Joe Santoro: Norvell needs to admit mistakes
Jay Norvell is committing yet another rookie head coaching mistake.
The Nevada Wolf Pack coach is putting the blame on his players for the Pack’s stunning 1-8 record. “We’re trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got right now,” Norvell said after a humiliating 41-14 loss to the Boise State Broncos on Saturday.
In other words, Wolf Pack fans, don’t blame Norvell and his coaching staff. In the immortal words of former minor league baseball manager Rocky Bridges, “I managed good but, boy, did they play bad.”
Wolf Pack fans, to be sure, have heard this all before. Chris Tormey informed most everyone who would listen in 2000 former coach Jeff Tisdel left the Wolf Pack cupboard bare. Brian Polian constantly complained about the lack of depth and talent on his 2013 Wolf Pack roster. Even Chris Ault would remind everyone in 2004 Tormey left him a program that needed a complete overhaul.
Tormey, Ault and Polian then proceeded to go out and turn in a worse record than their predecessor did the previous year. And, now, Norvell, who took over a 5-7 team from Polian, is going to do the same thing this year.
What Tormey, Ault, Polian and, now, Norvell said might not be wrong. In fact, it might be the truth. The teams they were handed weren’t perfect. Those teams, after all, were’t totally their teams. Bear Bryant might be able to take his’n and beat your’n and then turn around and take your’n and beat his’n but most coaches can’t.
Norvell told us Saturday he can’t.
It’s OK for coaches to complain about their roster in private. They can think about it 24 hours a day. But they better not say it in a public setting that will be recorded and placed on YouTube to be watched and listened to for all eternity.
Imagine you are a Wolf Pack player and heard from your head coach you’re not physical enough. You’re not tough enough. Ouch. Cringe. Confidence crushed. In the immortal words of Justin Bieber, “My coach don’t like me and he likes everyone.”
Norvell, it has become increasingly clear as this disappointing season has progressed, has a lot to learn about being a head coach.
The losses in close games (five by 13 points or less) are the most tell-tale sign of Norvell’s steep learning curve. Experienced head coaches win close games. Inexperienced head coaches lose close games.
Inexperienced coaches also don’t know how to handle a complete roster. Norvell botched the quarterback position in the first month of the season. It cost his team an embarrassing loss against an inferior opponent (Idaho State), a loss that has cast a dark cloud on this entire season.
By declaring the Pack coaches are doing the best they can with what they’ve got, Norvell fell smack dab into the rookie head coach trap. He put the blame on his players, many of which he didn’t recruit.
“It’s like a new generation of excuse,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said earlier this year. “Those are your players. The minute you sign a contract they are your players. You (the players) didn’t choose me. I chose you. You’re mine, absolutely. I love you and I’m going to kick the (blank) out of you and we’re going to do it right.”
Maybe this is just Norvell’s way of kicking the blank out of his roster. He’s said all along it was about love. We didn’t know he meant tough love.
“We need more physical play,” Norvell said. “We need more physical players that are going to win one-on-one matchups. It’s too difficult to make the perfect call all the time as coaches.”
In other words, it’s about players making coaches look good. Not the other way around.
Nobody expected perfection from Norvell and his coaching staff this year. Nobody expected a 54-year-old career assistant coach to hit the ground running in his first year as a head coach in a strange city. Nobody expected an eclectic, weird, out-of-the-box collection of assistant coaches thrown together in a month last winter to come together almost immediately and get amazing results from a bunch of players they barely knew by name.
We expected hiccups. We expected mistakes. We expected losses.
What we didn’t expect was excuses.
There’s plenty of talent on this roster. That is a credit to Norvell and his staff’s ability to recruit and coach young players and to Polian’s staff for developing players. We’ve seen the Pack’s talent do some pretty entertaining things this year. So stop telling us there just isn’t enough talent on this roster to compete. We’ve seen it compete. So go win some games and stop making excuses.
When you are 1-8 there’s enough blame to go around for everyone.
Take the coaches, for example.
The Boise State game was a coaching disaster because of the manner in which the Pack lost. The Pack didn’t even put up a fight after the first quarter. The Pack played with no imagination, intensity or life over the final three quarters. The offense curled up in the fetal position the moment Boise State started punching back. The Pack had two weeks in which to prepare for Boise State and they went out and played as if they were a NBA team on the fifth night of a roadtrip to Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit and Milwaukee.
This is how you play in a rivalry game? You play with no emotion or fight? The Pack played the final three quarters as if they couldn’t wait for the game to end.
That’s on the coaching staff.
The Wolf Pack, even in the Polian years, used to play Boise State as if their jerseys were on fire. They never stopped punching Boise State in the mouth, even when the situation looked hopeless. You don’t lay down in a rivalry game. You don’t get pushed around. You don’t play without confidence. You play as if you never want the game to end.
Norvell and his staff coached like they wanted to dig a hole and hide. Down by at least 24 points for much of the second half, the Pack seemed afraid to even anger the Broncos. The Wolf Pack completed just nine passes in the second half. Six of those nine completions went for five yards or less.
That’s coaching scared.
The play calling after the first quarter was atrocious. The Pack, which have thrilled us with their imagination in recent weeks, didn’t attempt one gadget play the entire game. They were in the birthplace of gadget plays and looked intimidated and shy, like they were a Reno lounge singer invited to Frank Sinatra’s house for a party and afraid to get up and sing in front of the host.
That, too, is coaching scared.
It was a ridiculous attempt at an on-side kick with a 14-10 lead in the second quarter that seemingly sapped the Pack out of any imagination or daring it might have brought to Boise. There was Norvell, putting his already brittle Pack defense, whose confidence was already hanging by a thread, in a difficult position for no reason at all. Boise gladly took that friendly field position and scored just two plays later for the first of its game-ending 31 consecutive points.
“I just felt like it was something we had to try,” Norvell said. “I felt like it was a good time for it.”
It was the absolute worst time for it.
It wasn’t the first time a goofy play call backfired on Norvell this year. But most of those (the Toledo game comes to mind) were earlier in the year. We thought he had learned the error of his ways. We were reminded against Boise, though, Norvell is still a rookie head coach. He needs to learn he’s not coaching Oklahoma, Texas, UCLA or the Oakland Raiders anymore. This is mid-major football. Don’t be your fragile team’s own worst enemy at times. Quit putting them in danger. Nurture them. Coddle them. Don’t toss a 2-year-old in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and expect it to swim eight miles back to shore.
But, again, Norvell is allowed to make mistakes. This, after all, is still his coaching honeymoon. He’s learning how to become a head coach, how to manage a game and how to manage a roster. He’s not succeeding often. But that, too, is OK for now.
All we ask is he admit those mistakes when he makes them. The players he supposedly loves will respect him for it and then go out and play as if their jerseys are on fire. The coaching landscape, after all, is littered with deposed Wolf Pack coaches who never admitted doing anything wrong.