Quinsey Sablan/Nevada Sagebrush Nevada running back James Butler (center) thrusts his hand into the night sky in celebration after he scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime over Cal Poly on Sept. 2 at Mackay Stadium. Nevada football is currently in the midst of a coaching search.

Quinsey Sablan/Nevada Sagebrush
Nevada running back James Butler (center) thrusts his hand into the night sky in celebration after he scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime over Cal Poly on Sept. 2 at Mackay Stadium. Nevada football is currently in the midst of a coaching search.

By Neil Patrick Healy

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author.

The search for Nevada’s next head football coach has officially been underway for over a week (and unofficially for a little under a month) and reports say a decision should be made no later than this Friday. And just like any other coaching search, there is the habitual hope trafficking that comes with it.

With a new coach comes a sense of excitement inside the fan base, and for good reason. Fans can let their imaginations run wild in thinking they’ll secure the next young up-and-coming coach. A lot of Nevada fans thought former head coach Brian Polian was going to be that guy (there was an attendance bump of about 1,500 fans per game during Polian’s first season), but certainly this coach will be different. Surely this coach will lead the program to the Promised Land of milk, honey and big bowl game payouts, right? Well, it depends on what you think the Promised Land is.

One of the keys to happiness is to have realistic expectations, and the same can be said for Wolf Pack football. If Nevada fans think that the next coach will turn Nevada into Boise State overnight then they’ll forever chase that dream. Boise has been building up to what it is now for almost 20 years, so thinking Nevada will make the jump to that level with just one hire is ridiculous. The university and the surrounding community have to do some self-reflection and ask some tough questions. Just how committed are the powers that be to football’s success?

Polian spoke with the Reno Gazette-Journal last week after he and the university “mutually parted ways” and had some thoughts on Nevada’s biggest problems such as funding and overall support.

“At some point, the university has to decide, ‘What do we want to be?’” Polian said. “We’re going to have to invest. To bank on hoping for miracles is difficult. People might not want to hear it, but I think the case can be made that we outperformed how we were supported. If things stay status quo, there’s a disconnect [between expectations and reality]. There are times when I tried to educate people and articulate that thought, but in the end there’s not much you can do.”

Now after northern Nevada is done rolling its eyes at the imagery of Polian painstakingly trying to “educate people and articulate” the budget problems to the peasants, the fan base should actually take some of his words into account. The support, financial and otherwise, just isn’t where it needs to be.

If the university is truly adamant about making Nevada into a viable mid-major football program then it has some work to do. The first thing to do is to remove some of the obstacles it has put in its own way.

First, Nevada is painfully underfunded. I know Nevada fans are tired of hearing about this by now, but the problem isn’t going away. Nevada’s football budget of $7.02 million is over $3 million below the average Mountain West program’s budget ($10.04 million) and nearly $9 million behind the top school. Money does not guarantee success (UNLV receives the fourth-most in the conference in revenue from fan support and is still awful), but it is a major inhibitor to sustained success. Athletics Director Doug Knuth can put on his best suit, wine and dine candidates at La Strada and sell all the positive qualities the program has, but any coach who’s getting other offers will look at the annual salary and will quote Ray Liotta from Goodfellas: “f*** you, pay me.”

Second, Nevada’s fans need to be less fair weather. Attendance for Nevada games is mediocre at best and abysmal at worst. This season Nevada ranked No. 10 in the conference in attendance, which included the lowest attended game at Mackay Stadium since 2011 when only 13,390 fans braved the cold and sat through Nevada’s final home game against Utah State.

Naturally, people will cite the team’s poor performance over the last couple years as the reason for poor turnout, but that just isn’t true either. When former Nevada great Colin Kaepernick was running the show, attendance only averaged 18,302 fans per game, or a mere 61 percent stadium capacity.

The typical Nevada season has so-so attendance throughout the season and will sellout for UNLV for Boise. The opening weekend is always a disappointment, attendance-wise, because of the first day of chukar season (trust me, that’s a legit reason), Memorial Day festivities, high school football games, the game being at night or any other excuse that fans can come up with. Major college sports are an arms race, so if Nevada fans want their team to be viable then they’ll have to stop being so fickle.

Finally, there are the academic requirements. Nevada has sneakily become a school that has more challenging academic standards than most schools in the conference. In fact, Nevada has the second-highest academic standards in the Mountain West, trailing only Air Force. MW schools have almost the same academic requirements to be admitted but can accept athletes and other students into the school even if they don’t meet the school’s standards under special admittance rules. Many schools use these rules to admit players who wouldn’t be admitted otherwise, but Nevada doesn’t.  

Give Nevada credit for taking the high road and having higher expectations for their athletes in the classroom, but that is a hurdle that will make being a competitive football team even more difficult than it already is. When your standards only trail a military academy you’re going to struggle to get players to qualify. Add in the lack of school funding and fan support and you’re pinning a lot of your hopes into your coach being the next Urban Meyer.

The administration needs to make some hard choices from this point on. A new coach isn’t going to rectify these problems. Funding will always be an issue, but where would President Marc Johnson get that extra money? Inevitably, the financial burden would fall on the shoulders of the students, who already pay a gross amount to go to college. As a student, I can see why other students don’t want their fees to be higher than they already are. Our tuition already goes to new buildings and gyms while it’s still a pain to find a parking spot, so a tuition hike would only piss off the student body, many of whom are at Nevada simply because it’s much cheaper than other options.

Sure, Knuth can find a gem who will overcome those obstacles, but that’s not how you build a sustainable foundation for a program. Boise has replaced three coaches who left for bigger jobs over the past 20-something years and that program is the premier mid-major program. Until Nevada can lay down a foundation, the fans need to come to grips with what their program is and what a realistic goal is for whoever takes over as the Wolf Pack’s next coach.

Despite problems with money and other internal factors, Nevada is still a decent job for a coach who wants to build up their resume and eventually get a bigger job, otherwise called a “trampoline program.” With the program being a short car/plane ride from Las Vegas, L.A., the Bay Area and Sacramento and having a tradition of being a program that has fun, electric offenses, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility to win seven-to-eight games a year while building to that legitimate contender every four or five years. It’s not out of the question to have that be your program. Then after a while your coach leaves to go after a bigger job and you look for the next young guy.

Nevada football’s next coach will be named sometime this week and the list of candidates is promising. He’ll do the usual routine of talking up the fan base and making promises about winning games and being exciting while fans and supporters will talk themselves into believing the hype during spring ball and the offseason. Season ticket sales will go up and the athletic department will be reaping the benefits of the hope trafficking it’s running, but I call for Nevada fans to be honest with themselves.

If expectations are where they should be, the new coach will more than likely live up to them and maybe even exceed them. Have realistic expectations about what the program could be. If you do, then you won’t be disappointed.

Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at neil@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @NP_Healy.