Chris Ault didn’t exactly hit the ground running in his first game as the Nevada Wolf Pack’s head football coach.
The Wolf Pack fell behind 13-0 at halftime to the Cal State Hayward Pioneers in Ault’s head coaching debut on Sept. 11, 1976 in front of 5,400 stunned fans at Mackay Stadium. Hayward, which went 0-10 the previous season under coach Tim Tierney, took advantage of a Wolf Pack fumble and a blocked Pack punt to take a 13-0 lead on two short touchdown runs by Gary Spicer in the first quarter.
The much-hyped Wolf Pack offense under Ault failed to score in the first half of its first game under Ault.
“We’ll play football that’s fun to watch this year,” Ault told the Hayward Daily Review a few days before the game. “You might say ‘Highway to the Sky’ sums up our approach.”
The Pack engine definitely stalled on that highway in the first half against Hayward. The second half, though, was a different story as the Pack scored 30 unanswered points for a 30-13 victory.
Hayward turned the ball over on its first three possessions in the second half as the Pack offense and defense dominated the final two quarters. The Wolf Pack took a quick 14-13 lead as quarterback Jeff Tisdel connected with Wayne Ferguson (three yards) and Brian Bishop-Parise (18 yards) for two scores through the air. Tisdel, who had not played since he injured his knee in the fourth game of the 1975 season, then found Steve Senini from six yards out for his third touchdown pass and a 24-13 lead. A Bill McDermitt 21-yard field goal gave the Pack a 17-13 lead.
Tisdel completed 11-of-21 passes for 152 yards and Ferguson (51 yards) led the Pack running game. Bishop-Parise caught five passes for 98 yards and Senini caught three Tisdel passes for 33 yards.
Oddly enough, though, it was the Wolf Pack defense which stole the show in Ault’s coaching debut. The Pack held Hayward to just 44 total yards (25 passing, 19 rushing) and a mere four first downs. Wolf Pack defensive tackle Joe Dendary returned an interception off a tipped pass 18 yards for a touchdown to close out the scoring.
It would turn out to be one of the Pack’s greatest defensive performances in Ault’s 28 seasons as head coach.
“I’d like to get a damn win,” Tierney told the Hayward Review after the game as his career record fell to 0-11. “I’ve spent time alone trying to think what it will feel like when I do get a win.”
Ault only had to wait a half.
Ault’s Wolf Pack, which was whistled for 10 penalties against Hayward, would go on to win eight of 11 games in 1976. The Pack would also score 409 points, its most since it scored 480 in 1948. Under coach Jerry Scattini in 1975, the Pack scored just 121 points all season. Ault’s Pack went over 121 points for the season in the fourth game of 1976, a 57-7 win over Montana Tech.
New Pack coach Brian Polian will likely have a tougher test in his first game this Saturday at UCLA than Ault had 37 seasons ago against Hayward. All four Wolf Pack head coaches after Ault, in fact — Jeff Horton, Tisdel, Chris Tormey and Polian — had to open their Wolf Pack head coaching careers against tough, BCS programs on the road.
Horton’s Wolf Pack lost at Wisconsin 35-17 on Sept. 4, 1993. Tisdel’s Pack lost at Oregon 44-30 on Sept. 7, 1996 and Tormey’s Pack lost at Oregon 36-7 on Sept. 2, 2000.