Did Chris Ault leave the Nevada Wolf Pack football program in better shape last January than when he took over the program after the 1975 season?
Think about your answer.
The rapid fire, how-dare-you-even-ask-the-question response is, of course, undeniably, yes.
The program Ault was given lost five of its last six games on its way to a 3-8 year in 1975 under coach Jerry Scattini. A 45-7 loss to UNLV at Mackay Stadium is still the Pack’s most one-sided, demoralizing loss in the sacred rivalry. The last four games of the 1975 season — blowout losses to Idaho State, Boise State, Santa Clara and UNLV by a combined score of 157-23 — represent one of the worst months in Pack football history.
So, yes, of course, Ault left a better program than the one he took over.
How could he not?
The Wolf Pack in 1975 was a Division II independent program going nowhere. Just under 6,000 fans squeezed into the stadium on good days but half the time the opponents (the likes of Cal State Hayward, Chico State, Cal Poly-SLO, and Willamette) drew smaller crowds than a Reno-Wooster high school game. The Wolf Pack had no conference in 1975, no hope of ever getting noticed east of sparks or west of Truckee and no chance of ever playing in a bowl game or winning a national title.
That all changed with Ault.
Ault made football important at Nevada again. He won eight games in his first season, the most by a Pack team since 1948. His offense made the games fun, win or lose. He was the program’s head coach, greatest salesman and booster because, well, nobody else was going to do it. In his first year the Pack never drew less than 5,000 fans. In his second year they drew over 10,000 twice.
Thanks to Ault, Pack football became relevant for the first time since the years immediately after World War II. And it remained relevant until that day in late December when he said good-bye.
But if the program is in so much better shape now than in 1975, why does it have pretty much the same problems that it had nearly four decades ago?
The Wolf Pack that Ault took over was under-funded and struggling to compete even on a Division II level. The crowds were, for the most part, lifeless and disappointing unless Boise State or UNLV was in the stadium. The facilities needed improvement. The team struggled to compete with Boise State on a yearly basis. There was no chance of ever winning a national title. The team lost five of its last six games.
The Pack is still under-funded. The facilities are still in need of upgrades. Ault, for example, begged for an indoor practice facility his last five years on the job. New coach Brian Polian already remodeled the locker room this spring because, he said, the old locker room was hurting the Pack in recruiting. The 1975 and 2012 teams both lost five of their last six games.
Scattini’s last loss in 1975 — the devastating defeat to UNLV in which the Rebels fired off the Fremont cannon in Mackay Stadium after each one of their touchdowns — was a nightmare for the Pack. Ault’s last loss in 2012 to Arizona still has Pack fans in shock. Scattini handed Ault a program that lost four of five to Boise. Ault handed off a program to Polian that lost 12 of its last 13 games to Boise. And, just like 1975, there is almost no chance of the Pack ever winning a national title.
How much better off is the Pack now than it was in 1975? Well, the coaches make more money. Tickets cost a whole lot more. The field is now plastic and rubber. And the crowds are larger because the opponents are now UCLA, Florida State and Cal now instead of Hayward, Chico State and San Francisco State.
That’s about it.
There’s no doubt Ault turned over a more stable, more competitive football program than the one he took over in 1976. But he didn’t exactly leave Polian the Alabama Crimson Tide last December. Or even the Boise State Broncos.
Give Ault credit. He knew how to beat the bad teams on his schedule, year after year, decade after decade. He did that probably better than any other coach in Pack history. Ault’s resume got fat on the likes of Idaho, Idaho State, San Jose State, New Mexico State, Utah State, Eastern Washington, UNLV, Montana State, Weber State and Northern Arizona. Toss in an occasional upset and you’d get the occasional conference title.
The fun, though, with Ault never seemed to last all that long. His teams won 10 or more games in back-to-back seasons just twice. They never had an undefeated season. Yes, his teams won on a regular basis but they rarely won anything of lasting importance. When a national bowl game or I-AA playoff was on the line, for example, Ault’s teams went 11-15. His teams won 10 or more games just once in 12 Division I seasons.
Yes, the Pack is more relevant in college football now than in 1975 but it’s only because now there are 24-hour sports channels, a zillion sports internet web sites and never-ending sports coverage. Sooner or later everybody gets talked about. That wasn’t the case in 1975.
More than anything, more than any one coach could accomplish, Wolf Pack football’s progression since 1975 (and certainly since 1991) simply is a case of the program being carried along by the wave that is college football.
College football in 1975 is vastly different than college football now. And Chris Ault had very little to do with that.
First of all, there were 11 bowl games in 1975. There were 35 after last season. Chris Ault didn’t do that. There was no ESPN and a dozen or so other national cable television channels to pump money and hype into the sport. All that TV money and exposure inflated coaches salaries, football budgets and ticket prices to ridiculous levels. Chris Ault didn’t do that.
The Wolf Pack’s progression in college football happened because, well, it really had no other choice. The Pack didn’t go to the WAC, Big West or Mountain West because Ault’s teams beat Idaho, Weber State, McNeese State and Montana State. They kept shifting conferences because those conferences needed teams and the Pack was smart enough to quickly accept their invitations.
The Wolf Pack left Division I-AA in 1992 because college football and all its cable TV money was on the verge of exploding and there was now room for everyone in Division I-A. The WAC was desperate for teams in 2000 as was the Mountain West in 2011.
Chris Ault didn’t do that.
Odds are, the Pack would be in Division I right now and picked to finish fourth in the Mountain West whether or not Ault became head coach in 1976 or not. Hey, Idaho even had its Division I years and had some success and it plays in a glorified airplane hangar in the middle of nowhere in front of no fans.
Getting to Division I is not the trick. Anybody can do it.
Surviving, though, is another thing.
Give Ault credit for making sure the Pack at least survived in Division I.
But they didn’t flourish.
They are a program that is merely surviving at its current level. Just like in the early to mid-1970s.
That’s the challenge facing Polian now. His challenge is to do something that not even Ault could do. Ault left the job unfinished. He got them to Division I and he got them to the point where they could compete and enjoy flashes of success.
Polian’s job is to turn those lightning bolt flashes (like in 2010) into a constant ray of warm, revitalizing sunlight like the one Boise State has been bathing in for the last dozen years or so.
Polian, if all goes according to plan, will help the Pack finally flourish in Division I. OK, yes, the Pack will never be the Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama operates on another planet that the Pack can only visit while looking through a telescope.
But, unlike Ault’s Pack, Polian’s Pack can be the Boise State Broncos.
That means winning 10 or more games most seasons and not just six times in 28 seasons. That means winning your bowl game most seasons and not just twice in 10 tries. That means winning the conference title most years and not just nine times in 25 seasons. That means less than three losses most every season and not just seven times in 28 years. That means nearly filling up the stadium for every single game and not just when Boise, UNLV or a BCS team shows up.
That’s Brian Polian’s challenge.
His challenge is to leave the program in better shape than the one Chris Ault left him last January.
In the end, that is the greatest thing Ault did for the program. He made it tough for the next guy to top him.
But it can be done.