Joe Santoro: Pack season one and done? Not so fast
June 7, 2018
The seemingly unlimited enthusiasm and lofty expectations surrounding the upcoming Nevada Wolf Pack basketball season, still five months before it all begins for real, is unlike anything we've ever experienced in Northern Nevada. But there also is another, unspoken but obviously real and ominous feeling underneath all of that excitement and anticipation. It's the feeling it will all come to an end after this season is completed. The team will lose seven seniors after this year, including Caleb and Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline and, if he doesn't sit out this season, Lindsey Drew. There's also the fear McDonald's All American freshman Jordan Brown will become the Wolf Pack's first one-and-done. But losing all of that wonderful basketball talent is not even Pack fans' biggest fear. The biggest fear is coach Eric Musselman, if this season goes as planned, is starting his final season in Reno. These are all understandable, realistic and logical fears. That, unfortunately, is Wolf Pack reality. History, after all, tells us good things in the Wolf Pack world don't last forever because, well, they never have.
We're here to calm all of those fears. Enjoy all of the hope and promise and good feelings of this coming season as if it's all going to last forever. The Wolf Pack, after all, is now Gonzaga South. The string of 20-victory seasons and NCAA tournament appearances is just in its infant stages. The formula is simple. Just become the best team in a mediocre conference and you can win year after year after year. Why is Nevada the new Gonzaga? Well, because Musselman, in much the same way as Mark Few has done at Gonzaga, just might never leave. Why would he want to leave? He has found coaching nirvana. Musselman can accomplish everything he wants right here in Northern Nevada. He nearly got to the Final Four last year with a third of the talent he'll have this coming season. He can win the Mountain West and go to the NCAA tournament every year. His team plays before 10,000 adoring fans at every home game. His team almost never loses at home. He can recruit McDonald's All Americans to come to Reno. He has become a rich man in Reno with the school's first-ever million dollar coaching salary and will only become richer. The athletic director gives him carte blanche to do whatever he darn well pleases with the basketball program. The Northern Nevada media love him. And, above all else, the entire Northern Nevada community idolizes him and his family. Musselman has created something special and unique in Northern Nevada. It's something coaches work their entire careers trying to achieve. Why would he want to leave it now?
After Chris Ault retired as football coach after the 2012 season we wondered if the Wolf Pack would ever see his kind again. Well, enter Musselman. Yes, they're both well south of 6-feet tall. But that's not where the similarities end. They both came to Nevada as master salesmen and almost immediately changed the perception of their entire program within the community. They're both high-energy, driven men with unbelievable standards of excellence. They are both innovative and tireless workers who have their stamp on every aspect of the program. They both bring out the best in their players. It's difficult to be an assistant coach under either of them. And it's not so easy to play for them either. But go ahead and try to find a head coach who's more respected by those he worked with or coached. Musselman and Ault are also that rare Wolf Pack coach who never dwells on what the program doesn't have. They just focus on what they want the program to become. When Ault came back to Reno in 1976 the Wolf Pack was an athletic department in search of an identity. When Musselman came to town in 2015, three years after Ault left, the Pack was buried in the Mountain West and again searching for an identity. Ault and Musselman each gave the school (and a community) an athletic identity at a time it needed it the most.
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The vast majority of Philadelphia Eagles who decided they didn't want to shake Donald Trump's hand had every right to decline an invitation to the White House. And, yes, because of that the White House had every right to cancel the event. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers said this week neither one of them will go to the White House after winning the NBA title. This tradition has run its course. Why, exactly, is there a need for the president to congratulate a bunch of millionaire athletes after those athletes win a professional sports league's championship?
Much has been made of the Wolf Pack men's basketball schedule this season but don't overlook the coming football schedule. The football program has put together an interesting and manageable dozen games that should keep our interest all season long. Every game has meaning, starting with what should be a rousing victory over Portland State at home that will give coach Jay Norvell his first winning record at Nevada. Then comes interesting games against Vanderbilt, Oregon State and Toledo, teams with names bigger than their talent. Winning just one of those games will be a signature win for Norvell and give the Pack a guarantee of a non-losing record (2-2) heading into conference play. The home conference schedule is filled with huge games (Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State) and there isn't a road league game the Pack can't win (Hawaii, San Jose State, Air Force and UNLV). That's how you craft a schedule for a program in need of a confidence boost.
Dwight Clark was certainly not the greatest receiver in San Francisco 49ers history. He wasn't even the best 49er of his era. Clark had a solid NFL career but he certainly isn't a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Clark, though, is as important to a NFL franchise as any NFL player could be. His acrobatic catch of a Joe Montana pass in the back of the end zone in January 1982 to beat the Dallas Cowboys and send the 49ers to the organization's first Super Bowl just might be the greatest play in NFL history. It taught the 49ers anything is possible and propelled the organization to one of the greatest eras in NFL history. Clark, who passed away this week, was certainly more than a guy who simply made one great play. He caught 506 passes and 48 touchdowns in his career. But that one play made him immortal in the Bay Area and he'll never be forgotten.
The Reno Aces announced this week they'll stay in Northern Nevada at their outdoor food court and saloon of a ballpark in downtown Reno through the 2020 season. But will that be the end of the Aces in Reno? Attendance this season is at an all-time low (since the team moved to Reno in 2009) at just 4,780 a game. That number will likely increase by season's end as the weather warms up and school lets out, but Aces attendance is on an overall downward trend ever since the first Reno season. The Aces averaged 6,481 fans in 2009 and attendance fell every year through 2013 to 4,921. Attendance did increase in 2014 and 2015 (to 5,377 a game) but it has again fallen every year since 2015. Last year's average of 4,894 is the team's lowest since coming to Reno.
LeBron James is just one more loss to the Golden State Warriors of watching his record in the NBA Finals fall to 3-6. Michael Jordan was 6-0 in the NBA Finals. Right now James' record in NBA Finals games is a dismal 18-30. His teams have lost three or more games in eight of his nine NBA Finals. Jordan's record in NBA Finals games was 24-11. He never lost more than two games in any of his six NBA Finals. Jordan is, therefore, a greater NBA player than James. Not so fast. Jordan had Phil Jackson as his coach for the majority of his career and for all of his NBA Finals. James has had a collection of journeyman head coaches. Jordan had Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Horace Grant, Ron Harper, Tony Kukoc, Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Bill Cartwright and others). LeBron, for the most part, has had LeBron. The NBA Finals isn't the final judge of a player's greatness.
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