Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Jay Norvell perfect for Mountain West | NevadaAppeal.com
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Joe Santoro: Nevada Wolf Pack’s Jay Norvell perfect for Mountain West

By Joe Santoro For the Nevada Appeal
Nevada head coach Jay Norvell on the sidelines against UNLV in the second half of an NCAA college football game in Reno, Nev., Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019.
AP Photo/Tom R. Smedes

The Nevada Wolf Pack is now one of the most stable, consistent and established football programs in the Mountain West. How, exactly, did that happen? Well, it helps that six Mountain West schools made head coaching changes after the 2019 season and Nevada wasn’t one of them. Nevada, with a more impatient athletic director, could have been the seventh. Coach Jay Norvell, after all, doesn’t sell any tickets, is just a sleepy 18-20 overall after three years, has lost two of three games to UNLV and his team was in an embarrassing, inexcusable fight (a fight the Pack started) with the Rebels to close the regular season. Norvell, though, is perfect for the mediocre Mountain West, which rewards middle-of-the-road, sleep-inducing mediocrity. Those qualities were enough for athletic director Doug Knuth to hand Norvell a handsome three-year extension after last season (through 2024). Even Chris Ault got just a two-year extension after the program-changing 2010 season. Norvell has been treated like few other coaches in Pack history. The last three Pack head coaches not named Ault were not given an extension after three years and all three (Brian Polian, Chris Tormey and Jeff Tisdel) were all fired after their fourth year. Norvell won’t get fired after his fourth year even if he goes 0-8 this fall and leaves the Fremont Cannon in Las Vegas.

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Norvell, though, will likely reward Knuth’s confidence with a solid season in 2020. Heck, if all goes as it should, Knuth might tear up Norvell’s contract once again this January and tack on five or six more years. The Pack should be able to sleep-walk its way to at least a 6-2 record and might go undefeated. The league, or at least the eight teams the Pack plays, will be that mediocre. Some of the conference’s best coaches (Rocky Long, Jeff Tedford, Nick Rolovich) are gone as are the top three quarterbacks (Utah State’s Jordan Love, San Jose State’s Josh Love, Hawaii’s Cole McDonald). The Pack, which doesn’t even have to play Boise State or Air Force, should be in the Mountain West title game on Dec. 19.

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The Pack’s home games this year are against Wyoming, Utah State, San Diego State and Fresno State. The Pack has beaten San Diego State the last two years, Utah State lost Love and Fresno State is in a complete rebuilding mode and coming off a horrible year. Wyoming, which comes to Mackay to open the year on Oct. 24, might be the toughest home game. The Pack road games (if you can even call them road games this year with little or no fans in the stands) are UNLV, New Mexico, Hawaii and San Jose State. How can you lose to San Jose State and New Mexico? You can’t. Hawaii lost Rolovich and its offense. And if Norvell and the Pack lose to UNLV again, well, it might be time for Ault’s fourth era as head coach.

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On paper, it looks like Norvell made a solid hire by hiring Brian Ward to lead the Pack defense. Ward was the defensive coordinator at Syracuse the past four years and also did the job at Drake, Western Illinois and Bowling Green. Yes, he was fired early last November at Syracuse but the firing still doesn’t make any sense. Ward’s Syracuse defenses were solid and always improving his first three seasons and were just going through a tough stretch when he was dismissed. Coaches, though, sometimes need someone to absorb the blame when all else fails (see Norvell’s firing of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel after last year). Getting fired is part of the job. The Pack, which has chewed up and spit out defensive coordinators on a regular basis the past 50 years, needs some of Norvell’s trademark middle-of-the-road sleep-inducing stability on defense. In college football you don’t need to be great on defense. All you have to do is make sure your shoes are tied and your jerseys are not inside out. Ward, judging by his resume, should be able to provide such mediocrity.

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San Diego State, maybe more than any team in the Mountain West, might have a difficult time adjusting to this strange COVID-19 season. They might be exhausted and demoralized by the time they come to Mackay on Nov. 21. The Aztecs, who will have a new coach (Brady Hoke) who once was their old (2009-10) coach, have already had to endure a spike in COVID-19 cases on their campus. They also will have to play their home games this season and next season in Carson, Calif., near Los Angeles, because their new stadium won’t be ready until the fall of 2022. New coach, no fans, no familiarity with their own stadium. The Aztecs are a good example of why stability and consistency are important.

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The strangest coaching move in the Mountain West this past off-season began when long-time Aztecs head coach Rocky Long resigned. The strange part wasn’t that Long resigned. He is 70 years old, after all, and coaching a mid-major, even if it is in San Diego, can wear on you. But Long then stunned the conference by joining New Mexico’s staff as its defensive coordinator. Long used to be New Mexico’s head coach, where he coached current Lobos head coach Danny Gonzales so he hasn’t gone completely insane. But this move is just weird. Imagine if Chris Ault would have joined Jeff Tisdel’s Wolf Pack staff in 1996 as offensive coordinator. Yes, that weird. Weird, though, has always been a Rocky Long strength.

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Nick Rolovich’s jump to Washington State also was a bit strange. We understand why Washington State wanted Rolo, a likeable and talented coach and a personable salesman of his program. But why would Rolovich want Washington State? As a former Hawaii quarterback he was beloved in Hawaii and seemed to love being there. He took the Rainbow Warriors to the Mountain West title game last year and he genuinely seemed to be the perfect coach in the perfect environment. Where would you rather live? Paradise or Pullman, Wash.? He could have stayed in Paradise another 20 years. Rolovich, though, had roughly 15 million (over five years) reasons to pull up stakes and go to Pullman. Yes, it is a Power Five school. Well, sort of. But it is almost impossible for Washington State to be competitive in the Pac-12. We might see Rolo pull a Rocky Long and head back to Hawaii in three years to be offensive coordinator. Players from Washington, Oregon, Montana, Utah and Idaho can win Big Sky and Mountain West titles but the Pac-12 is a different animal. Even Mike Leach was just a .500 (36-36) coach in Pac-12 games while at Washington State.

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It is fitting that the Wolf Pack will help UNLV christen its new Allegiant Stadium on Oct. 31. Among the many changes that COVID-19 has brought to the Wolf Pack season this might be the only good one. The game will be UNLV’s first in the new stadium and the Fremont Cannon will be on the line on Nevada Day. The entire state played a role in getting that giant behemoth of a stadium built so it is only right that the Pack take part in the first Rebel game. It will also be fitting that the Wolf Pack wins the first Rebel game in the stadium and brings that cannon back home where it belongs.