it-stop 77-6 loss to Oregon this past Saturday.
Oregon scored the final 70 points of the game. The Ducks scored touchdowns on 11 of its final 12 drives. At times it felt like Oregon had 15 players on the field and everyone in the Eugene, Ore., phone book had scored a touchdown.
It is the Wolf Pack’s worst loss in the modern era of football, since a 79-7 loss to California’s “Wonder Team” of 1920. It is the most one-sided Pack loss since the team wore leather helmets, fans wore full-length raccoon coats to games, teams traveled by train to away games, the NFL was formed and women had just been given the right to vote.
The Pack went nearly 100 seasons without losing a game by more than 70 points. Until Saturday.
It’s a wonder why Norvell didn’t make the Pack players take a train back to Reno late Saturday night and force them to watch the replay of the game on their phones all the way home.
But that’s cool, calm and collected Jay’s way. Norvell, like he has done since he took over the program after the 2016 season, gave his team exactly what it needed in its time of sorrow and grief. He gave them constructive criticism, a shoulder to lean on and undying support.
“As you go through the season you have to learn lessons and improve,” Norvell said.
It is that type of don’t-worry-be-happy reaction why Norvell is the perfect coach for the Wolf Pack right now.
Norvell, as he has always done throughout all 15 of his losses as Pack coach, is handling the devastation perfectly. Granted, he doesn’t always handle the games all that well or stop the bleeding once the first cut is suffered. But once the bombs have stopped falling, the casualties are cleared from the streets and the next of kin has been notified, Norvell shines.
“The mindset of all good football teams is that you have to continue to work and improve,” Norvell said.
The motto “Keep Calm and Carry On” might have been created by Great Britain during the early stages of World War II but Norvell lives his daily coaching life by those words. And he never wavers, even when his team sets the sport of football at Nevada back a century. Winston Churchill would be proud.
“Just disappointed,” Norvell said in his opening remarks after the 71-point loss.
Disappointed, it seems, is the standard, go-to emotion for every loss in Norvell’s Wolf Pack career. It’s a frustrating response for someone who wants to tear the program down and start over again and fire the coach and athletic director after every loss. But Norvell doesn’t pander to the fans or the media. He takes care of his football program in its darkest hour so that they can still envision what might be their finest hour sometime in the future.
A lot of coaches would go to post-game press conferences after losing by 71 points looking to set the hair of the reporters on fire. And that would be only moments after questioning the manhood of each player and assistant coach on the team and telling them all to find their own way home from Eugene to Reno.
Norvell, though, emerges from the postgame locker room and seemingly lowers his heart rate to that of a hibernating groundhog and serenely reassures everyone that, yes, losing 77-6 is not good or acceptable and everyone in the locker room will learn from it and be better for it moving forward.
No anger. No yelling. No finger pointing. No excuses. No threats. No ugly stares. There is just a constant reminder that what we just witnessed was a football game, not a world war. It was played by a bunch of young men looking for a fun, exciting and rewarding way to get an education. Those players are not soldiers. Their mistakes do not mean life or death. And nobody has to take the train home.
Norvell was at his Mister Rogers best after the Oregon game, speaking in soothing and mellow tones.
“Everybody’s accountable for what is put on film,” Norvell said. “I’m ultimately accountable. We didn’t play good football. We will learn from it and get better.”
It was Fred Rogers telling Mr. McFeeley that while his deliveries haven’t been so speedy lately, he is sure he will fix the problem.
“Coach always has the same message and always keeps things on an even keel,” Pack offensive lineman Jake Nelson said. “He reminds us to not get too low or too high. Win or lose, the next day you have to move on.”
Keep calm and carry on. The Wolf Pack sky is not falling. Oregon, after all, is not on the Pack schedule every week. Wins over Weber State, San Jose State, New Mexico, UTEP and maybe even Hawaii, Fresno State, UNLV and San Diego State are just around the corner.
“Obviously, the result last week was not what we wanted,” Norvell said. “But if you lose 5-3 or by what we lost by (77-6, in case you’ve forgotten), the result is the same in the loss column.”
Nobody, to be sure, would blame Norvell if he threw a chair, punched a fire extinguisher in the hallway or told his assistant coaches to update their resumes after a game like Saturday’s bloodbath. But that type of response would not be in the best interests of Norvell’s football team, a group made up of for the most part by a bunch of impressionable 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds who are still wondering where life is going to take them on and off the football field.
“I still have a lot of confidence in our football team,” Norvell said. “I think we have a good football team.”
That statement, made just minutes after Oregon put the finishing touches on its nuking of Nevada, is why Norvell is the perfect head coach for this Wolf Pack football team right now.
“It was a good learning experience for a lot of our young players,” said Norvell, finding the silver and blue lining in the loss. “It’s a great lesson. It was a difficult and harsh lesson but a lesson just the same.”
Norvell is not going to publicly criticize and chastise any of his players the same way a history or mathematics professor wouldn’t stand up in front of his class and berate his students. He is going to remind them that they are worthy of the uniform in their locker and if they continue to work hard and study better days are ahead.
That soothing, reassuring message has certainly worked before. And it will no doubt work again.
In Norvell’s first season at Nevada in 2017, his Wolf Pack lost its first five games, including embarrassing losses to Division I-AA Idaho State, Washington State and Fresno State. His first recruit (quarterback David Cornwell) quit the team during the season. That team ended up losing eight of its first nine games.
But Norvell remained outwardly calm and supportive of his players (even the one that quit) and the Pack ended up winning two of its last three games, including an important win over UNLV, to salvage something positive out of the season.
Last year the Pack was blown away at Vanderbilt and Toledo and played well but lost difficult games to Fresno State and Boise State and found itself at just 3-4 in the middle of October. Norvell remained calm and supportive and the Pack reeled off four wins in a row.
The Pack then suffered a devastating loss at UNLV, blowing a 20-point lead in the process, in the final regular season game. Wolf Pack nation was stunned. Norvell remained calm and supportive and the Pack rallied a month later to stun Arkansas State in the Arizona Bowl to finish with eight wins, the most the program had seen in eight years.
The Jay Way works. It works for a program still trying to grow, learn and improve. It works for a program that insists it wants to be the next Boise State but has lost five or more games for 20 of the last 22 years.
It works for a program whose players were bypassed by the likes of Oregon during their high school recruiting process and then had to go to Oregon and endure an awful 71-point loss to all of those players Oregon wanted.
That kind of experience can make you wonder if all of the grueling practices, the non-stop aches and pains and cruel Twitter rants are worth it. Norvell is always on hand to remind them that it is.
That is why the Pack will emerge from its latest kick to the teeth and come away stronger and more resilient.
The coach has their backs. Always.
“When something like this (an embarrassing loss) happens you find out who your friends are,” Norvell said. “Last week (after a 34-31 win over Purdue) I had a lot of friends and heard from a lot of people. This week that didn’t happen. But I did hear from (former Oakland Raiders wide receiver) Fred Biletnikoff (who coaches with Norvell with the Raiders in 2002 and 2003). He told me, ‘You know, sometimes it’s good to get a good (blank) kicking.’ And, you know what, he’s right.”
The Wolf Pack players also know that every time they do get a good kicking, they will have at least one friend.