Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Jay Norvell is mad as …
For the Nevada Appeal
Jay Norvell is mad, angry, enraged and infuriated after what his Nevada Wolf Pack football team showed the entire country on national television last Saturday night.
“It’s beyond disappointing and embarrassing to have that kind of performance,” said Norvell on Monday, less than 48 hours after a stunning 54-3 loss to the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors in front of an ESPN2 nationwide audience and a dejected Homecoming crowd at Mackay Stadium.
“There’s a whole bunch of players and coaches over at Cashell Field House that got their eyes opened this morning,” Norvell said. “I guarantee you that.”
Rest assured that Norvell is as angry as you should be right now as a Wolf Pack supporter, fan, booster, student and alumni. If you are a Wolf Pack player or assistant coach, well, there is no time to rest.
“We didn’t do anything well,” Norvell said. “It’s not a good feeling. It’s not a good taste in your mouth to live with that type of performance.”
Norvell, from what we heard on Monday, is not going to live with it. That’s why he didn’t dare slap another milquetoast “well, that was disappointing” response to another seven-touchdown loss. Norvell knows his disappearing fan base wouldn’t stand for Keep Calm and Carry On Jay, not after Saturday night.
They want Norvell to be as mad and frustrated as they are right now. So Norvell was mad and frustrated on Monday.
“It’s my job to get people’s attention when they don’t do what they are supposed to do,” Norvell said.
We’ve been waiting for those words from Norvell for two-plus seasons. We always knew they were there. It’s just reassuring to finally hear them.
Norvell, you see, is a fighter. You don’t survive four years in the Big 10 as a player in the 1980s without being tough as nails. You don’t endure all of the anger from NFL veterans and the criticisms from fans and union bosses as a strike-busting replacement player and then go play for Mike Ditka without skin as thick as a bull elephant. You don’t grit and grind your way through three decades as an assistant coach at big business, no-nonsense, win-or-go-home football factories in the Big 10, Pac-12 and Big 12 without a mental toughness and edge. You don’t spend six years as an assistant in the NFL without a never-let-up work ethic honed by the knowledge that each day you go to work could be your last.
We saw Norvell’s fight on Monday. We heard that win-or-go-home mentality. We saw that bull elephant send a message to his players and assistants that it is time to go to work.
The Wolf Pack is obviously embarrassed by what happened on Saturday night. The program, from Norvell on down, knows it embarrassed you as Wolf Pack fans. It was Homecoming, for goodness sake. It was on national television. It was the Mountain West opener. It was the type of loss that tells an entire community to look forward to basketball season.
“I take full responsibility for what happened Saturday night,” Norvell.
No, Norvell is not going to fire himself. And despite what you saw last week, you don’t want him to fire himself. This is a guy who is going to fight to protect the legacy of Wolf Pack football because Wolf Pack football entrusted him with that legacy.
That’s the type of guy you want protecting Wolf Pack football. Norvell is as furious as you are right now, Wolf Pack fans.
“It’s Tell the Truth Monday and it’s not a very bright Monday down at Cashell Field House,” Norvell said at his weekly press gathering to start the week. “We did not have a pleasant morning. But we did tell the truth.”
The truth was right there at Mackay Stadium on Saturday night, right in front of the 15,137 faithful that were brave enough to go out in the cold and wet weather. The truth was right there for an entire nation to watch on ESPN2.
It’s the most truth we’ve ever seen at Mackay in quite some time. And, yes, the truth hurt like heck.
The Wolf Pack simply does not lose like that at Mackay Stadium. The biggest loss at the current Mackay Stadium, which was opened in 1966 and then protected for the most part by Chris Ault through 2012, was 47 points (61-14) by Fresno State in 2001. The last time the Pack lost by 51-plus points at home was at the old Mackay Stadium in 1950 by Santa Clara (55-0). The administration then dropped the football program the very next year for one season. It likely was not a coincidence.
The Pack is not going to drop football at the end of the season, even if they lose every game the rest of the way 54-3. Programming-hungry networks like ESPN, after all, keep even winless football programs alive these days.
But teams that lose games 54-3 on a regular basis do have a tendency to drop their head coaches, especially those that don’t put fans in the seats.
Norvell waited too long to become a head coach to watch it all melt away in three seasons.
So, yes, you are darn right he’s angry right now.
“Hawaii came in here expecting us to put up a fight,” Norvell said. “And we didn’t do that. We did not give them any fight.”
Norvell doesn’t ask for much from his football team. He expects them to pay attention in meetings. He expects them to be responsible students in the classroom. He expects them to act in a mature and civil way on campus. He expects them to be good teammates. He expects them to practice hard. And he expects them to fight like junkyard dogs on game day.
That game day part of the equation has not happened this season with any sort of regularity. It has rarely happened at all. The team didn’t fight at Oregon in a 77-6 loss. It muddled its way through two ugly wins over mediocre-to-awful Weber State and UTEP. It had a brief flourish of fortitude (about a dozen minutes) against Purdue in the season opener to pull out a victory it really didn’t deserve. And Hawaii was a dumpster fire.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t had more consistent mental toughness and more consistent physicality,” Norvell said.
Norvell’s message to his players on Monday was a simple one. Get tough or go play video games. His message to his assistant coaches was just as simple. Get tough or go update your resume.
“That’s life,” Norvell said. “And sometimes that’s uncomfortable. If you don’t do what you are supposed to do there are consequences. Our kids need to understand that. Our coaches need to understand that.”
Norvell, it seems, grew tremendously as a head coach this past weekend. The Hawaii loss touched a Norvell nerve that we’ve never seen agitated before. Keep Everything Normal Norvell finally turned into No-Nonsense Norvell.
It’s the first time since he’s been in Northern Nevada that he has let his anger show in public. Nobody in silver and blue, after all, seemed all that upset after the 71-point loss at Oregon. It was, after all, Oregon.
Nobody also seemed all that upset last year after a 31-point loss at Vanderbilt. It was, after all, on the road at a SEC school. There was a 38-point loss at Washington State in 2017 that felt like 58 points. But that was on the road at a Pac-12 school. No reason to be alarmed. Keep calm and carry on, Pack fans.
But Saturday against Hawaii was different. It hit home, literally and figuratively. It was in front of the boosters, alumni and students. It was against a mediocre Mountain West team.
There was no excuse for what happened.
“I don’t know how good Hawaii is,” Norvell said, “because we never put up a fight.”
Norvell knows exactly how good Hawaii is. He thought his football team was just as good, if not better. Before Saturday night, that is.
Hawaii is not Oregon. Hawaii is not Washington State. Hawaii is not even Vanderbilt or even Boise State and Fresno State in most years. Hawaii is not even Nevada. The Pack had won eight of its last 10 games against Hawaii since 2009. It had won 14-of-23 games against Hawaii since the rivalry began in 1920.
Nevada should never lose by 51 points at home to Hawaii. It should never lose by 51 to any team anywhere. Before Saturday it had lost to Hawaii at home one time since 1920.
A 51-plus point loss at home has only happened three times before in the 123-year history of Wolf Pack football. The first time it happened, Nevada wasn’t even called the Wolf Pack. Belmont beat the Sagebrushers 70-0 in the first Nevada football game ever played in 1896. The Cal Freshman team beat the Pack 54-0 in 1917 and Santa Clara nuked Nevada 55-0 in 1950. The Nevada media guide also lists a 61-0 loss to St. Mary’s in 1933 as being played in Reno but that game was actually played at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco. Norvell surely wishes last Saturday night’s game was played at old Kezar.
Yes, it was that bad on Saturday night. And Norvell, who couldn’t do anything about it on Saturday night, made sure he did something about it on Monday.
“There were things that upset me today,” Norvell said on Monday.
He threatened his players.
“If guys are not doing what we ask them to do then we need to put somebody else in,” Norvell said. “If we don’t get what we ask for then we’ll get it from somebody else. The best motivation is the bench. If you don’t do what you are supposed to do then that’s where you’ll find yourself.”
He threatened his assistant coaches.
“Players are a reflection of the coaches,” Norvell said. “The truth is on the film. From a coaching standpoint you are either coaching it or allowing it to happen.”
Getting tough on assistant coaches is always the most difficult thing for a head coach to do, especially a head coach that was an assistant for three decades before he became a head coach. The ability to fire assistants is often the single biggest determining factor whether or not a new head coach is successful. Chris Ault never had a problem getting rid of assistants. Ault lasted three decades in Northern Nevada.
Norvell still has the same offensive coordinator (Matt Mumme) and the same defensive coordinator (Jeff Casteel) that he has had since he’s been at Nevada. Five other assistants (Timmy Chang, Mike Chamoures, Tommy Perry, Eric Scott, Vai Taua) have also been with Norvell since 2017. Angus McClure, Gunnar White and David Lockwood have been at Nevada the past two seasons.
That’s not a lot of turnover for a program that has gone 14-16 without a conference title and plays in front of a half-empty home stadium game after game.
Then again, they never lost at home by 51 points in front of a Homecoming crowd on national television in a Mountain West game before.
Nobody is suggesting that anyone on North Virginia Street should be fired right now. The team is still 3-2, despite what we saw on Saturday. It has won 12 of its last 19 games. The wheels are not coming off. The schedule from here on out is not all that difficult. A bowl game is almost a certainty. A division title is still there for the taking.
This is not time for panic. But it is time for change.
“When games like this happen you go back to the basics, things you really believe in,” Norvell said.
Things like grit, work ethic, mental toughness and tenacity. You know, all of the things that failed to show up last Saturday.
Another thing that failed to show up on Saturday was the offense. The Wolf Pack offense this year has now produced two games (Oregon, Hawaii) without a touchdown. In another game (Weber State, a mighty Big Sky team) it scored just one touchdown. The last time the Pack offense had two games without a touchdown in the same season was 2003 in a 56-3 loss to Boise State and a 12-9 win over SMU. But even that SMU game produced a defensive touchdown. Maybe Norvell should check and see if anybody on defense can play quarterback.
Carson Strong, it seems, is about to lose his starting job at quarterback. If he is still the starter on Oct. 12 when the Pack next takes the field against San Jose State that likely means Norvell simply didn’t believe in his other two choices.
Strong, after all, has already gotten his chance, starting four games. And the freshman, it seems, is declining with each and every pass. He had one glorious 12-minute window of clarity against Purdue when he tossed three touchdown passes. But since that game he’s been intercepted five times and has not throw a single touchdown.
Cristian Solano is a gritty sixth-year senior (gray shirt in 2014, redshirt 2015) who would run through a brick wall to help his team win. His problem, though, is he struggles to throw the ball over that wall with much consistency. He seems about as suited for the pass-happy Air Raid offense as Tyler Lantrip was for the Pistol.
Malik Henry, a former Florida State recruit, is the wildcard and the one who might save this season. He has yet to fail because, well, he hasn’t been given the opportunity.
“I’ve had long talks with Malik,” Norvell said. “In fact, I had a long talk with him today (Monday).”
Did Norvell tell Henry the quarterback job was his for the taking? Did Norvell promise Henry more playing time to prevent him from entering the NCAA transfer portal? We’ll find out next Saturday against San Jose State.
Quarterback, though, is not the only Pack problem right now. “Everything is under scrutiny,” Norvell said.
Norvell seemed a little battle weary on Monday. At times he even became Mr. Get Off My Lawn.
“Our kids today are so comfortable with everything they do,” Norvell said. “They have everything at their access, at their fingertips. They are constantly on their phones. That’s a challenge. You are always fighting for their thought process.”
It was Norvell’s time to preach on Monday.
“Mental toughness is doing the right thing for the team when it’s not necessarily the right thing for you,” Norvell said. “That’s a real hard thing for young people to understand today. There’s so many examples of what’s good for me, what’s in it for me. Many of the rules (like the NCAA transfer portal that was used by Pack running back Jaxson Kincaide last week) that are being erected encourage that kind of mindset. We have to fight that and it’s a daily struggle.”
Norvell then gave a not-so-subtle reminder to his comfortable and pampered players. The message? Don’t get too comfortable.
“As college coaches it’s our job to recruit talent that can help us win championships and then develop that talent,” Norvell said. “Our jobs are pretty simple. Our job is to identify and bring in great kids that can help us win. This weekend (during the bye week) we’ll go out and do that. Our kids will have Friday, Saturday and Sunday off.”
That’s three days off while your coaches are out looking for new players to replace you.