Joe Santoro: Pack heading down the football cliff |

Joe Santoro: Pack heading down the football cliff

For the Nevada Appeal

The Nevada Wolf Pack is in serious jeopardy of falling off the football cliff.

The wheels are coming off the Wolf Pack bus. Actually, the wheels came off last Friday when head coach Chris Ault announced his retirement.

The week before Ault’s punch-to-the-Pack-gut announcement, the headlights burned out when assistant coach Barry Sacks left for California. The doors came off the Pack bus when offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich officially left for the Temple Owls. And now the fuel pump, transmission and carburetor are laying scattered all over the road now that running back Stefphon Jefferson said he is headed to the NFL a year early.

What’s next?

Alphie is going to join the circus? The Fremont Cannon is going to be sold for scrap? The university is going to change the school colors to purple and pink? Chris Tormey is coming back as head coach? Cary Groth has taken back her retirement promise and has signed a 10-year contract extension?

Make it stop.

Wolf Pack nation is crumbling all around us. At least the good folks of Pompeii could see the volcano creeping towards them. This Wolf Pack volcano hit in the middle of the night when we were all sleeping. And now Wolf Pack nation is threatening to become just another Nevada ghost town strewn about the dust and gravel of U.S. 50.

Just about everything Ault said on Friday is now turning into a cruel slap in the face.

“I believe Wolf Pack football has firmly established a blueprint of success, one that can be sustained,” Ault said.

That Wolf Pack blueprint had just one sentence on it: Let Chris Ault coach the football team whenever he wants to. It worked for three decades. Now they need a new blueprint.

“We are no longer just a spot on the regional map,” Ault said. “We have a national reputation and a national following.”

The national reputation was always just Ault’s reputation. It was Ault and his pistol offense with Colin Kaepernick sprinkled on top for flavor. The national following? Again, that was just Ault, his pistol and a little Kaepernick to make it sparkle. The Pack, as everyone who has sat in a half-empty Mackay Stadium since it opened nearly 50 years ago, barely has a northern Nevada following.

It’s might take a microscope to find that spot on the regional map again.

“Whoever comes in and takes this program over will come in and say, ‘You know what, there’s something here,'” Ault said. “‘The cupboards aren’t empty.'”

Not only are the cupboards emptying faster than you can say Pack Pride, the doors to those cupboards are now laying on the floor and a family of mice is now living in your Wheaties box. An underachieving program that has gone 7-6 the last two seasons and thought the seasons ended on Nevada Day, has been gutted like a cutthroat trout pulled out of Pyramid Lake. The Chris Tormey era isn’t looking so bad now, is it, Pack fans?

Happy New Year, indeed.

Why are people jumping off the Pack ship like Sarah Palin for President campaign supporters? First it was Groth last September. Nobody simply gives up cushy, six-figure, four-hour workday A.D. jobs in this economy, especially at a school where there is no pressure to win anything of significance.

Then the Pack football assistants (Sacks, Rolovich and James Spady and who knows who else) started updating their resumes and were lining up and taking jobs even before Ault waved good-bye on Friday. Ault insisted he only told them he was retiring on Friday morning. Rolovich, Spady and Sacks obviously could see the future better than the Mayans.

And now Jefferson is leaving because, we assume, he thinks he’s the next Doug Martin.

Make it stop. Please?

Will quarterback Cody Fajardo stick around? Does wide receiver Brandon Wimberly even want to come back for a sixth year now? Will the offensive line change its nickname from The Union to The Scabs? How many recruits who have pledged to the Pack already this fall and winter will change their mind before signing day next month? How many recruits now won’t even consider the Pack?

Why would you consider the Pack right now if you are an undecided recruit? First of all, you don’t even know what the Wolf Pack is anymore. The head coach is gone. The offensive coordinator is gone. The defensive line coach is gone. Other assistants will likely leave shortly, if they can find jobs. The only assistants seemingly still with the program (the defensive guys) are the ones that probably should have been fired the moment ESPN signed off after the New Mexico Bowl ended. (The Pack should call it the Same Old Mexico Bowl by the way).

The athletic director is on her way out. The president has only been in the job eight months. And those are the two who will supposedly spearhead the search for the new head coach and athletic director.

The Pack is headed over the football cliff in a silver and blue barrel.

“Whatever I can do to help (the new coach), I’ll do that,” Ault said.

The only way Ault can help now is by staying at least another year as head coach or becoming the next athletic director immediately.

Ault also said, “My whole goal, I’m focused on leaving this program in the best way I can.”

That’s not going so well, is it?

Ault also added, “There’s nothing that I am gravitating to from this day on other than making sure this ship keeps sailing.”

Was Ault the captain of the USS Nevada on Dec. 7, 1941?

The Wolf Pack athletic department is at a crossroads. One road leads to bowl games, conference titles and weekly national television games. The other road leads to the Idaho Vandals neighborhood. The hiring of the new athletic director and football coach are the two most important hires in the history of the Nevada athletic department.

Another football era like 1997-2004, when the Pack went 35-57 with no bowl games, or 1952-75 when the sport was a glorified intramural program, could leave Mackay Stadium as barren as the parking lot that used to serve Park Lane Mall.

If you are old enough to remember pre-Chris Ault Wolf Pack football, well, you know what we’re talking about. The 2013 season will be the first non-Ault Pack football season since 1975.

A little history lesson is appropriate here.

Jerry Scattini went 37-36-1 in seven seasons (1969-75) as Pack head coach. Dick Trachok went 40-47-3 in 10 seasons (1959-68). Gordon McEachron was 6-23-1 in four seasons (1955-58) as head coach. Jake Lawlor was 6-11 in three years (1952-54). Joe Sheeketski was 6-14 over his final two seasons (1949-50).

Add it all up and the Pack was 95-131-5 over 26 seasons B.C. (Before Chris — and, no, we don’t mean Tormey).

It could happen again. A .420 winning percentage, that is. And, don’t forget, Cal Poly Pomona, Humboldt State, Chico State, Cal State Los Angeles, Pepperdine, Redlands, Willamette, Whittier and Cal State Hayward are not available to kick around anymore. Next year, for example, the Pack gets Oregon, UCLA and Florida State. In the immortal words of tornado victim Dorothy, “Oh, my.”

The Pack spent the past decade trying to become the next Boise State and now they are perilously close to getting on a path to becoming the next New Mexico State.

Unless — and this is a big unless with no track record to point to — Johnson, Groth and whatever suits they hire to form a search committee make some great decisions.

It can happen. There are a lot of great, young coaches out there.

But will Johnson, Groth and the suits recognize a great young coach when they see one? Don’t bet on it. They already let a great, young coach (Rolovich) leave town as well as a couple of great old coaches (Ault, Sacks).

Will they even be able to afford that great, young coach — and keep him — even if they hire him? Even if the right coach is hired, that coach will have a good year and leave immediately. And then the process starts all over again. Nevada football, with its mediocre budget, has become, almost overnight, a stepping stone program. Ault and his silver and blue loyalty pledge hid that fact for decades.

“We’re not a million dollar plus place for a coach,” Johnson said on Friday. “Nevada isn’t in the money game.”

Too bad.

If Johnson, Groth and the suits don’t make the right decisions in the coming weeks and months they will never be in the money game. That’s all college sports is these days, by the way — an ugly, cold, money game (why else would someone go to Temple to coach?) — and the Pack is stepping up to the coaching search poker table with a couple of drink tokens and a coupon for a free buffet.

“Wolf Pack football has gone about as far as it can go under these circumstances,” Ault said.

Imagine, if you dare, how far it can go under the new circumstances.